People ask me all the time "when is the best light to photograph our family?". Anytime as long as it's not dark is my answer. People have heard that the best light is the "Magic Hour", the hour at sunrise and at sunset. It is true that this light can be absolutely amazing at these times of the day. It can make a corn field in Iowa look like a destination vacation. I don't know many people, even some photographers, who love to get up an hour or two before the sun to have their photograph taken, let alone a family of four with small children. So, that leaves the rest of the day to take photographs. I will give you two tips on how to make a great portrait with not so great natural light. In order to use these tips however, you will need to figure out how to set your camera in manual mode.
Tip 1: Back Light
Two of the images below are done with this technique. Find where the sun is in the sky and put it on the back side of your subject. This will create a shadow that falls on the face and front of your subject. If you leave your camera on Program or "P" (no, P does not stand for professional) and shoot the photo, your photo will most likely have a dark face and a perfectly exposed background. That's not what you want. What you need to do is meter for the shadows so that your subjects face will be properly exposed, let the background blow out if you have to. One way to expose for the shadows is to point your camera into a dark shadow of a tree or something that is casting a big shadow. Another is to set your camera meter to read 2 to 4 stops over what it says is correct. Open the aperture all the way to 3.2, 2.5 or if you have fast lenses 1.4 or 1.2. Then adjust your shutter to get the exposure set. My meter on the two below wanted me to shoot at something like f2.8 at 1/250th but when I metered in the shadow it was more like f2.8 at 1/60th. Shooting this way made a nice hair light, made the color all nice and creamy and exposed her face properly.
Mamiya 645, 80mm f2.5, Kodak E100G
Tip 2: Shoot in Open Shade
The next tip is to find some nice open shade. Under a garden gazebo, large shade tree or whatever you have available. When you put your subject in the shade you have eliminated the hard shadows made from the sun. The first tip talked about metering for the shadows, in this example you are IN the shadow. Depending on your camera and meter though, you will still want to over expose a bit. One stop probably, but to make sure just point your camera at the ground in the shade area and set your camera to expose for the dark part of the shade you are in. Two of the images above were shot this way. My meter wanted me to shoot at f2.8 at 1/125th but I shot at f2.8 at 1/60th.
These tips work best with color negative films. But it still works, with a bit more practice, for slide film and digital cameras. If you are shooting with a digital camera set your capture for RAW not jpg. That will give you a greater latitude for capturing all the values in the image. Give it a try and see what you come up with. It's a great way to stretch your creative eye, and gets you out there shooting even when you think the light sucks.