The ability of light to transform a subject or scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary is one of the most powerful tools at the photographer’s disposal. To be able to ‘see’ light and to understand how it translates on to the sensor and how it impacts on your compositions is the final building block in creating striking images.
The majority of travel pictures are taken with the natural light of the sun, but you’ll also use incandescent lighting indoors or at night, and flash light when the available light is too low.
There’s light and there’s the ‘right light’. The keys to the right light are its colour, quality and direction. Once you understand these elements you can predict the effect they may have on a subject. This will help you decide what time of day to visit a place. The trick to shooting in the right light is to find a viewpoint where you turn the conditions to your advantage, rather than struggle against them.
The colour, quality and direction of natural light change throughout the day. As your eye settles on a potential subject, note where the light is falling and select a viewpoint that makes the most of the natural light to enhance your subject.
There is an optimal time of day to photograph everything, so be prepared to wait or return at another time if you can’t find a viewpoint that works. However, most subjects are enhanced by the warm light created by the low angle of the sun in the one to two hours after sunrise and before sunset. At these times shadows are long and textures and shapes accentuated. If you’re serious about creating good pictures, this is the time to be shooting the key subjects on your shot list.
The colour of the light changes as the sun follows its course through the day. On a clear day when the sun is low in the sky (just after sunrise or just before sunset), the colour of the light is warm and subjects can be transformed by a yellow/orange glow. This light enhances many subjects and it’s worth making an effort to be at a predetermined place at the beginning and end of the day. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the colour of daylight becomes cooler and more ‘natural’, or neutral.
If heavy cloud is blocking the sun, the light will be even cooler and photographs can have a bluish cast. This will also happen on sunny days if your subject is in shade.
As the colour of light changes through the day, so too does its direction. Considering where light strikes your subject will improve your pictures significantly. Although the direction from which light strikes a subject is constantly changing, there are four main directions to consider: front, side, top and back. If the light is in the wrong place your options are to move the subject, move yourself, wait or return at the appropriate time of day.
When shooting directly into the sun, watch for lens flare caused by stray light entering the lens. This reduces contrast, and records as patches of light on the sensor. With DSLRs, bridge cameras and when composing with the LCD screen on compacts, you can usually see lens flare (if you’re looking for it) in the viewfinder. It can be highlighted by stopping down the lens with the depth-of-field button.
A slight change in camera angle or viewpoint will usually solve the problem. Lens hoods help prevent flare but shading the lens with your hand may also be required (don’t let your hand enter the field of view), or try placing the sun directly behind an element in the scene.
See the light with Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography.