Let there be light! There is no good photography without it. There is no crappy photography without it. Mastering natural light travel photography is essential. Not all at once, it takes time. Starts with reading a lot of articles and gets there with a lot of time in the field, which BTW, is what Luminous photo tour workshops are all about! (Please forgive my shamelessness. It’s one of my best qualities!).
While it’s possible to take a great photo in bad light, it’s unlikely. In such a case the subject matter would have to overwhelm the need for good light. Take the iconic “Napalm Girl”, actually title “The Terror of War”, taken by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War. The light itself is low but there is enough of it on the subject. The photo is extra grainy and out of focus. But the subject matter is so strong that it doesn’t matter. Some might say the blur adds to the sense of urgency – the photographer was urgently on the scene and the scene was out of control. Understandably, photojournos have more leeway in this regard than the rest of us.
Think of light and subject as two lonely singles looking for love, and it’s your job as the photographer to marry them. The world of travel photography demands good light most all the time. But photographers cannot live on light alone. Again, good light has to be paired with good subject matter. Moreover, they must be paired in such a way that tells the story you want to tell.
The story can be as simple as a closeup of a beautiful girl’s expressionless face in soft golden light, or as complex as a street shot at night showing several layers of activity, each layer needing its own type and level of illumination. We cover 10 types of light in this multi-part piece, 2 here in Part 1, the most sought after and perhaps the least understood. There should be 11 actually, as we left out how to deal with the natural no light of pitch black. Best advice – light a match, or a can of Coke!
FYI Digression: There is a new edition of Vietnam Inc. available, which offers truly remarkable coverage of a most unfortunate war by Philip Jones Griffiths. The book is by Phillip, not the war. Just to be clear. More about here from Magnum, who we have to link to so they don’t sue us! They might anyway, so it’s a good thing we’re broke.
Natural light is a travel photographer’s best and often only friend, offering a wide range of possibilities to capture stunning travel images. If you are aspiring to master the artful science of working with natural light, this article will cover various types, techniques, common mistakes, fixes, and feature examples from master photographers. Who hopefully won’t sue us.
Laziness and lack of imagination prevents me from covering every possibility here, lest it become a book, and we certainly don’t want that. Use these scribblings as a starter set to lead you onward to more information dense guides on specific natural light conditions, and how to best take advantage of them. You will need to know all the basics, because you will find all of them and many of their variations while on the road creating your crackerjack portfolio additions. There are probably 20 really good articles out there on any given photography subject, and 1000 that are not so good, intended more to take up space as quick content than to enlighten anyone. I will link to some of the good ones at the end of this quick content filling space below. This collection of text is aimed at the intermediate level travel shooter who is in the earlier stages of recognizing light and learning what on earth to do with it. Any experts who have read this far may as well cut your losses and seek higher ground.
Let’s start with most every beginning and intermediate photographers favorite, explain it, and then bash it!
Golden Hour: Capturing the Warmth of Warm
Commonly the two hours prior to sunset, and the one hour after sunrise. Why only one hour after sunrise? Because the particulate matter in the air that gathers all day and extends and deepens the gold in Golden Hour, has usually settled overnight, thus shortening the time of warm light.
• Low ISO for optimal image quality and reduced noise.
• People and Portraits – Wide aperture (e.g., f/2.8 to f/5.6) for a shallow depth of field and pleasing bokeh.
• Spot metering for precise exposure on the main subject.
Tips & Techniques:
• Utilize sidelight or backlight during the golden hour to create a captivating atmosphere.
• Emphasize silhouettes by exposing for the bright background, allowing the subject to appear dark against it.
• Position your subject with the sun behind them to capture a stunning backlit glow, or halo. If necessary, use a reflector to
illuminate the face. Ideally though, the glow will provide just enough light to recognize the person but keep the ethereal
• Enhance warm tones during post-processing to intensify the enchanting glow. Yes, I said ‘enchanting’.
Common Mistakes & How to Correct:
• Mistake: Overexposing highlights, resulting in blown-out details.
• Correction: Use exposure compensation to reduce the exposure, preserving highlight details.
• Mistake: Ignoring the direction of light, leading to flat and uninspiring compositions.
• Correction: Pay attention to the angle of light relative to your subject to create depth and dimension.
• Mistake: Over reliance on Golden Hour. Some people only shoot in Golden Hour. OK if all you do is sunrise and sunset shots. Not so OK otherwise, as you narrow your choice of scenes and subjects and your window of shooting time. Your images will lack the interest of diversity in both light and subject matter.
• Correction: Get your butt out there at all hours! Learn to take best advantage of all types of light. Life happens 24/7.
Master Photographer Inspiration: Kyaw Kyaw Winn, Myanmar. Mr. Winn’s visual storytelling often utilizes the golden hour to capture captivating travel scenes.
Overcast Light: Revealing Subtle Beauty
There are of course many varieties of overcast light, depending on time of day and the thickness of the cover, which determines the amount of light coming through, and the color. Thinnish overcast in the middle of the day may make for a ‘giant softbox’ as many people say, but it’s a boring and blown out softbox! Generally during midday, thicker is better, more like shade, where colors are not blown out and the light is still even.
• Use a moderate ISO to maintain image quality in low-contrast conditions. Go higher if dark overcast.
• Opt for a wide aperture to create separation between your subject and the background.
Tips & Techniques:
• Focus on intimate scenes and details that thrive in soft and even lighting.
• Capture portraits with flattering skin tones and natural expressions.
• While cloudy skies can be great for landscapes and backgrounds in general, white skies are bland. Be careful framing.
Look for vibrant colors that pop against the subdued background of overcast light.
• Experiment with black and white conversions to emphasize textures and patterns.
Common Mistakes & How to Correct:
• Mistake: Assuming that overcast light is uninteresting, overlooking the opportunities it presents for subtle and gentle compositions.
• Correction: Embrace the soft light to capture delicate details and enhance the mood of your images.
• Mistake: Neglecting to adjust the white balance, leading to unwanted color casts.
• Correction: Manually set the white balance or use a gray card to ensure accurate colors in your overcast images.
Master Photographer Inspiration: Irene Kung, Switzerland. Irene Kung’s surreal and dreamlike images are often captured under overcast skies, showcasing her ability to reveal the beauty in seemingly ordinary and yes, extraordinary scenes as well. In “Potala”, 2021, not only is the sky overcast, but so is the ground! The soft light and the fitting subject creates a sense of tranquility and ethereality.
Part 2 of Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography will be published in August.