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How to Use Natural Light in Travel Photography

We all enjoy traveling and taking countless travel photos on our trips, don’t we? Why else are you reading this article! Travel photography is one of the most popular genres of photography today – especially with the advent of social media and the ‘share everything’ culture. People want to capture and post stunning photos of their travels to influence others, motivate others and in some cases also sell travel-related things.

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But travel photography is so much more than that. Travel photos have the potential to connect us to our beautiful world. Images of places, cultures, art, and even food take us away from our mundane everyday existence. They can transport us to magical places we can only dream of visiting someday. Perhaps they remind us of a time when we too took that trip and had similar experiences? It can become a walk down memory lane.

So how can we improve our travel photos?

Many elements go into creating an amazing travel photo, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on light – specifically natural light in travel photography. This is my preferred way of using light in photos. In fact, I very rarely travel with an external flash because of the extra weight and because I don’t like the look of flash in my photos. I know many people who use flash with amazing results – and more power to them!

There are several reasons why I use natural light in travel photography:

  1. It is readily available and free
  2. It provides a range of light variations so I can get creative with my travel images
  3. It is a super-large light source, a.k.a the sun
  4. It constantly changes from day to day and season to season

In order to use effectively use natural light in travel photography, you have to become an expert at reading and understanding the light that is around you as you travel. Light is affected by many things and light affects many things too.

1. Location and light

For the most part, travel photography involves a lot of outdoor photography in natural light and primarily in the harsh mid-day sun. Of course, there are exceptions where you are indoors in places like museums and restaurants.

In such cases, you will likely be dealing with indoor lighting and may even use a flash. So before you take a single photo, look around and analyze your location. This will help you understand how you can harness the natural light around.

Consider whether you are out in the elements with only the sun as your light source. Are you in a city where the light is reflecting off highrise buildings? Perhaps you are in a museum where there is a lot of tungsten lighting, and flash photography is not allowed?

Image: Use creative framing and make the best of harsh midday sun during your travels.

Use creative framing and make the best of harsh midday sun during your travels.

How you handle you camera settings will depend on the location and light at that location. Harsh mid-day sun outdoors means lower ISO and high shutter speeds.

Cityscapes may mean mixed lighting with shade and harsh shadows, so you need to adjust your ISO and shutter speed accordingly.

Museum lighting may mean higher than normal ISOs along with really slow shutter speeds. You will have to pay attention to camera shake while hand-holding at slow shutter speeds.

2. Time of day and light

The fascinating thing about natural light is that it changes constantly. Depending on the time of day, season, or even the direction your window faces – light fluctuates minute to minute. Light first thing in the morning on a mountain top will be very different compared to the light mid-morning. Come sundown; the light changes again.

Knowing what time of day you are photographing will help you plan your gear as well as the kind of shots you will take.

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I have seen the apostles photographed many different ways, but this lighting just takes the cake! I did nothing except show up just after sunset!

Most travel photographers photograph at multiple times in the day and night. So take gear that is flexible and that you can use for all these different situations.

I travel with my Canon 5D MKIII, a 24-70mm f2.8 lens, and a small travel tripod at all times. Also, I have a few standard filters like a neutral density filter and a polarizer filter that fits in my camera bag. I have to admit, I don’t use it that often, but once in a while that waterfall during a hike calls my name.

Traveling light can help you be prepared for any situation – day or night – for amazing scenes that capture your eye.

3. Subjects and light

Believe it or not, light does impact the subject. Depending on where you are, placement of your subject, and where your light source is, the results can differ wildly. So, the first thing to do after working out the light is to understand it in relation to your subject.

In travel, I find that in most cases, my subjects are not mobile. They are buildings, monuments, and people going about their day.

So what is adjustable in these scenarios is me and my relative position to the subject and light. Don’t be afraid to move around to get the best angle and framing that will work for your situation.

Image: This minx gave me no time to adjust myself, so I just waited for the hop and took the shot...

This minx gave me no time to adjust myself, so I just waited for the hop and took the shot…I love the fact that I got him and the shadow in the same frame.

If you are indoors, try to use natural light from a window to light up the subject as far as possible. If you are outdoors, perhaps using the lens hood to block out the sun can help in reducing the harshness of light, especially if it is directly behind the subject.

Image: This is one of my favorite photos of my son during our travels. I saw the light and him almos...

This is one of my favorite photos of my son during our travels. I saw the light and him almost at the same time, and had a few seconds to take this shot….a perfect way to capture the majestic castles in Portugal!

4. Weather and light

A common misconception that photographers have, especially those starting out, is that they cannot go out and photograph in bad weather. Bad weather can include rain or overcast skies.

But in reality, overcast skies are great for taking travel photos. The clouds act as a natural diffuser, blocking out the harshness of the sun and making the light more even without harsh shadows.

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Sometimes all you need to do is show up and mother nature does the rest for you – fog, rain, clouds – they all add to the effect.

Always check the weather forecast before you go out shooting. Periods of rain, followed by clear skies, might be the best time to photograph landscapes where everything is uniformly lit.

Conclusion

I hope these tips help you in understanding the power of natural light in travel photography. Travel photography is often tiring because you are out and about all day; looking, feeling, and experiencing new things and trying to capture as much of it as you can.

By understanding how to use natural light in your photos, you can focus more on the creative side of photography to create stunning drool-worthy travel photos – much to the envy of your family and friends.

Do you have any other tips for using natural light in travel photography? Share with us in the comments below!

 

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Karthika Gupta
Karthika Gupta

is a culture, people and travel photographer, based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural, and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course, a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.