Natural Light Techniques to Make Amazing Travel Portraits

Being on the road often limits the amount of gear we want to take with us as photographers. By learning and getting more comfortable with natural light we can not only help lighten our bags, but it’s one of the most powerful ways to create dramatic images. Depending on the time of day, natural light can be used in many different ways to capture stunning travel portraits. Thinking about and using light is just as important as the subject we are shooting.

A few things about light to keep in mind when searching for your next travel portrait.

1. Quality: This refers to how harsh or soft the sunlight is and can change from one moment to the next. Direct sunlight usually produces harsh light, especially during the middle of the day. This is not ideal for portraits because shadows are short and deep and contrast will be high. However, the lower angle of the sun during and around sunrise and sunset gives shadows some length and usually brings out textures and depth to subjects.

2. Direction: The direction of light on your subject is one of the most important components to creating a strong portrait. The way light hits your subject will determine what features are highlighted, the emotional appeal and the viewer’s perception of the person. Back lighting, front lighting, side lighting and top lighting are the four main types of directional lighting.

3. Color: The color of natural light changes as the sun follows its course throughout the day. When the sun is low in the sky, the color of light is warm and gradually gets cooler as the sun gets higher. Color can set the mood of a photo, but generally people are more attracted to warmer photos (especially with portraits). Thinking about color can often enhance our travel portraits and it’s worth taking the extra effort to shoot when the sun is low in the sky.

Inside Portraits. During the day it is often best to move your subjects inside and play with directional light as the light outside is generally too harsh. Side lighting is often a powerful way to create dramatic travel portraits and can easily be done by moving your subject into a doorway or next to a window. Side lighting a subject really gives more depth to a person and can create strong emotions. Playing with the other forms of directional lighting can also pay off, but side lighting is usually the easiest with the best effect.

The young man in the photo above was sitting down in his home with nice soft light entering through a window. The light had a very soft tone and the background was eliminated to bring all the focus to the man’s face. The woman above was placed by an open door (during mid-day) allowing for directional light to create a dramatic portrait. The slightly warm color of these two photos also enhances the portraits.

Outside Portraits. One of the most common used tips we hear as photographers is “shoot during the golden hour.” There is good reason we constantly hear this, although many people don’t take the extra effort to wake up early or work when the sun is setting. During the “golden hour” the sun is low in the sky which produces a soft, diffused light and is more flattering than the harsh midday sun that so many of us are used to shooting in. This is a great type of light to take outdoor portraits in and in many countries there is more activity happening around at these hours as well.

If you are caught having to take a portrait during the middle of the day, either move your subject inside or wait for some cloud cover. Clouds covering direct sunlight can create a softer more diffused light as well making or a more flattering outdoor portrait.

The image of the women in the rice field was taken mid-day with clouds covering the harsh, direct sunlight. The photo of boys in the ocean was taken during the “golden hour” at sunset adding warmth and depth to the photo.

Jacob Maentz is a freelance travel, culture and documentary photographer currently based in the Philippines. You can visit his website here, read his articles on his blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

9 thoughts on “Natural Light Techniques to Make Amazing Travel Portraits

  1. Jan Hill

    Same old info we all know, however, when traveling its not too realistic to wait for a cloud cover, a sunrise, etc. Often there is only one opportunity to take the shot, and waiting for the perfect light is just not going to happen. Good luck with that.

    1. Avatar of jmaentzjmaentz Post author

      Hi Jan…I will have to disagree with you about only having one opportunity to take a shot. True travel photography is not about passing by an area for a single moment and taking snapshots of something. Rather it is about getting to know an area well and interacting with people deeper than surface level. When we start to do this we will begin to get better travel images. Waiting for the right light or having your subject be comfortable enough with you (so you can ask them to move locations) is how we go above and beyond simple and uninspiring travel shots. Some of this information you may have heard before, but many photographers have a hard time acting on it.

      1. The Scene Stealer

        Jan Hill… for travel photographers like us, we instinctively react to any opportunity handed to us in split second decisions where lighting is involved. Nothing is ever “the same old info” in every journey we take. Patience is often a helpful, golden rule. :-)

    2. Avatar of LightStalkingLightStalking

      It might not be realistic for a traveller who wants some snaps. It’s reality for a person who is an actual travel photographer though. Where you fall in that spectrum is up to you.

      1. Ahmed

        Gregor & Marguerite – Looking at these photos was a bit like fnippilg through the pages of an old family album of a long ago era. We know these people, but the effect you employed created a sense that they were captured in a different place and time. As we have yet to see our Kai(just two more months!), every new image of him is a gift. Thank you, Jeremy.

  2. Pingback: Have Camera, Will Travel | Weekend Reading - CaptureYour365 | CaptureYour365

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