Travel Photography: Light

Morning Fog Tweed Valley, Australia


Once you’re comfortable with the technical aspects of exposure and the various components of composition, you need to become familiar with the different aspects of lighting.

Light holds the key to the next level of creativity and personal expression.

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 when the available light is too tow. There’s light and there’s the ‘right light’. The key elements to the ‘right light’ are its color, quality, and direction. Once you understand these elements and the way they interrelate 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 color 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 color 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 color of daylight becomes cooler, and more ‘natural’. 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.


Photographed within minutes of each other, one man was in direct sunlight, the other in indirect light. Direct sunlight has stronger, more natural colors, but the shadows on the face are harsh. The indirect light provides better lighting for a portrait, but the color of the light has changed. There is excessive bluishness (common in open shade).


The quality of natural light is determined by the position of the sun and the weather. Light quality can vary from one moment to the next. Direct sunlight becomes indirect as a cloud blocks its rays. A small break in heavy cloud just above the horizon can transform a scene from ordinary to spectacular in a split second.




A mid-afternoon downpour produces a very soft light. Contrast is reduced and colors are muted. The 1/30 second shutter speed has recorded the rain as streaks and has softened the landscape even further. Rain streaks are much more noticeable against a dark background.

Direct sunlight produces a harsh light, especially noticeable in the middle of the day. Shadows are short and deep and contrast will be high. Colors are strong and accurate, but can also be washed out by the intense, overhead sunlight.

In the two to three hours after sunrise and before sunset, direct sunlight is not quite as harsh and colors are still reproduced naturally. The lower angle of the sun gives shadows with some length, brings out textures and adds interest and depth to subjects.

At sunrise and sunset the very low angle of direct sunlight produces long shadows, and texture and shape become accentuated. Combined with the warm color this is an attractive and often dramatic light.

Indirect sunlight produces a softer light. On overcast but bright days, or when the sun disappears behind a cloud, shadows become faint and contrast is reduced making it possible to record details in all parts of the composition. Colors are saturated and rich especially in subjects close to the camera. Rain, mist and fog produce an even softer fight. Shadows disappear, contrast is very low and colors are muted. If the cloud cover is heavy and light levels are low the light will be dull and flat.



Planting Rice
Lombok, Indonesia


Even though the light in the middle of the day isn’t always ideal it’s often a case of now or never for the traveler. Except for when the sun is absolutely directly above your subject there will be a better side to photograph your subject from. Slight underexposure and a polarizing filter help retain the colors in the scene

As the color of light changes through the day, so too does the direction of light. 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 striking your subject in the wrong place you have several options: move the subject, move yourself, wait or return at the appropriate time of day.

Back lighting  This occurs when the sun is directly in front of your camera. Silhouettes at sunset are a classic use of back light. Back light has to be carefully managed or your subjects will lack color and detail.

Front lighting This gives clear, colorful pictures. However, shadows fall directly behind the subject causing photographs to look flat and lack depth.

Side lighting This brings out textures and emphasizes shapes, introducing a third dimension to photographs.

Top lighting  This occurs in the middle of the day and is rarely flattering, giving most subjects a flat, uninteresting look.


Flash provides a convenient light source that will let you make a photograph even in the darkest places without having to change films or use a tripod. Most modern compact cameras and SLRs have built-in flash units. Otherwise a separate flash unit can be mounted on the camera via the hot-shoe or off the camera on a flash bracket with a flash lead.

Pictures taken with flash from built-in or hot shoe mounted units are usually unexceptional. The direct, frontal light is harsh and rarely flattering. It creates hard shadows on surfaces behind the subject and backgrounds are often too dark. To improve the look of your flash photographs get to know the features of your particular unit. If you have a SLR, explore the possibilities of off-camera flash, bounce flash and fill flash.



Medicine Man
Banjarmasin, Kalimantan,


I prefer to use available light whenever possible, rather than a flash. However, for those occasions when I happen upon a man who’s just eaten razor blades and its standing on his wife’s stomach (and she’s lying on a bed of rusty nails in a very dark room, featuring a stuffed wild cat of some sort)… well, I can be talked into using my flash.

Built in flashes and compact accessory units have limited power output. Subjects generally need to be between 1m and 5m from the camera for the flash to be effective (check your camera manual for exact capabilities). Photographing an event in a big stadium at night with flash is pointless. If your picture comes out it will be because there was plenty of available light on the subject, not because your flash fired. Your flash will only have enough power to light up the four or five rows in front of you. Faster film will extend the effective range of your flash or let you work with smaller f-stops for greater depth of field.


If you use a SLR on manual, or a non-dedicated flash unit, you must select a shutter speed that synchronizes with the firing of the flash. This has traditionally been a maximum of 1/60 second. In recent times sync speeds have increased, but check your manual. If you select a shutter speed above the sync speed, part of your picture will be black. It’s OK to select speeds slower than the designated maximum sync speed.


If you use direct, on camera flash when photographing people your portraits may suffer from red-eye. The flash is in line with the lens and the light reflects off the blood vessels of the retina straight back onto the film. Red eye can be minimized with the following techniques:

  • Ask your subject not to look directly into the lens.
  • Increase the light in the room, which causes the pupil to close down.
  • Move the flash away from the camera lens.
  • Bounce the flash off a reflective surface.

Many modern cameras have a red-eye reduction feature, which triggers a short burst of pre-flashes just before the shutter opens. This causes the pupil to close down. It’s a sophisticated way of increasing the light in the room.


Off-camera flash gives more pleasing results because the light is moved to the side and above the lens so that it’s angled towards the subject. Red eye is eliminated and shadows fall below the subject (rather than directly behind). A sync lead connects the flash to the camera, and although you can hold the flash and shoot one-handed, mounting the flash on a flash bracket makes life a lot easier. This will limit the angle you can use, but you’ll soon be able to anticipate how the flash will light your subject.


Even more pleasing results are possible if bounce flash techniques are employed. You need a flash unit with a tilt head or the ability to mount the flash off-camera on a flash bracket. The flash is aimed at the ceiling, wall or flash reflector, which bounces the light back at the subject. The light is indirect and soft and shadows are minimized. Walls and ceilings come in varying heights and colors and this can present some problems. If ceilings are too high you won’t be able to bounce the flash. Dark colored walls and ceilings will absorb too much of the light. The surface you bounce off should be white–colored surfaces will give your picture a color cast.

To overcome all these problems a bounce flash kit is worth the small investment. By using a flash with tilt head, the flash is bounced off a reflector attached to the flash head. The reflectors are interchangeable and available in different colors. A gold reflector will bounce warm light and a silver reflector will bounce cooler light,


Fill flash is a technique used to add light to shadow areas containing important detail that would otherwise be rendered too dark. The flash provides a secondary source of light to complement the main light source, usually the sun. If executed well, the flash will be unnoticeable, but if it overpowers the main light the photo will look unnatural

Fill flash techniques have long been the domain of professional photographers. Now most compact cameras, SLRs with built-in flash units, and advanced SLRs with dedicated flash systems, have a fill flash feature. Some activate automatically, others require you to decide that fill flash is needed. Use the fill flash feature when:

  • Your subject is in shade, but the background is bright.
  • Your subject is back lit and you don’t want to record it as a silhouette.
  • The light on your subject is uneven, such as when a person’s hat casts a shadow over their eyes but their nose and mouth are in full sun.

Remember your subject must still be within the effective range of your particular flash unit.

If you’re using a less sophisticated SLR and accessory flash, you’ll need to override the flash so that it delivers less light than it would if it was the main light source (usually one to 1 1/2 stops less). Set your exposure for the brightest part of your composition, say 1/60 second at f8, but set the flash on f5.6 or f4.5. Alternatively, you can change the ISO setting on the flash unit, from say 100 to 200. Both techniques trick the flash into thinking that the scene needs less light than it actually does. Output is reduced, which prevents it from becoming the main light source, but still gives enough light to fill in the dark areas.



Festival, Bangkok, Thailand


Lit only by candlelight the daylight film reproduces the light as strong orange color.

When taking photographs indoors or after dark we often have to rely on incandescent, or artificial, light sources such as electric light bulbs, floodlights or candles. The concepts of color, quality and direction discussed earlier are just as relevant to incandescent light–it’s just that the light source is different.

When you find yourself in dimly lit locations don’t assume you need flash. As a rule: if you can see it, you can photograph it. By using a tripod and a fine grain film you will be able to shoot in low light situations. Alternatively, fast film will allow you to hand-hold a camera in very low light.

There are good reasons for being prepared to work with the available light. Most importantly, you’ll be able to take pictures in many places where the use of flash is impractical (floodlit buildings, displays behind glass), prohibited (churches, museums, concerts), intrusive (religious ceremonies) or would simply draw unwanted attention to your presence.


Jade Market, Hong Kong


A mix of incandescent lights create a pleasing color that retains the ambience of the place.

If you use daylight film in incandescent light your photos will have a yellow-orange cast. The strength of the cast varies depending on the actual light source. The cast can be neutralized by using film (tungsten) balanced for incandescent light, or light balancing filters 82A, 82B or 82C. More often than not, the warm colors are appealing and help capture the mood of the location.


Richard I’Anson’s work had been published in magazines including “Wanderlust,” “Escape,” “Habitat,” and “Esquire.” His photographs also appear in more that 150 Lonely Planet titles, including Chasing Rickshaws and Sacred India, and in books published by Penguin, Random House, Times and Reader’s Digest. Travel Photography is published by Lonely Planet Publication, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. This excerpt has been authorized by the publisher. It may not be reproduced in any format without expressed written permission from Lonely Planet. It is reproduced here for your online enjoyment only.

Excerpted from Travel Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures
(Reprinted with permission)

by Richard I’Anson

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