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How to Choose the Time of Day for Your Engagement Portraits

You’ve decided on locations for your engagement portraits, and you even some incredible outfits options selected. Now it’s time to schedule your session! How do you decide the best time of day for your engagement portraits? As with the location and your attire, the time of day for your portraits is incredibly subjective and personal, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

“Golden Hour”

The hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset are termed “golden hour” because the angle of the sun against the earth creates a soft, warm, gentle glow to everything the light touches. Most photographers prefer shooting during golden hour, and I am no exception! We don’t always have the luxury of capturing golden hour portraits on a wedding day, but we have more freedom of schedule during an engagement session, and I encourage my couples to take advantage of it.

Choice of locations & backgrounds

If a couple wants portraits in or around any National Monuments, I strongly suggest scheduling a session for sunrise! It’s truly the only time to capture good portraits without hoards of tourists in the background.

The Lincoln Memorial faces due East, which makes for stunning sunrise portraits! The Jefferson Memorial faces South (and is round), which gives more flexibility for sunrise vs sunset timing, but sunrise still ensures there are fewer tourists around. Sunrise also gives better options for other buildings on the Mall that open later in the day (such as the National Gallery of Art).

If you want options that shine better in the evenings, Georgetown tends to get better afternoon/evening glow. The Kennedy Center is an amazing evening spot, and I think that the Capitol looks best in the evenings, as well. And if you plan on using any restaurants or cafés for backgrounds, we generally need to plan later in the day for them to open.

Time of Year

If you’re planning a Spring or Fall engagement session, both morning and evening are wonderful options. If you’re planning a Winter or Summer session, however, it’s a good idea to keep DC’s extreme weather swings in mind.

In June, the sun rises at 5:45am, which is early for a session. But it’s also still the cool of the day, and allows hair and makeup to stay in place, and keeps perspiration at a minimum. I usually recommend sunrises sessions in the Summer for this reason.

In December and January, the sun doesn’t rise until 7:30am, which is nice if you’re not a morning person… but it’s also freezing that early! I usually suggest evening sessions in the Winter to give the sun time to warm the air!

Your personalities

Let’s start with the obvious personality questions: Are you a morning person? Plan for a sunrise session! Or drink lots and lots of coffee beforehand! Are you night owls? Do an evening session!

But there’s more to consider. Are you an introvert, or find yourself camera shy? Then plan for a time of day and location that has a fewer number of pedestrian observers that might gather as an audience— and seriously consider a sunrise session. There’s a quiet intimacy to the air in the early hours of the day that I find comforting.

Are you an extrovert? Then you might want to plan for a sunset session. There’s a busier intensity to the atmosphere in the evenings, even if you don’t have an audience watching you. Evening sessions tend to be less relaxed because there are more people (crowds, traffic, etc) to work around, but that creates a kind of electricity that can be helpful.

Other vendors involved

If you’re considering professional hair and makeup (which I advise!), then you will need to verify with your beauty team that they offer services before sunrise engagement portrait sessions. I work with many companies that are willing to come to their clients at early hours, but you will need to check.

Lastly, plan for traffic.

I feel like this goes without saying for the DC-area, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. I usually suggest that my couples Uber between shoot locations during a session so we don’t have to worry much about finding parking, but heavy traffic can still negatively influence our access to good light during a session. It’s worthwhile to take a minute to consider average traffic times between locations and come up with a good plan! It’s so sad when a typical DC traffic jam keeps us stuck on the road while the sun is setting… which has absolutely happened before! I work with my couples to craft a wonderful engagement session timeline that factors in travel time between locations, in addition to quality of light at each spot!

Sunrise Portrait Examples…

Sunset Portrait Examples…

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about sarah

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With nearly 20 years of experience behind the lens and a portfolio that spans four continents, Sarah brings a refined, story-driven approach to the events of a wedding. Her work has published in Brides, Martha Stewart Weddings, Southern Living, as well as print & digital outlets around the globe.

Sarah Bradshaw is an internationally recognized wedding & event photographer. Combining a background in international photojournalism, a love for classical art, and a genuine interest in people, Sarah creates images that are at once iconic and intimate, effortless and intentional, in the moment and intended for a lifetime.