Get Great Travel Photos in Lousy Light

June 18, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

You're heading off on your big vacation, and you've dutifully read the endless articles and tip lists telling you to shoot early morning or late afternoon into the evening. The light is prettier, softer, easier to manage - your photos will by default be better just for the timing. But what do you do when you can't shoot during those ideal times? If you're traveling with companions, general consideration may preclude 5AM wake-up calls and scheduling each day around the sun's angle. Don't let the bulk of the day go completely to photographic waste. You can achieve great shots in those "awful" midday hours, often filled with harsh light and extreme contrast - you just need the right approach.

It's in the Details

Rather than trying to capture the entire scene, look for details. Isolating smaller details makes it easier to leverage that contrasty light, bringing out textures and shapes.

Leone nella Piazza del Popolo Rome ItalyLeone nella PiazzaThe harsh midday sun made for challenging conditions. I chose to use the hard, angled light to highlight the splashing water, as well as the texture & form in the stone of the lion.

Find Shade

With the sun high, in a city or town you can still find spots of shade with more manageable lighting. This can be a perfect time to execute portraits in a doorway or covered walkway with surprisingly lovely light bouncing in from across the way.

This was shot smack in the middle of a sunny day, just inside the doorway. The bright sun was reflecting from buildings across the way and the concrete parking lot, resulting in flattering light on the gallery owner.

Embrace the Light

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Modern buildings lend well to contrasty images, as do any made with textured material or detailed relief work. In addition to enhancing textures and forms, hard light can also enhanced perceived sharpness of the overall image.

Gallipoli, Italy window and basketsThis scene in Gallipoli actually is perfect for harsh midday light. There is so much texture brought out: on the wall, baskets, and window screen plus the awesome shadows cast by the fishing baskets. The golden color of the wall really pops too.

Shoot with Side or Back Light

Go for drama! Get the sun in the edge of the frame, or aim for a silhouette. With sharply angled light, your scene can gain depth and drama rather than being lit directly from the front. Silhouettes can add mystery or simplify the story you're trying to tell.

Martires de CubaMartires de CubaShot at the height of summer in Key West, the extreme sidelighting required careful exposure and a bit of post-processing for ideal contrast and color.

Think in Black & White

While going black & white won't solve every problem of difficult lighting, you can achieve great drama or simplify the scene by removing the color element. Most cameras will allow you to shoot directly in B&W, which can be a great aid if you are having trouble "seeing" without the influence of all that color. Just remember that if you shoot B&W JPEG, you can't make it color later.

Caracalla's Baths in Rome, with a polarizer to increase sky contrast in conjunction with hard light to enhance the bricks. This image becomes about shape, shadow, and contrast with color removed.

What if it's Cloudy?

Let's face it, not every day will be sunny and near-cloudless. Scattered heavy clouds can actually make for some pretty nice light midday, turning the whole sky into a giant softbox and softening shadows. On the other hand, really bad weather will leave you with a muddy, gray day with not even pretty sunrises or sunsets to save you. Fog or mist can lead to dreamy scenes, from streets disappearing in the distance to watercolor landscapes. This is also a perfect time for playing with long exposures. "Empty" an otherwise busy street, or allow water, clouds, or foliage to blur.

Rusty remnants of a pier off the beach in Positano on the Amalfi CoastTempoA heavily overcast day allowed a long exposure with soft contrast, simplifying the image.


Don't forget to use your lens hood when shooting with the sun near the edge of the frame, and experiment with a quallity circular polarizer to manage contrast, saturation, and reflections. Keep scrolling for more "lousy" light examples - it's all about finding a way to work with what you have and think outside the traditional box of ideal conditions. After all, fate often won't cooperate anyway.

Towering EmergenceTowering EmergenceThe Roman Colosseum framed by greenery against a bright May sky. Castello di LecceCastello di Lecce Contra il VentoContra il VentoStatue on bridge in Rome near Castel Sant Angelo Stone Mountain PrecipiceStone Mountain PrecipiceApproaching the sharp down-slope at the top of Stone Mountain in Atlanta, GA under a dramatic sky. Sunlit Palm FrondSunlit Palm Frond Key West Cemetery 6Key West Cemetery 6 Key West Cemetery 2Key West Cemetery 2A tiny cherub sits watch over a grave in Key West's cemetery. Gallipoli SunGallipoli SunCozy balcony in the warm Italian sun in Gallipoli, Italy. Palatine PoppyPalatine Poppydetail of a poppy flower at the forum complex in Rome. Argento ed AzzuroArgento ed AzzuroGallipoli, Italy. Puglia region. Otranto SprayOtranto SpraySpray against the rocks in Otranto, Italy. Available on canvas or archival art papers in 12x12 to 20x20. Villa Adriana 1Villa Adriana 1View of the ruins within the Villa Adriana/Hadrian's Villa complex outside of Rome, Italy. Another in a long list of Italy's UNESCO World Heritage sites.




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