Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography, Part 2


In Part 2 of Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography, we cover the glories of Blue Hour, the uglies of Harsh Light, and the dancing shadows of Dappled Light.

As with Part 1, this article is aimed primarily at intermediate or novice level photographers to give you a jump start on how to think about the luminous journey towards mastering natural light. We cover some camera settings, tips and techniques, common mistakes and how to correct them, and a wee bit of inspiration from master photographers, known for how they create great images in each particular type of light. At the end you will find links to more in-depth articles on how to shoot best in each category of light introduced here.

Blue Hour: Golden Hour is Overrated!

What is Blue Hour? When you are feeling down and drinking from the bottle? No! It’s that magical time just before sunrise and after sunset when the sky is indigo, somewhere between blue and violet. It will appear differently depending on how long you leave your shutter open. The important thing to know is that Blue Hour is there, so don’t pack up and leave after sunset! Stick around and reap the benefits of beautiful blue hour photography. But note you may not have anywhere near an hour depending on your latitude. If you are close to the equator, you won’t have anywhere near an hour. If you are in the far north it can last hours.

The usual suspect subjects during Blue Hour are cityscapes, especially before sunrise with less particulate matter in the air, and where buildings with lights on appear crisp against the sky; seascape/landscape or seascape/cityscape combos can conspire to create stunning blue hour images as well; and don’t neglect blue hour portraits like almost everyone else does. Unless you want to.

“In embracing the ‘wildness’ of technically suboptimal lighting alongside the ‘tameness’ of precise photographic technique, blue hour photography is an excellent way for any photographer to challenge their method and break new ground in their craft.” Joel Meyerowitz

Camera Settings:

• Increased ISO to balance exposure in low-light conditions.
• Small aperture (e.g., f/8 to f/16) for a larger depth of field, ideal for land and cityscapes.
• Manual focus for precision in low-light situations.

Tips & Techniques:

• Use a sturdy tripod for stability during longer exposures in the serene blue hour.
• If you don’t have a tripod, increase ISO and get as steady as you can, use a railing or sit down and brace your elbows against the inside of your thighs. Carry a beanbag if you don’t wish to carry a tripod.
• Capture cityscapes or sea/cityscapes with the warm glow of artificial lights against the tranquil backdrop.
• Incorporate captivating foreground elements like water reflections or silhouettes for added intrigue.
• Bracket your exposures to capture various light levels and later blend them in post-processing for optimal dynamic range.
• Experiment with different white balance settings to achieve the desired mood in your blue hour images.

Common Mistakes & How to Correct:

Mistake: Using a flash, disrupting the serene ambiance of the scene.
Correction: Embrace the ‘natural’ lighting during blue hour and avoid using flash. A soft fill light can work with portraits, but better to use ambient light, like a streetlamp or light from a sign. You might need a tripod if the light isn’t bright enough for handheld. You could also play with blur for ghostly blue effects.

Mistake: Neglecting compelling foreground elements, leading to flat and less engaging compositions.
Correction: Scout the location during the day to identify potential foreground subjects and plan your compositions accordingly.

Master Photographer Inspiration: Aung Pyae Soe. AP’s use of use of the blue hour in his landscape photography evokes a sense of calm and serenity. These shots reminds me of Deep Purple and Hendrix Purple Haze. The first was taken just after the sun dropped behind the distant mountains at Inle Lake, Myanmar. Sometimes Blue Hour is Purple Hour. The second shot was taken on the colorful farming fields of Aung Ban, central Myanmar. More of AP’s images here.

Deep Purple. Inle Lake

Myanmar landscape

Hard, Harsh, Chiaroscuro: Contrast and Drama

Hard light, harsh light, chiaroscuro light are all related. They create distinct dark shadows. Hard light can be harsh but does not have to be. Even the soft light of late afternoon can make for hard line shadows, which is what hard light is. Harsh light is typically thought of as mid-day sun that blows out colors and casts unsightly shadows under subject’s eyes. We touch on these three relatives starting with Sebastião Salgado, the celebrated Brazilian photographer. He has a distinct and remarkable approach to working with hard light, harsh light, and chiaroscuro light in his documentary photography. He is not afraid to take on the intense midday sun when his subjects and scenes demand it, and uses the strong contrasts to his advantage. There is no coming back later! The power of hard light properly harnessed can tell a more dramatic story. To re-emphasize, hard light casts sharply defined shadows. It is often harsh as well. You go from bright light to shadow, the shape of it made by whatever is cutting off the light source.

Salgado is one of the all-time greats to be sure, but if you are willing to take on the extra challenges of hard, harsh or chiaroscuro light and find a way to make it work for you, then you will have taken your image making to a higher level. Heads will turn. Plus, your shooting day will get a whole lot longer!

Camera Settings:

• Opt for a low ISO to minimize noise and retain image quality.
• Use a medium aperture (e.g., f/8 to f/11) to achieve a balance between depth of field and diffraction.

Tips & Techniques:

• Seek subjects with contrasting textures and bold colors that thrive in harsh light.
• In B&W, look for deep blacks to contrast with the bright light.
• Use a reflector or diffuser to soften and redirect light onto your subject, reducing harsh shadows. Yes, this is still natural light!
• Look for subjects with interesting textures, such as old buildings or intricate patterns that stand it in such light.
• Position your human or other subject back to the sun to create a captivating rim light effect.
• Look for subjects to cast shade on each other, at and angle away from the sun
• Shoot down from high angles
• Move indoors or into a shaded area, with your subject in shade facing to the light, unless going for backlight. Avoid harshly lit backgrounds in your frame, unless using backlight and desirous of the contrast.
• Employ post-processing techniques, such as dodging and burning, to fine-tune highlights and shadows

Common Mistakes & How to Correct:

Mistake: Missing out on interesting subjects due to the challenges of hard/harsh light.
Correction: Embrace the drama of hard light and look for subjects that complement the contrast.
Mistake: Overexposing the image, resulting in washed-out colors and loss of critical details.
Correction: Use the camera’s histogram and exposure compensation to ensure proper exposure and retain highlight details. Use B&W.

Master Photographer Inspiration: Sebastião Salgado.: Sebastião Salgado. Salgado’s powerful black-and-white images often utilize hard light as chiaroscuro (high contrast between dark and light) to emphasize the raw emotions and details of his subjects. The use of stark contrasts adds depth and drama to the people and scenes portrayed.

Dappled Light: Taming the Dancing Shadows

Dappled light is that which is filtered through leaves, branches, or any object really, that creates patterns of light and shadow on the subject and the surrounding environment. Ripples of water can also create dappled light. Timing is Crucial: Dappled light is best captured during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky. At these times, the light is more diffused and creates a gentle, painterly effect on your subjects. The key here is reducing harsh contrasts to evoke an ethereal quality to such images. If too harsh, your shot will suck.

Camera Settings:

• Use a low ISO to maintain image quality in high-contrast conditions.
• Opt for a medium aperture to balance depth of field and diffraction.

Tips & Techniques:

• Embrace the playfulness of dappled light to add texture and interest to your images.
• Seek patterns and shapes that complement the dappled shadows for visually engaging compositions.
• Use a lens hood or your hand to block direct sunlight from hitting the lens and causing unwanted flare.
• Shoot during Golden Hour to make your life easier. Dappled light in strong light rarely works.
• Shoot from different angles to find the most pleasing balance of light and shadows.
• Look for interesting textures and patterns created by dappled light on various surfaces.

Common Mistakes & How to Correct:

Mistake: Overcomplicating the composition, resulting in chaotic and distracting images.
Correction: Simplify your composition to focus on the interplay between light and shadows.
Mistake: Underexposing the shadows, leading to loss of details in the dappled areas.
Correction: Use exposure compensation to brighten the shadows and bring out details.

Master Photographer Inspiration: Fan H
o. Fan Ho’s iconic street & Hong Kong Harbor photography often incorporates dappled light, adding a sense of mystery and intrigue to his images. The interplay of light and shadows creates captivating and cinematic scenes in his image making. Check out more of the late great Fan Ho’s images here.

To follow up with more detailed articles on the types of light touched on above, try dappled light portraits here; blue hour photography from the guys who get a lot of it; and how to make beautiful shots from harsh light when you have no choice. And this from a guy who used to hate and avoid hard/harsh light at all costs.

Part 3 of Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography will cover the Power of Shade and Backlight Ethereality. To learn about a variety of light expressions and how to work with each in the field, where the learning is best, consider a photo tour workshop with one of our wonderful pros!

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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