The importance of good lighting isn’t something that photographers underestimate. While post-production edits will certainly improve the overall quality of your photographs, you can only do so much if the lighting in the captured footage is — well, terrible. What you want is simple: to capture every shot in the best possible lighting and not spend extra (unnecessary) hours making lighting edits in post-production.
In a studio setting, it’s possible to cover windows with duvetyne cloth, set up a dozen or so motivated light sources, and position the lighting equipment exactly where you want it. But when you step outside of a studio setting as a travel photographer, there are so many new and different factors that make capturing well-lit photographs more challenging (i.e., weather, time of day, gear limitations, etc.).
In this guide, we’re sharing 4 lighting tips for travel photography to help you get the great-quality photographs that you and your clients are looking for.
How To Get Great Lighting Anywhere
There’s a lot of planning and coordination involved in the lead-up to a travel photography shoot, or any type of shoot for that matter. And that’s because you have limited time to capture all of the footage that you need once you pull out your camera. If you’re only able to shoot in a specific location for a day or two, you have no choice but to adapt when weather conditions are less than ideal or the gear you bring malfunctions. You simply have to make it work.
This, of course, is easier said than done. Here are a few things to keep in mind when preparing for your next shoot, wherever that might be:
Tip for travel photography#1. Have a baseline understanding of lighting (and common problems)
When you arrive on location, you have to assess the current lighting conditions and use the gear you have on hand to make real-time adjustments. Maybe you only need to use a bounce board to reduce the glare from the sun and create a softer appearance in the frame. Or maybe you need a bounce board and color gels and duvetyne cloth to get the best image quality possible.
Because of the nature of travel photography, it’s almost impossible to know exactly what the lighting conditions will be in a new location. The only thing you can truly control is how knowledgeable and prepared you are to shoot with different lighting conditions.
This is where knowing a few lighting basics can really pay off. The more that you know about color temperatures, negative fill, and your own camera’s features, the better able you’ll be able to adapt when things go wrong with the lighting in your shot.
Tip for travel photography #2. Don’t try to force a three-point lighting setup
While three-point lighting is standard in studio settings, this type of lighting setup isn’t always possible for photographers in the travel niche. (For context, three-point lighting involves a key light, a fill light, and a backlight.) In a studio, you’re able to position these different lights (and the rigs to hold them) exactly where you want. You could then block out all of the natural light coming through windows and have full control over the lighting in the shot.
But, as a travel photographer, you’re constantly moving from location to location with a select amount of gear (i.e., gear that is travel- and user-friendly). And this makes it almost impossible to bring along all of the equipment needed for traditional three-point lighting. The good news is that you can improvise with the gear you do have to achieve the three-point lighting effect.
One way that you can do this is by paying attention to the sun’s location in each shot. Think of the sun as your backlight or key light (depending on your position) and then use extra gear like bounce boards and portable lights to create a fill light effect.
If you’re really limited on gear or luggage space, you could even take a more DIY approach with this. A dark blanket or white shirt are things you might bring for comfort (or buy once you arrive at the location), but you could also use them to diffuse or reflect natural light. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you capture great-quality shots with the material and gear you have.
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Tip for travel photography #3. Improvise, Adapt and Overcome
Even in the best circumstances, complications can and do happen. A flight delay could make you late to a new location, giving you less time to capture the shots you need. A bounce board or other piece of lighting equipment could get lost in transit. And these are just two possibilities.
While it’s impossible to anticipate every single worst-case scenario imaginable, it’s important that you prepare for things to go wrong just as much as you prepare for things to go right. If you assume that your gear will always work perfectly, the weather will always be nice, and things will always go according to plan, you’ll really struggle if and when these things don’t happen the way you hoped.
By acknowledging (not ignoring) potential worst-case scenarios, you can go into any situation and be more prepared to bounce back quickly.
Tip for travel photography #4. Seek out advice from fellow travel photographers
Oftentimes, travel photographers will downsize the equipment they bring along for shoots out of necessity. Simply put, there’s only so much gear you can physically carry with you from location to location. Whether you want to build a travel photography lighting kit from the ground up or revamp your current one, it’s only natural to ask, What lighting gear is actually necessary and worth the investment?
The best resource for helping you answer this question is other travel photographers, and for good reason. Regardless of if you’ve been a travel photographer for three months or 30 years, you can save a lot of time and money by consulting fellow creators before making a new purchase. By sifting through YouTube content and Google search results, you can find out which light stands are the most stable, which portable softboxes are worth the investment, etc.
What’s even more helpful is if you find travel photographers who have worked in the same, or similar, locations. Because they’ve been in your shoes, they will be able to give you a better, more realistic idea of what to expect during a shoot. This type of product/market research is a low-stakes way for you to find out what lighting equipment and accessories should work best for you. That way, you can prepare in advance and stop worrying about lighting during your travel photography shoots.
Mackenzie is a copywriter at Soundstripe, a stock music company that provides filmmakers, creators, and advertisers with royalty-free folk music and suspense music for video.
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