They say ‘timing is everything’. Street photography is all about totally unplanned moments and quite often the sheer luck of a perfect moment unfolding right in front of you. But you don’t always have the luxury of spending a whole day wandering the streets in search of that elusive magic moment for a street photo. Sometimes you can only find an hour or two to steal away and hit the streets. So I thought I’d put together a guide to the best times of the day for street photography which you can use as a handy pointer when time is precious and you’re planning to head out for just a little while for a quick burst of photography. So read on for some pointers on the optimum times to be armed with your camera and hitting the streets!
The ‘Golden Hour’
The Golden hour is famous amongst photographers for offering the most beautiful and dramatic kind of natural light for photography. The ‘golden hour’ describes the first hour of light after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset.
Traditionally landscape and natural light portrait photographers favour the quality of sunlight around this time because of the long dramatic shadows cast by the sun and the very warm, flattering light that is produced, as well as the spectacular colours often present in the sky around this time.
I find the ‘golden hour’ to be a fabulous time to go out and try to grab some great street photos. In areas closer to the equator, or in northern European countries around the winter months you regularly find the golden hour will last well beyond an hour, and will extend over several hours. During the summer in Greece for instance, the sun takes on a lovely orange glow from about 18:00 onwards, producing some great high contrast shadows and lovely golden tones which can be used to turn an otherwise mundane shot into something abstract and dramatic. When you add this to a sky that is filled with a spectrum of oranges, pinks and blues from around 19:30 until 20:40 you have a really fantastic combination!
In Northern European countries like the UK, the height of winter gives a ‘golden hour’ effect on the sunlight from as early as 15:00 onwards and this means you get some great shafts of sunlight piercing through gaps between tall buildings on city streets, throwing great light on your subjects!
I think mornings might be my favourite time for street photography. This is for two reasons: firstly, I find the sun produces nice long shadows around this time as it’s still relatively low in the sky (close to the golden hour).
Secondly, mornings are when cities come alive! From the hours of 07:00 to about 10:00 (or later at weekends) cities are a hive of activity and present some great and surreal scenes for street photographers. People hurry to and from work, deliveries are unloaded, bars are hosed down to clear the detritus of the night before, and shops begin to open their shutters to let in the first customers of the day.
Mornings are when cities ‘wake up’ to the day, and I feel like you can catch a city ‘off guard’ if you shoot photos at this time. You don’t see the boring archetypal city life, you see surreal moments, the beauty in the otherwise mundane. I’ve found mornings are a great time to catch candid unguarded snapshots of people as they steel themselves for the day ahead.
When it’s closing time and the music’s fading out (apologies Tom Waits) you can find some weird and wonderful scenes that make for some great photos. As with the morning, at closing time you can watch as shops pack up and shut down for the night.
During winter months in northern countries when daylight savings time ends the evenings are dark, but if you time it right you can have a little of the ambient dusk light outside to contrast with the lighted inside of shops as they close down for the night.
Another good place to look at ‘closing time’ is office buildings, where you will sometimes witness the surreal sight of a brightly lit but almost empty office with only the odd ghostly lonesome figure of a cleaning lady or office worker pulling a late shift.
Once the sun has finally slipped below the horizon there are some truly great opportunities for photos if you’re willing to embrace the effects of neon and sodium. The man-made lights of a city stand out like beacons in the darkness and make for a really atmospheric and evocative ‘set dressing’ for your shots. The ‘pools’ of light from street lamps, or the glow cast from lighted windows of shops or bars is a great way of picking out subjects from the darkness in a distinctive way. For some great tips on how to get the best out of your night street photography, you need look no further than Spyros Papaspyropoulos’ great one-stop-shop guide to night street photography.
For super dramatic results at night, you can add your own artificial light into the mix by wielding a flash to get some really popping high contrast photos using the difference between the darkness of night and the key light of the flash. If you want to learn more about using flash creatively, you can read the comprehensive StreetHunters guide to using off-camera flash in street photography.
The last great ‘time’ of day I’d like to suggest is a bit of a cheat as it isn’t purely dependent on time of day, but also the weather. I think rainy nights make for some incredibly powerful and evocative street photography, and channel a particular movie that I’ve found to be a huge inspiration to me in my street photography, which is Blade Runner.
Rain-washed streets can be put to fantastic use in street photography, with their shiny, mirror-like surface reflecting all manner of things in weird, wonderful and abstract ways. Raindrops on glass also add an extra element of interest and surrealness to shots that look through windows, and can lend photos an almost impressionistic air, as you can see from some of the entries to our June 2015 Monthly Theme Contest for ‘Behind Glass/Window’.
I hope you’ve found this guide to some of the best times of the day to practice street photography useful. Street photography can be immensely frustrating at times when you’re searching for inspiration and just can’t find any. What I’ve found is that picking the right time to head out makes an enormous difference to my street photography experience, and shots just start to present themselves to me sometimes. So try picking one of the times I’ve suggested, and mix up your routine and see how it works for you!