A college friend asked me to take some portraits for her to use on her campaign posters when she ran for student council. We picked an afternoon and some locations, and when the time came to head outside, she looked out the window and said something like, "Oh no, it got cloudy. I was hoping the sun would stay out. Should we maybe wait for a better day?"
My answer was no. I was actually glad the clouds had come to cover up the sun just in time for our photo shoot.
Sunny summer afternoons are great for going to the beach or pool, playing outdoor sports and games, and just enjoying the outdoors. The sunshine makes the outdoors beautiful and cheerful, and sunny afternoons are the most attractive times for any outdoor activity.
That's why it seems so counter-intuitive that a bright, sunny afternoon is one of the worst times for an outdoor portrait session. Full sun may make a beautiful day, but the bright sunshine makes it really hard to get great photos.
Sunshine and Squinty Eyes
People tend to squint into bright light. If you have your picture taken on a sunny day, it will be tricky to catch you looking your best. Even if you're not looking directly into the sun, you might still be tempted to squint against the general brightness of the afternoon.
I took the picture below for a group of friends from college on an afternoon when we had both sun and wind working against us. It was taken at a less than ideal time of day because of schedule conflicts. You can see everybody squinting into the bright sun. If we had been able to do the photo shoot on a cloudy day or in the evening, the light would have been gentler on their eyes.
Harsh Light and Shadows
Where there is bright light, there are intense shadows. A shining afternoon sun casts shadows under any object in its path, and that includes your face. Harsh light is not very flattering. In the picture below you can see me with a turtle. You can also see bright highlights on one side of my face and shadow on the other side. The triangle of light on my nose is particularly annoying. This photo is fine for a snapshot (I actually like it a lot), but the light is too harsh for a formal portrait.
Shadows affect the scenery around you, too. If you're having a portrait taken, you don't want the shadow of a tree or building to distract from you, the subject. In the following image, notice the uneven shadows on his shirt where you can clearly see the shapes of the tree branches. He has a great expression on his face, but the bright sun is casting some distracting shadows.
Soft Light on a Cloudy Day
On an overcast day, the sun's light has to pass through the clouds before it hits you. The clouds soften the light, spreading it out evenly over your face and the surrounding scenery. This soft, even light is best for portraits, with no harsh highlights or shadows to take away from your best features. There is plenty of light in the portrait below. You can see the subject's face and eyes, and there aren't any harsh bright spots or areas that are covered up by shadows.
The hour or two before sunset (or after sunrise) is often called "golden hour," because of the golden quality of the light. Since the sun is low in the sky, the light is less direct and therefore softer (and there are some cool astronomy-related facts that explain this). The soft, warm light makes golden hour a great time for shooting portraits. You can see the warm glow on the subject's face in the next picture. The sunlight is hitting her directly, but gently without casting harsh shadows or making her squint.
The Character of Clouds
This is a bit of a "bonus" point here. But I just love the look of a moody, overcast sky. Clouds add a depth and texture to a scene that a clear blue sky just doesn't have. Don't get me wrong—I love a blue sky. But an overcast day can be just as good.... and sometimes even better.