I’m a travel photographer living out of my backpack – which means that I don’t have the luxury of carrying around a ton of camera equipment. As such, the ability to use natural light has become one of my greatest tools.
Sunlight comes in many different temperatures and intensities throughout the day, and to understand how to use these different types of natural light is absolutely essential (especially for travel photographers who rarely have any control over their environment). Depending on the time of day, the direction and the weather, sunlight will actually have different temperatures. But you already know that. Just look out your window this evening and you’ll likely see the sky changing from a warm red light to a cool blue light. Understanding these qualities and characteristics of available light at the time of shooting will dramatically affect the look and mood of your image. Let’s get started:
Whether you know what it is or not, you’ve probably heard about ‘the golden hour’. The golden hour is marked as the hour before sunset and after sunrise when the sky takes on a golden color. Blue light is filtered out as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, making the sky appear more warm or “golden”. The golden color is also projected on the subject you are photographing, resulting in a warmer and more colorful image than at other times of the day. In the photo below you can literally see the golden light pouring over the mountaintop.
This golden light is also spectacular for portrait and street photography. You’re also more likely to find people to subject around sunset, as these are the times most locals are off work and beginning to go about their daily evening lives.
Tip: Next time you’re watching the sunset, look for something unique about your destination and include that in the picture with the setting sun. Then turn around and take a picture of something behind you or to the side. Sunsets are gorgeous but they happen everywhere. In travel photography it’s all about feeling a sense of place – like you’re there without being there. In order to get that sense of place you’ve got to add some other dimension into your image.
The blue hour occurs the hour just after the sun sets or just before it rises. This is actually when I shoot most of my night shots. It’s much more manageable than trying to shoot later at night. During the blue hour you’ve still got some indirect sunlight to work with. Many of the lights from cities will be lit giving you the sense of night, even if the sky isn’t pitch black. The photo below was taken just a few minutes after the sun had faded in Brussels, Belgium. The sky had turned a wonderful dark blue and the lights in the Grand Place were absolutely stunning.
Tip: After the sun sets, you’re going to loose a lot of your available light and your shutter speed is going to drop significantly. While photographing during the blue hour, it’s absolutely essential to use your tripod or set your camera up on a steady surface to get crisp and steady photographs.
Don’t forget the sun is on the horizon twice a day. Most photographers prefer the evening hours due to the fact that the light gets progressively better throughout the sunset as opposed to sunrise when the best quality light comes first. But you’re also likely to encounter more tourist traffic in popular areas at sunset as opposed to sunrise. It’s a good idea to try to plan at least one day to make yourself get up before the sun and wander around in the early hours of the morning. You’re bound to find some interesting things that don’t happen any other time of day.
Not all of us want to wake up at the crack of dawn to get out and photograph. It’s more likely you’ll be exploring during midday when the sun is high in the sky and at its harshest. During midday you’ll lose saturation and have to deal with dark shadows and direct overhead light, which is not particularly flattering. Use this time to explore and photograph cities. Midday is the only time the sunlight can fill in the concrete canyons created by large buildings. During midday the sun is also able to penetrate deeper into water since it is coming directly downward. Still lakes and calm water take on a whole new dimension during midday.
Midday is also a great time to head indoors. The outside light will help illuminate typically dark or intimate places like churches, cafes or restaurants. You may have to bump up your exposure in order to light up the room the way you’d like. Having highlighted lights and windows is better than having an overall dark exposure.
We all love sunny days on our vacations. But there’s nothing wrong with a rainy or cloudy day and there are certainly ways to use this to your benefit in photography. On rainy days, look for reflections in puddles or wet surfaces that add to the scene. Clouds act as a sort of diffuser, which allows you to shoot with softer, cooler light during midday. While we did have sun when we first arrived in Northern Norway, we also had five straight days of nothing but rain and fog. I actually loved it though. The mystical fog reminded me of the timelessness of the islands and the hard-working fishing culture.
While the time of day is important, the direction the sun is coming from also plays a big role in the mood of a photograph. Photos with the sun at your back tend to look flat and boring (and your model will thank you for not making them stare straight into the sun!) Try rotating the sun’s angle on your subject to get a more interesting result.
Mix things up and throw your light source behind your subject. This is called backlighting. Backlit creates a lot of opportunity for creativity. This technique is most effective during the golden hour when the sun is softer. The natural light will produce warmer colors instead of appearing completely white. Here you can either choose to expose for the background, creating a silhouette, or expose for your subject and create a well-lit background.
Tip: Shooting straight into the sun can cause a shadow on your model’s face. If needed, pop a little flash to illuminate your subject and eliminate the foreground shadow.
One of the reasons the golden hour is best for portrait photography is that the sideways direction of light on your model is more flattering than straight on or overhead. You can use the natural setting of the sun to achieve side lighting. Alternatively, during midday you can utilize windows or doorways to force side lighting during lunch.
Being able to use natural light is all about adaptability. It takes time and practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an easy way to take your travel photos to the next level!
Do you look for the light in your photography? Do you prefer to shoot during sunsets or sunrises?
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