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6 Types of Natural Light for Powerful Travel Photos

Light is the essential element and instrument in photography. For a travel photographer, light stalking is one of the main occupations on the road to powerful image. Learning to see, distinguishing and using different types of light is therefore crucial for a photographer. One can have full control over the light by setting it up in the studio. Travel photographers, however, use natural outdoor light. Let's look at examples of different types of natural light and some suggestions on how to deal with each one.

There are many ways to distinguish the type of light and its qualities. Natural light usually comes from the sun and can be direct or indirect. As the name states, direct light has a particular direction and can come from behind the subject, from above, the side or the front. On the other hand, indirect light is much softer than direct light and can be reflected or dispersed. Let's have a closer look at each one.

Front light

Front lighting is probably the easiest to understand, but it has its peculiarities. In this case, the light source is located in front of the subject and therefore behind or just above the photographer. Since the light spreads evenly, the resulting photo may look somewhat "flat" or "two-dimensional", lacking depth and maybe even some interest. If you are photographing a person, direct front light will make them squint, which is less than ideal for a portrait.

How to deal with front light?

Even if this is probably the least interesting type of light, it is possible to find ways to deal with it when you are facing a colourful scene, or something with a lot of contrasts. Front light will make the vibrant colours pop in the photo and the various contrasts will be striking. In the example below, the contrast between the dark sea and the splashing waves against a salt rock made it interesting enough despite the front light. 

Light 1

Back light

When we say that the subject is backlit, we mean that the light source is located behind the subject and therefore directly in front of the camera. In other words, the subject is in between the light source and the camera. This type of light is often very interesting to play with: when underexposed, it can create silhouettes and shadows, while if overexposed, the background will disappear and the subject will be "bathing" in the light.  Back light is perfect to emphasize transparent or semi-transparent subjects, such as street lamps, glass bottles, steam, or water such as in the photo of the fountain below. 

Light 5

How to deal with back light?

To make the most of this situation, use exposure compensation for the desired effect: overexpose slightly (use the (+) on your exposure compensation button) to add more light to your subject, or underexpose a little (use the (-) on your exposure compensation button) for stronger contrast and to create silhouettes such as the example below. 

Light 14

Light from above

The sun creates a strong light source from above during the middle of the day. Just like front light, this is not the best or easiest situation to work with. This should be avoided as much as possible, however, it is not always feasible while traveling on a tight schedule. Sunlight from above is quite harsh, creates strong and short shadows with high contrasts. The tones in the image get washed off easily, making everything look quite flat. 

Light 9

How to deal with the light from above?

If you can, note the location and come back at a different time of the day, either early in the morning of later in the afternoon depending on the orientation of the sun, when the light is more pleasant, warmer and interesting to work with. If this is not possible, play with the exposure compensation to create silhouettes and reflections such as the image below.

Light 12

Side light

Side light is probably the photographer's best friend and favourite type of light: it is usually soft and makes everything look three-dimensional rather than flat. It can easily emphasize textures or shapes and it makes the image "pop". Side light happens early in the morning and late afternoon when the sun is low. This is the best time to get soft, warm light that makes virtually any subject look magic.

How to deal with side light?

Notice the long shadows, walk around your subject, take a few photos from different angles. When the side light is nice and soft, it is easy to get inspired and you will be rewarded with good photos. 

Light 4

Dispersed light

On cloudy days, the light changes dramatically. The sun is no longer shining bright above our heads and the shadows seem to disappear. Don't be fooled by this seemingly boring light and don't put your camera down.  The light itself will be much softer with the clouds acting as a giant natural reflector, however it still has its direction and should not be neglected. Cloudy days are also great for portraits: soft light is more flattering than harsh light, and no one will have to squint or wear sunglasses!

How to deal with dispersed light?

If the clouds are light, simply enjoy the best light you can have and observe the position of the sun. If the day is quite gloomy or it is about to rain, the colours may look dull and you may opt to convert your images into black-and-white for stronger contrast.

Light 3

Reflected light

Another type of indirect light is the light that is reflected from another surface. It will be stronger on a sunny day and softer when it's overcast. Reflected light will always be softer than direct light, making it it perfect for portraits for example. Strong sunlight can easily bounce off any bright or reflective surface: a light-coloured wall, ground or pavement, glass and steel surfaces and of course photographer's reflectors.

How to use reflected light?

Reflected light is the saviour in the middle of the day, when the sun is strong and harsh. Be attentive to any reflections and observe how the light bounces around for interesting effects such as the examples below around the Louvre in Paris. Light 15

Learning to see and distinguish the different types of natural light will undoubtedly help you become a better photographer. Experiment with the various lights and share your photos with us!

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.

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