How to Take Better Travel Photos | Natural Light

It’s that time again…How to Take Better Travel Photos! In this lesson we’ll cover everything you ever wanted to know about using natural light to your advantage. 
 

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:

 

Golden Hour:

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.

Golden Hour Sunset

 

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.

 

Street Photography at Golden Hour

 

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.

 

Golden Hour Forest at Sunset

 

Blue Hour:

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.

Blue Hour Photography Grand Place Brussels

 

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.

 

Midday Sun:

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 Clear Water Isla Mujeres

 

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.

 

Hotel Photography

 

Inclement Weather:

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.

Fog Photography Fishing Boat

 

Directional Lighting

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.

Backlit:

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.

Backlit Photography Golden Hour Portrait Photography

 

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.

 

Side Lighting:

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.

Side Lighting Portait Photography

 

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?

 

Further Reading

~ HDR Photography: Explains what HDR is and how to use it.

~ The Exposure Triangle: Discusses the 3 parts of the exposure triangle and how they affect your photos.

~ Understanding the Histogram: Learn how this graph can inform you about everything in your image.

~ Composition: An introduction to the artistic side of creating an eye-catching photo.

~ Dan R Moore Photo Shop: Discover and purchase photos from this article and more

Meet: Dan Moore


Dan is a photographer and the second half of the A Cruising Couple team. He has been living and traveling full-time in various countries since 2011. He looks to make the world smaller and more accessible to everyone.

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41 Comments

  1. I never cease to be amazed at your knowledge of photography, Dan! Is it time to compile an ebook dedicated to all the photography tips you have posted? Love to both of you. You add much pleasure to my life as I follow your adventures.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! That’s so nice of you! There may be a photography book in the next couple of months, we’ll have to wait and see :-)

      Reply
    • Thanks Van! Norway has such amazing landscapes and grey weather can add a really cool mysterious mood. I’m super jealous of all the photographic opportunities you’ll have in Northern Norway. If I lived there I don’t think I’d ever be able to put my camera down :-p

      Reply
    • Haha, getting up for the sunrise is not the easiest thing to do, but somehow it always seems worth it later :-)

      Reply
  2. Hi guys!
    As a novice but eager to learn travel photographer I really enjoyed this post. Although I’m familiar with the different lighting that you’ve touched on, your easy to understand tips taught me some new things and clarified some others. I especially liked your tip about the Golden Hour and paying attention to more than just the sunset itself. Thanks!
    sarah recently posted…Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen – Battle Of The BestMy Profile

    Reply
    • No problem Sarah! Glad you were able to pick up some helpful tips :-)

      Reply
    • It is amazing the difference directional light can make on a portrait. I love using side lighting! It really makes your subject pop while giving plenty of depth to your photo.

      Reply
    • Being based in Gran Canaria I’m sure you have plenty of opportunities for amazing photography. Glad to hear you picked up some useful tips :-)

      Reply
  3. Great article! I’m currently writing one about how to be a successful travel photographer and I’ll definitely link back to this one!

    Reply
  4. this is good info, I’ve never thought much about photography but now with a blog I’d like my photos to not suck, so I’ve been trying to pick up some tips to improve and love reading stuff like this
    Rebekah recently posted…Chinese Farmers MarketsMy Profile

    Reply
    • One of the best things I did for my photography was the 365 photo project (take a photo everyday for a year) and start our blog. It really forces you to know your camera, see the light and just get out there and shoot. :-)

      Reply
    • Thanks! One of the toughest jobs of travel photography is capturing the essence of place. The sun is everywhere, so I always try to include something in my photography that isn’t :-)

      Reply
  5. Very good article. It’s always a quandary about what to best shoot in the middle of the day and when travelling there is a need to remember that you may never be back so it’s important to keep taking photos anyway. Good tips.
    Rob Weir recently posted…Floral Friday: Mt Cook LilyMy Profile

    Reply
    • Great point Rob! The excuse of “bad light” is no reason not to take photos. You may not get another chance so you’ve got to find a way creative way to make it work :-)

      Reply
    • Congrats on your upcoming wedding! I’m sure it will be beautiful :-)

      Reply
    • Thanks Charlie! I love shooting during the blue hour, but it can get really tricky as the light conditions change very rapidly. The hour before sunset is still my favorite :-)

      Reply
  6. Love all these photos, especially the one of the boat and the snow. You sure know how to take the best of natural lighting! I’m still learning about it, luckily there are great opportunities here to play with lighting but it’s still an adventure. Casey you look so cute in the last pic :)

    Reply
    • Thanks Samantha. The more you look for beautiful natural light it the easier it becomes. And I remember those Playa del Coco sunsets! You guys have no problem catching some amazing light ;-)

      Reply
    • Thanks Mary! We were very lucky to be on the island of Morro de Sao Paulo for the full moon which made for some really fun backlit photos.

      Reply
    • Thanks Craig. It takes a lot of practice and a trained eye but most of all you’ve just gotta keep shooting :-)

      Reply
  7. Thanks for some great tips!

    Reply
  8. Great tips in here! I’m so impatient when it comes to photography… and just about anything else actually. Should start practicing:)
    Sofie recently posted…PoPa: The Opal Coast in FranceMy Profile

    Reply

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