Although every photographer has their own way of visual storytelling, my images constantly revolve around my fascination with natural light and how it interacts with the subject matter. There’s something really motivating about light that makes me wake up way too early and stay out too late, hike up a mountain and (accidentally) get caught in a storm, or run through a city to catch the last light of the day.
There are a variety of ways you can utilize natural light in your travel photography. Being from the Philippines, a tropical country, I can’t make suggestions that apply to everyone, but there are definitely concepts for every photographer to experiment with.
This is my favorite time of the day to take photos. As a person who yearns for remote places, I always prefer to have the chance to spend a quiet photo session in a popular viewpoint. But let’s focus on the thing that makes this time of day so special and worth the lack of sleep to many photographers — the refreshing morning light.
The air is usually thinner during the start of the day, and that lack of dust contributes to the cooler tones in the light. When the sun rises to a certain angle, a flood of soft light will fill the spaces and instantly remind you why you woke up “too” early. This works especially well with some accompanying fog (not as common in the Philippines, unless you’re in the mountains) or sea spray along coastlines with heavy waves. The result? A dream-like sequence.
Sometimes, however, we don’t always have fog or sea spray to work with. Too many clouds can diffuse the light, which can create an even lighting across the landscape and make the colors more vivid.
Light is hardly ever the same but, with some patience and a bit of serendipity, any condition can be rewarding.
Whether you’re catching a sunrise or sunset, clouds and cloud cover are essential for predicting a dramatic scene. Clouds serve as a canvas to display the colors and rays of the first or last light of the day. To get the best results, it’s important to look for high to mid-level clouds, as they will be able to catch the various hues from the light. If the clouds in the horizon are low and dense, they’re likely to block out the sun and greatly subdue the colors.
Even as a kid, I always had a strong inclination to light. I remember observing how shadows acted as doubles of people, and how mornings felt better when the light from the sunrise streamed in from the windows. Somewhere along the way, I realized how much I liked the play of shadows and silhouettes as a way to tell a story yet still provide a hint of mystery.
The trick to capturing a proper silhouette is to have an underexposed subject against a bright and semi-plain background to make the subject’s silhouette more apparent. Whether you’re shooting photos in the city or outdoors, using silhouettes is a different way to give a sense of place and scale.
Another way to shoot a unique composition is by using natural water reflections around you. To capture clear reflections, it’s best to take photos when the sun is at a low angle, which reduces the glare from the direct sunlight. Another thing to pay attention to is the stillness of the water. Simply put: Less movement allows for a crisper reflection.
There’s something comforting in seeing silver linings over a cityscape or crepuscular rays in the forest. To make the outline of the rays more visible, meter the exposure toward the light rays first, then see how far you can dial up the exposure for the other elements in the photo. Make sure to do this without blowing out your highlights too much (shooting RAW will definitely aid you to retrieve more detail in post-processing). An advantage of digital photography is that you can quickly review the photo and re-adjust for a better exposed image. But keep in mind, light rays are very fleeting, as they are highly dependent on clouds, smoke, or fog. When shooting light rays, prepare to shoot quickly.
Trying to find a different composition? Oftentimes, we just have to let our environment guide us. By finding pockets of light to photograph against darker areas, we can create minimalist compositions. It’s important to expose for the light so as to isolate them against the rest of the darker areas of the photograph.
Many people don’t see how the sky would truly appear if we took away light pollution. In my travels through some remote areas far from my country’s city lights, I’ve experienced beautiful skies with millions of stars hovering above. Friends and strangers have asked me if my night sky photos are real, and yes, they are. You don’t need advanced equipment to start taking photographs of the stars; you simply need a camera that can handle long-exposure shots, a tripod, a wide angle lens to cover as much space as possible, and a ton of practice. A lot of trial and error is involved, but the result can be incredibly rewarding.
It’s important to find the light that works best for your photographs and to draw inspiration from the scene in front of you. Not only do I find inspiration in light, but also the confidence to know that there are good days (and good light!) ahead.