Lighting for the Travel Photographer – Part 1

 Photo light sources on your holidays will be many things,
let me briefly cover the basics.

In the daytime, the sun would be a traveling photographer’s main source of illumination. At night and indoors we encounter many types of artificial lights so even a fire pit could light your shot. You have little control over these light sources so here is how I work with what there is on my vacations.

Working with a mix of lighting to get natural, evenly exposed photos takes practice and a little bit of knowhow. Notice how I mentioned natural lighting as the goal. Unless you are going with a freaky effect, your lighting needs to blend naturally and not be noticed as something set up with studio lights.

The sun has been with us forever and we humans find this type of lighting to be the look we like and natural. Aim for that look.

Observe what the sun does as it moves across the sky during the day. Note how the light gets softer and the shadows fade away on overcast days. Be aware that yo

fall leaves
soft light on a overcast day

ur eyes adapt to colour casts from sunsets and light bulbs, whereas the camera shoots colour how it actually is. Also, a dark gloomy day may be much darker, even in the middle of the day for your camera ISO than you think.

Hitting good weather for your trip is always desired and isn’t always as sunny as on those postcards. Unfortunately, sunshine can be unpredictable and could lead to wonderful lighting opportunities or endless rain. If you do get a few cloudy days, point your camera down and avoid taking the sky, it will blow out your shot. Perhaps shoot close up macro photos or head inside to a museum or historic church for the day.

I remember being in Manhattan one spring with a backup plan to see many art galleries and museums. Weather was gorgeous; I just could not go inside and visit.

What is predictable is the sunrise and sunset every day. With that you can plan to be somewhere early in the morning or evenings to benefit from the beautiful light it casts. Finding when the sun and moon rise and set can help you be ready for good photo opportunities. There are many phone apps that can give you the times.

Vancouver harbour
polarizer filter at work – Vancouver, Canada

When touring around the country on your holidays, be aware where the sun is. OK yes, it’s up there in the sky, but observe how it falls on your subject. Ideally, having the sun shine behind you off one shoulder or the other is what you want to give 3D depth and wrap around you subject. When the sun is off your side at 90 degrees from the lens it gives you cross-lighting which is more dramatic. A polarizing filter works best at this position.


Once the sun gets in front of you, there is havoc. Cheap lenses flare everywhere, people, buildings are in shadows and the contrast maxes out. Not good unless you’re going for that effect. Better to change your angle, move the subject or do the fill flash thing.

The challenge is your camera has a hard time capturing a good exposure of the wide range of light intensity , from deep shadows to bright whites.

I won’t say too much on fill flash here except a little pop of light at almost any subject 3 meters/ 10 feet or closer does wonders to help the exposure. The trick is to be subtle at half power or less. Always keep the sun as the brightest source of  light in the picture.

child on beach
sun reflection – BRIGHT

You should use a lens hood all the time. It blocks stray light coming into your lens which reduces contrast. You can use your hand, which I do with my camera phone.

With the improvement of digital camera sensor sensitivity, I am using my flash less often at night and indoors and even my tripod sometimes stays home. I like to photograph fast and loose to be able to capture more fleeting moments. The photos I am seeing shot with new DSLR are amazing. You can shoot just with the room lights at 1000+ ISO and get very acceptable results.  Be aware of all the mixture of artificial light, the colour casts they make, and the hotspots from the light sources which can be distracting.

When indoors try to lower the shutter speed (but not beyond 1/30 second without a tripod) and up the ISO so the flash, if used at all, balances with the ambient lighting. This avoids the foreground exposed with the background dropping off into darkness.

black & white, just light levels
black & white, just light levels

On your travels, it is a challenge to shoot your trip the way you see it and the way you might wish to put a travelogue story together back home. Most photographers avoid the harsh light of the midday sun, and opt for the times as the sun rises and set for more “interesting light”. But often you have no choice but to keep shooting as you document your travels and move on to new locations.

Some lighting can be improved back at your computer if shot in a RAW file format, but it’s better to get it right when you take it.

I have covered a lot of ground quickly, much can be said, more details to come…  Next time I will talk about the general physics of light. (the easy stuff), which makes working with this medium (light) less of a mystery and more of a planned outcome. I’t like a carpenter who has to be familiar with his materials before building.

sunset pool
the evening glow, ever so felting
all photos Dan Roitner

listen to the podcast above for more on lighting

About Dan Roitner

I love traveling, and have been doing slideshows and video home movies of my trips for decades. As a pro photographer, instructor and multimedia artist I hope to teach you the many aspects to develop an artist style and improve the quality of your own travelogue projects.As the owner of this site, may the resources here, help you improve your skills to create holiday memories worth sharing.

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