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Photos may speak a thousand words, and tell rich stories, but an image contains so many technicalities the photographer composed to create the perfect setting.

And one of those is lighting.

Lighting is different for travel photography than it is for other forms of the art. For instance, when shooting in a studio, you can control the light, but when out in the field, you have to plan according to sunlight.

It’s almost impossible for a traveler to move between destinations with bulky gear like large reflectors and flashes, and sometimes you’ll have a very limited window of time before the lighting disappears.

So, with these challenges in mind, what are some basic tips for achieving great lighting?

Travel Photography Tips for Great Lighting

Why Lighting is Important in Photography

Travel photography RF

Lighting is a basic element in photography, but may well be the most important.

And in truth, lighting really is an art form.

When it comes down to it, if you don’t have light, you don’t have a photograph. In portrait photography, you can use lighting as an element to improve the features of your subject. In landscapes, lighting can create a faux of artificial surroundings, environment, or evoke different emotions and moods from the scene.

Light allows you to create a new world through your image, so it’s important to be prepared to work around it, and know how to use it to your advantage.

Studio vs Travel Photography Lighting

Travel photography and studio portrait photography are very similar when it comes to the needs and requirements of good lighting. However, there are also substantial differences in the practicalities of accessing that good lighting.

Travel photography relies on the available natural daylight or night light to enhance the subject’s execution of reflection, refraction, and the intended photo color palette.

Even if the photo shoot is set on a sunset or sunrise, the light coming from the sun will affect the whole photographic scene itself, creating colors, shades, and hues to the imagery as a whole. Even when editing the raw photos, it may still be difficult to change much.

With studio portrait photography, you have much more control over the lighting, can play with it, manipulate it, and often set the foreground with a simple photo backdrop (you can find wrinkle-resistant material backdrops at Katebackdrop Uk).

If you’re used to studio photography, it’s important to remember that you won’t have the same level of control over the light as you will when you’re traveling, and plan ahead!

Know Your Camera

Photography tripod camera RF

The first trick to lighting is knowing your camera and camera settings, and this is the same for any element of photography.

Learn how to use your white balance controls, and how it affects the temperature of the light. Learn how to adjust your ISO to brighten or darken a photo (higher ISO = brigher photo, but do watch out for making it too grainy).

Play around with different shutter speeds and understand how this changes the lighting. This is the length of time your camera shutter is open, and determines how much light comes onto the camera sensor. A fast shutter means less light; a slow shutter means more light is let in (ideal for low light situation), though does mean some motion blur.

Use your flash and find out how this changes low light settings.

Lighting can be heavily impacted by your camera settings, though you can also play around with shooting in RAW mode so you can see how much you can adjust the image in editing.

The best way to go though is to play around with your camera before you travel, and find which lighting techniques you like. If you don’t have access to the same style ladnscapes, buildings, and environments you will abroad, substitute them as best you can, even using photo backdrops.

Most cameras have these settings on automatic mode, and are incredibly intuitive for beginners. Though if you’re able to really learn how to use them, shooting in manual gives you so much more flexibility.

Pick The Right Time of Day

Santorini Greece Sunset RF

Picking the right time of day is cruicial for travel photography, as you have to work around the natural light. The ‘best’ time of day will depend on what type of images you’re after.

Sunrise and sunsets offer soft light, that is, with a softer differentiation between light and shadow. Cloudy days offer the same. Direct sunlight in the heat of the day offers hard light, where the shadows are hard and sharp.

Consider when the sun’s light is white, and when it will cast a different color temperature over your scene. Remember that the sunlight is diffused on cloudy days, and generally appears cooler.

Once night hits you’re able to take light from the cityscape, or from the stars. Floodlights are perfect for lighting up during nighttime photoshoots for equal distribution of lighting, though don’t expect to rely on this type of gear when you’re on the road.

The key to choosing the right time of day is knowing what type of shot you’re after, and what type of lighting, and researching the time of the sun, as well as the weather, in the destination you’re traveling.

Play with Shadows

Antelope Canyon RF

Interesting travel photography is all about playing with light and shadows. Shadows add depth to an image, and can create a completely different mood for a scene, changing the emotions it captures.

Illuminating your subject in creative ways allows you to stand out from every other shot, and create a completely different set of emotions from the picture.

Often times you may be able to move your subject into shadows, other times you’ll have to identify good opportunities in the moment as cloud cover affects where shadows move, and also consider if moving your own position will change the way shadows are cast over a subject or scene.

If the lighting isn’t working when you’re shooing straight in front of it (usually this means the photo will be flat), you can improve depth and contour by moving to the side to find the shadow and texture.

Lighting Equipment

Photography in New Zealand camera RF

It’s tough to travel with the type of substantial lighting equipment that studio photographers have access to; camera flashes, diffusers, strobes, and the photo backdrops we love from Katebackdrops UK!

Though one piece of equipment travel photographers can often move around with freely is a tripod.

Tripods are fantastic in low light settings where you need to use a longer shutter speed. As we mentioned above, slower shutter speeds often mean you’ll have to deal with motion blur; your setting might be perfectly still, but if your hands aren’t steady, this shaking will cause the image to blur.

Triopds can also however, be creatively used as stands to prop up your mobile phone, or a torch, which may allow you to illuminate your subject / setting and control the light a bit like you could if you were in a studio.

It’s tough to travel with powerful floodlights or photo lights, but mobile phones often have torch apps, or you can purchase quite compact flashlights which can be used in the same way. 

Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; an online magazine dedicated to opening your eyes to the wonders of the wild & natural world.

Having visited 100+ countries across all seven continents, Megan’s travels focus on cultural immersion, authentic discovery and incredible journeys. She has a strong passion for ecotourism, and aims to promote responsible travel experiences.


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