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Lighting your travel photos

Natural light is used for most travel photography


The sky at dawn can be as spectacular as a sunset.
The sky at dawn can be as spectacular as a sunset.

A good rule of thumb for natural light photography is to take pictures only when your shadow is longer than you are tall. That way you avoid the generally-undesirable light around noontime that causes darkened eye sockets in your subjects and deep shadows under noses and chins. The midday sun also tends to make images bluish, and flattens the look of a landscape. When you stop for lunch, that is usually a good time to give your camera some time off, too.

The photographer who awakens before dawn to take pictures in the early light and who looks for photo opportunities near dusk is more likely to be rewarded with travel photos that will wow the folks who view them.

Not only is the quality of the light so often pleasing as a sunny day begins, but there are other benefits to photography as the sun is coming up.


BENEFITS OF EARLY MORNING PHOTOGRAPHY

  • The air is usually cleaner with less pollutants and dust. A scene that may normally be hazy during the day can often be captured in sharp detail in the early morning light.
  • Shadows are lengthy, giving the opportunity to add mood to a scene, definition to a building or texture to a landscape.
  • The low angle of the rising sun provides a scene with lighting that anyone still in bed just does not see. Your pictures will have that edge that makes them stand out.
  • Familiar landmarks take on a different "feel" when photographed in the light of dawn.
  • A sunrise itself can be as spectacularly beautiful as a colorful sunset.
  • You can often enter popular attractions, zoos and museums just as they are opening.
  • "Must-see" places that are usually crowded later in the day may be devoid of people in the early morning, allowing you to take pictures that are not cluttered with tourists.

Early morning sunlight striking a Costa Rican beach creates a dramatic mood that only the early riser can photograph.
Early morning sunlight striking a Costa Rican beach creates a dramatic mood that only the early riser can photograph.

As the sun descends in the west, Chinatown comes slowly to life. This street will soon be packed with people.
As the sun descends in the west, Chinatown comes slowly to life. This street will soon be packed with people.

LATE AFTERNOON & EVENING PHOTOGRAPHY

One of the main differences between early morning and evening photography is activity, which is usually much greater later in the day than it is at dawn. A street scene that contains no people as the sun comes up may be crowded and bustling twelve hours later. Because of this, twilight is often the best time to photograph cityscapes, enabling you to combine the mood of the darkening sky along with the activity of the city. Click Evening photography for tips on shooting at twilight, and here for Night photography advice.

As the sun sets, be sure to look all around you for picture opportunities. A building or landmark that is dramatically illuminated by reddish or orange light from the setting sun may make your best shot of the day.


Remind yourself when taking pictures very early in the day or towards late evening that the color of the sky changes rapidly. A particularly beautiful red or orange may only be there for three or four minutes. Don't unnecessarily delay your picture-taking, or you may lose the all-important light that can provide you with an outstanding photograph.

Not all travel pictures using natural light have to be taken when the sky is a dramatic color or when the angle of the sunlight is acute. Pictures taken until 9:30 a.m. or so in summer and up to 10:30 a.m. in winter, and starting again as early as 3:00 or 4:00 p.m until darkness should give good results.

Remember, too, that rules are made to be broken. If you see a whale breaching, don't hesitate to shoot its picture just because it's high noon and the light isn't perfect. Common sense must be used.

Sunsets on Costa Rica's Pacific coast are renowned for their vivid colors. But don't wait too long, because darkness falls quickly.
Sunsets on Costa Rica's Pacific coast are renowned for their vivid colors. But don't wait too long, because darkness falls quickly.

Although the sun was high in the sky, this jungle trail in Palawan was too dark to properly illuminate this blow-pipe hunting expedition. The picture was taken using fill flash from the camera's built-in flash.
Although the sun was high in the sky, this jungle trail in Palawan was too dark to properly illuminate this blow-pipe hunting expedition. The picture was taken using fill flash from the camera's built-in flash.

There will be times in your travels when there is inadequate natural daylight for the subject you wish to photograph, even when you are using a fast film or have increased your digital camera's sensitivity. This is when your camera's built-in flash or accessory flash should be employed to provide fill-flash to give that extra "umph" of light so your subject can be clearly seen.

Don't be reluctant to use your flash to provide extra illumination when needed, to fill in when there just isn't enough light falling on your subject, and to lighten shadow areas when there is too much contrast.


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