Light is the photographers’ raw ingredient, and in many ways, it’s also the most important aspect of photography.
Controlling the lighting in photography in a studio is an art by itself however, when travelling, the importance of natural light photography is just paramount.
The technical elements are, of course, important, but, as you progress, these will naturally come second behind the light.
Table of Contents
Get to grip with the basics of light and you’ll begin to see the world in new and exciting ways.
Whether you shoot portraits, landscapes, wildlife, macro or still life, understanding and knowing how to control light will give your photography a creative edge.
If you are after travel photography tips, compositions, tutorials and much more then why not reading and downloading for FREE (no need to pass your email, no worries) this ultimate guide for travel photography. Over 70 pages that may change your way to make (not just take) photos when travelling.
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Understanding colour temperatures in natural light photography
You can have the best camera gear in travel photography however the light still is the photographer’s greatest weapon and the key to more creative images.
All light sources emit light at different colour temperatures therefore different kinds of light appear in different colours.
Lower temperatures give off warmer (redder) light, while higher temperatures produce colder (bluer) light.
This is where your camera’s white balance (WB) dial comes into work, as this allows us to correct these colour casts and produce neutral results.
Auto white balance (AWB) will make the correct choice in most cases, especially if during the day.
You can, however, opt for one of the preset WB settings if AWB creates unsightly colour casts.
You can even take full control in trickier multi-light source scenarios and take a custom white balance reading.
The human eye automatically compensates for these differences, so we essentially see the world through neutral white balance eyes.
But our cameras aren’t so sophisticated and it’s up to us to tell it how to see!
Colour temperature and white balance can be used to add impact to a shot, especially if you’re shooting at sunrise and sunset and you want to capture the full range of colours in the sky.
It can also be used for creative effect, using white balance settings to warm or cool out the photo, sometimes creating eye-catching results as in the below pictures.
The difference in the two photos above is only the selected White Balance, Tungsten or Cloudy
Time of day and outdoor photography lighting
In photography, the weather always plays an important role.
How many times I heard “a storm was coming so I decided to stay at home”.
I do it myself sometimes.
And that’s a pity because if it’s true that in many cases you end up with a wasted trip then it is also true that epic photos come from epic days (coastal storms, tempest, etc)
The epic photos sometimes come with the sun breaking through the clouds, creating a nice contrast of light in the photo. They don’t from blue sky days
In this respect, the weather is actually effecting the main ingredient of our photography: light
The natural light, when travelling, is in fact what photographers care the most.
This can determine the mood and feel of an image and can be the difference between an uninspiring shot and an award-winner with drama and impact.
And it can change at any minute.
This is the exciting thing about photography.
Visit the same place on a different time and you end-up having different photos.
You can even visit the same place at the same time in two different days and you may end up with different photos altogether.
It’s all about natural light photography when we travel, we do not have artificial lights with us.
There is however a light and cheap photography lighting gear we should always take with us, especially when we want to create some stunning portraits: a collapsible light reflector.
They do not cost as much and, once collapsed, they can fit easily in a bag.
They make however a huge difference.
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But let’s go back to our travel photography and see how a day can be organised.
Sunrise & sunset
The 30 minutes before and after the sun breaks the horizon and shrinks back again are referred to as the ‘golden hours’ and for good reason.
These times of day offer a pleasing warm light, colours from vivid to subtle, and lengthy shadows that can add depth and definition.
Harsh midday sun is no barrier to great pictures.
It’s just that the quality of light is that much harsher and shadows will be hard and defined.
Reflections, abstracts and silhouettes are all great subjects to shoot during the day.
Also, when travelling, you can use this part of the day to visit the inside of remarkable buildings, as it was the case below
The most amazing colours often don’t light up the sky until long after the sun has crept beneath the horizon.
It might be almost pitch black but there are still great photos to be had!
The quality of light is soft and incredibly warm – if your typical sunset is 2500K, then post-sunset is somewhere around the 2000K mark.
Colour temperature is measured in Kelvins (K) and the lower the temperature, the warmer the light.
Candlelight typically flickers at around 1000K and has a red colour bias, while your flashgun will probably peak at around 6000K and have a blue colour bias.
Knowing where different light sources sit on this scale and also what their colour bias is will allow you to select the most suitable white balance setting.
You can also warm up and cool down colours for creative effect.
The digital era helps to gain confidence very quickly.
Just shoot, change white balance and see the difference.
With the time you will gain the experience to select the WB without even thinking
I am here scratching the surface of the colour temperature.
If you want to go deeper I suggest starting with this Wiki page.
Bad lighting in photography does not exist
Ok, I am not here to say that every condition is fantastic.
When I go out to shoot a great landscape I usually choose the time with the best lighting for photography: sunset, or sunrise.
If I am faced with heavy cloud cover and drizzle, then yes, I would probably be disappointed.
What I mean is that it is important to read the conditions, analyse the light and tailor your creative approach as a direct response to it.
So that means bad light doesn’t exist only different types of light and you can work with it.
So long as you have light, any light, you can shoot a photograph.
As we talked, the quality of light can change through a given day and the direction of light will have an impact on a typical outdoor scene.
Understanding how this affects your shooting is important but it’s just as important that it doesn’t prevent your creative thinking.
Beautiful, warm light is something we all enjoy shooting but it’s not the only conditions in which we can capture great photographs.
In fact, the reverse is true and it would be tedious if every day was the same endless haze of sunshine.
We might curse the weather from time to time but the way it gives us lighting challenges is also very interesting.
When it comes to lighting, variety really is the spice of life.
There is another thing to consider.
How many other photographers you are going to meet on a great sunset in a great location?
How many similar photos will be online the day after with a similar scene?
Now think about a stormy day.
The photo above was made on a horrible weather day.
I spent one hour at the local cafe waiting for the rain to stop.
I saw a 20-30 minutes break on my mobile radar app and I positioned my gear as soon as I could just in time to make few photos.
I packed up before even more rain started.
When travelling yes you can choose not to shoot, but it’s far better to come up with a fresh approach than to constantly give in to it.
That won’t swell your portfolio with interesting and contrasting photographs.
So let’s take a look at some of the options you have, from golden evening light to miserable grey and wet days.
Each one is a photo opportunity.
Lovely isn’t it?
Warm, evening light bathing the scene and looking all inviting.
On an evening like this we could shoot gorgeous textural landscapes, backlit macro photos, or frankly anything we liked!
We won’t even have to work too hard, as there is plenty of light to ensure exposures are fast and hand-holding friendly!
But let’s not take it for granted, how about shooting directly into the sun and allowing a little flare to bust through the frame and lift the compassion.
If you are shooting JPEG then switch white balance to cloudy or shade to boost those deep orange tones ever further.
Make sure you walk around your subject too and explore how the strong light is changing structures and accentuating shapes.
But if the light’s low and behind you, watch out for your own shadow creeping into the shot.
If shooting RAW you can change WB later on Lightroom or any photography software.
The white balance you see on your camera LCD though is the one selected for the JPG photo (even if you do not shoot JPG)
Shooting into the light
Camera meters are easily fooled when shooting into the light, as they immediately think there is more light than there really is.
For the image above I shoot 2 photos (0 and +2 exposure) and blended them later in post-production (you can easily do that in Lightroom, Photo Merge > HDR, or with layers in Photoshop).
If you prefer to avoid working with layers or HDR then here is one of my favourite photography lighting tips to use in post-production.
Shoot underexposing by around 1 stop (use exposure compensation -1 on your camera) and, once in Lightroom, increase the Shadows (up to +80 however typically around +40) and decrease the highlights to around -30, to increase the darkness of the sky.
Overcast or rainy days
Who says you can’t shoot action on a rainy day because the light’s too low?
As said many times, understanding light for photography is essential, as it happens with many skills in our life, and it comes with the experience.
Get out and try to use more the light for your photo.
I was travelling in Indonesia, scootering in Lombok island around the start of the raining season.
A sudden storm opened up tons of photography opportunities as kids started playing in the street.
I used a shutter speed of 1/30sec for some panning and I was left with the setting of aperture and ISO.
I opened up the aperture to the widest possible value and I started bumping up the ISO to get just enough light for my photography.
The lens quality may play an important role in the aperture. You can read more here on lenses for travel photography.
These are the days where creativity plays a bigger role, much more than on a sunset where natural lighting is usually more predictable, although it changes quickly.
Do not be worry about the high level of ISO.
If you post your photos uniquely online it won’t be an issue and even if you print them, up to A4, it will not be almost noticeable.
Too bright or almost no light!
Mid-morning, not a cloud in the sky?
Your shot is going to be full of contrast and might not work so well in colour.
But instead of worrying about it, try using that contrast to your advantage by going black & white for a punchy landscape.
There might be other occasions when natural light is really limited, if none, and you do not have a tripod.
Set you shutter speed at 1/30-1/50sec (you need stable hands), use the widest possible aperture and an ISO value to have enough light (usually 1600-3200 or more).
ISO is there to help you. It’s not an enemy.
13 Photography lighting facts when you travel
- The only source of lighting available when travelling is natural light.
- Using a flash is an option however you will intimidate your subject. Moreover, you will look more of a professional photographer which is not great when you travel as you can be suddenly a target for your expensive gear.
- You can use a small reflector (20-25cm diameter) for food photography, it really helps
- You can use a bigger reflector (60-80cm diameter) for some interesting and creative portrait photos or your mates or partner
- Familiarise with White Balance, in the day and the night. Once confident it will all become more natural.
- ISO is your friend, not your enemy. Do not be afraid to use high values, especially if you have one of the latest camera models
- Bad natural lighting does not exist, in fact, these are the conditions where the best of a photographer’s creativity comes out.
- Storms, especially coastal storms, can be a great source of photo inspiration. With the long exposure, you will have an amazing silky sea
- Use black & white in the middle of the day, where colours may not be great. Also, use B&W for the long exposure on water.
- The start of the rainy season in tropical countries is usually a great time for some unique and unusual photography. It’s a big event for the local people and the local economy.
- Use Lightroom, or any other similar software, to change in post-production your WB, however, remember to shoot in RAW. My personal suggestion is always to try to make in-camera the perfect photo as you will end up working less on the computer.
- If the light in the photo is not right try to work on Shadows (+40 to +80) to lighten the dark areas of your photos and on the highlights (-30 to -80) to darken the overexposed sky
- Interior of the old buildings is a great photography subject for those dull days
Natural light photographers and more inspiration
These are some of the photographers I admire for the work they do with just the natural light they have.
They are not all travel photographers and honestly, this is not important.
Inspiration should not be limited to just the type of photography you do.
Moving across styles can only help to improve your own skills
- Lisa Holloway, an amazing fine art portrait photographer from Arizona
- Robert Frank, the pioneer of Street Photography. I personally spend lots of time on his photos….and again and again. I can only learn from all his details
- Steve McCurry, so famous for his 1984 photograph “Afghan Girl”. He is surely in my top photographers’ list. Saying that he is a great travel photographer would diminish his skills in all types of photography
- Raghu Rai for his amazing coverage of India and Asia.
- Ami Vitale, her work is another great source of inspiration. I could spend hours on Ami’s website for both her words and photos
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2 thoughts on “Natural light photography when travelling [13 lighting facts]”
The picture of sun rise is really awesome and tried to take same sort of pictures but didn’t come true. In fact I need to learn more from this blog. Thanks a lot for sharing this amazing information.
No worries Guru, great to hear the website comes useful 🙂