Want to capture great travel photos? So you to have to learn to master lighting.
You see, while camera gear, composition, and post-processing are all essential parts of travel photography, lighting is often the deciding factor. If you get the lighting right, your images will be eye-catching and even dramatic – but if you get the lighting wrong, your images will become boring, flat and otherwise unappealing.
(I am not talk about artificial lighting. I like to use natural light in my travel photos, and I very rarely travel with an external flash because of the extra weight. I’m also not a big fan of the flashed look.)
Therefore, in this article, I share four fundamental tips for travel photography lighting, including:
- The best times of day to take travel photos
- How to think about the weather and its effect on lighting
- How to adjust your position in relation to the light for amazing results
So if you’re ready to become a travel lighting master, then let’s go!
1. Start by shooting at the right time of day
Natural light changes permanently.
Depending on the time of day, you will get very different types of lighting and very different results. This is why you should always pay attention to the time when planning your travel photography outings.
You see, while there is no better time of day for travel photography, different types of lighting work well for different scenes, so you should always match your lighting to your subject (or vice versa).
- If you want to create beautiful silhouettes or soft, golden travel photos, plan your outing during the golden hours (an hour or two after sunrise and an hour or two before sunset). Golden hour lighting is great for dramatic architectural photography, it’s great for landscapes, and it’s also great for portraits.
- If you want to show off color and detail, plan your outing for a very cloudy day. Of course, it’s not always possible to plan this in advance, but do your best and don’t be afraid to change your plans as needed. The covered light is wonderfully diffused and will allow you to capture intimate portraits, architectural details and landscapes that focus on the subject (not the sky!).
- If you want to create urban style shots, plan to shoot when the sun is bright and high above your head. Look for interesting shadows, embrace the high contrast effect, and experiment constantly.
- If you want to create magic, ethereal photos of landscapes or cityscapes, plan your photo shoot just after sunset. This hour is known as the blue hour, and it will give you beautiful skies as well as enough light for some foreground details.
Conclusion: When planning a travel photography shoot, check the weather. Then, just before leaving, check it again. And always have a backup plan in place, just in case!
2. Carefully analyze the location when you arrive
Once there, before you pull out your camera, spend time looking around and assessing the light.
Pay particular attention to the lighting quality and lighting direction.
The quality of lighting depends mainly on the time of day and the weather factors discussed above, but these can change quickly, so it always pays to take one more look before shooting. Also, if you’re shooting indoors, light can be diffused or blocked by walls and windows, so it’s a good idea to really see in the light and see how it falls.
The direction of the lighting is determined by the position of the sun (if you are outdoors) or the position of the windows (if you are indoors). And by deliberately working with different lighting directions, you can dramatically improve your photos.
The front light, for example, is ideal for evenly illuminating subjects. This will give you very detailed shots, but it tends to lack drama. (A lack of drama isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an effect you should be aware of.)
The backlight, on the other hand, is full of drama. It creates silhouettes, creates lens flares and creates incredibly artistic rim effects. On the other hand, the backlight is not ideal if you want to create detailed and/or documentary images.
Finally, the side light is a great way to produce dramatic yet detailed images. Because the side light falls on the subject at an oblique angle, you get nice shadows, lots of texture, and a well-lit subject. It’s a great way to create captivating landscape and architectural images, especially when the sun is low in the sky.
Of course, the direction of the lighting is often fixed – you can’t ask landscape or architectural subjects to move, after all! – but by selecting subjects according to the light, you can optimize the quality of your shots.
3. Select the speed according to the lighting situation
Before heading out for a travel photo shoot, make sure you bring the right gear for the job.
If you plan to shoot in bright midday light, you can often only bring your standard camera and lens. You won’t need a travel tripod, you won’t need a special lens, and you won’t need a remote shutter.
If it’s overcast or you’re working indoors, I recommend bringing a good travel tripod, especially if you plan to shoot landscapes or architectural scenes. You’ll want to lower your aperture for sufficient depth of field, but that will require a slow shutter speed – and if you don’t have a tripod, you’ll end up creating blurry photos.
If you are shooting at sunrise or sunset, a tripod will come in handy again. The light will be too low to allow great depth of field at portable shutter speeds (plus you can use the tripod to create beautiful long exposure images). A remote trigger is also a good idea; this will allow you to trigger the shutter without generating camera shake.
And if you’re shooting after dark, a tripod and remote shutter are absolutely essential. The exception is if you plan on doing travel street photography – and if you do, I recommend using your larger aperture lens and a camera with impressive high ISO capabilities.
By the way, if you plan to do night astrophotography, a wide aperture lens and a high ISO sensitivity camera are also important. You’ll need to shoot at f/2.8 or wider to prevent motion in the stars, and you’ll often need to crank your ISO up to 1600 and beyond.
4. Don’t be afraid to shoot in bad weather
I’ve talked all about the value of golden hour lighting, blue hour lighting, and sunny days…
…but sometimes you’ll get caught up in bad weather and wonder if it’s really worth going out.
Want to know what I think? Bad weather days are amazing for travel photography.
You see, while inclement weather lighting is often dim, it’s also very soft, which helps to bring out colors and emphasize detail.
Additionally, bad weather can also produce dramatic lighting, especially when the sun breaks through clouds before, after, or during a rainstorm.
And rain, snow or sleet may add a little more punch it will make award-winning photos.
Of course, you’ll need to protect your gear – I recommend wearing a waterproof rain cover at all times – and you’ll need to protect yourself as well. But if you are well prepared, photography in bad weather can be amazing!
Travel Photography Lighting: Final Words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about lighting for travel photos – and you’re ready to go and capture some great pictures!
So think about the weather. Think about the time of day. Think about the direction of the light.
And enjoy your travel adventures!
Now your turn :
Do you have a favorite type of light for travel photography? How do you plan to adjust your travel photo shoots in the future? Share your opinion in the comments below!