Surprisingly, the middle of a sunny day is rarely the best time to take a photograph. If this statement comes as a surprise to you, then read this section carefully and take some time to read more on this subject to improve your understanding of the effect of light on photography.
Firstly, let's talk about natural light as we're assuming your interest in photography whilst travelling will often be outdoor scenes. Obviously, we cannot change the weather, but any kind of weather is suitable for picture taking and the worst weather may actually suit your subject best. The trick is to compose your picture by understanding the weather, learning to read the natural lighting, and the position of light in your photo. One of the greatest advantages of digital cameras is the ability to preview the photo you've just taken so you always have a chance to see if you've got something wrong before leaving the scene. Good photographers often take various photos of the same scene, each time changing the viewpoint or settings to alter the use of light. Consider the following light issues every time you aim your camera:
- Bright sunny days bring out the colours of a scene to the eye but to the unskilled photographer can create washed out photographs, and also great areas of contrast with harsh dark shadows, and extremely bright areas. Very high sunlight will create shadows on people's faces or may cause your subject to squint. A flash, when used as the only source of light, will also create hard light with bright subjects against dark backgrounds. In this sort of situation the quality of light affects the mood of the picture so use the dark shadows as design elements or soften them with fill flash.
- Overcast days are often preferable for portraits (photos of people), as there are no harsh shadows under eyes, nose and chins. Flowers are also best photographed on cloudy days. The soft light of a cloudy day is actually very friendly to novice photographers and to semi-automatic cameras, with few shadows to confuse your auto-settings. Of course with the lower light conditions, slower shutter speeds will be required, so wind motion can become a problem.
One of the biggest issues for travellers is timing. All light has colour, and early or late in the day, sunlight has a soft warm golden glow, sometimes emphasised by dusty atmospheric conditions. Since the Australian outback is best depicted by earthy red glows, this warm glow tends to show off most natural forms to their best advantage and you'll be rewarded with quality photographs if you take the time to be on location in the early or late hours. Obviously, this may affect your travel plans so wise photographers get involved in the travel plan. Why not select some photographic highlights that you know will be best achieved in the early/late hours and work out your daily driving plan to ensure you do not upset the rest of your travelling party by wanting to stay on to get "the perfect photo", when everyone else is wanting to push on to get a hot shower at the caravan park just 50km away. Taking advantage of “first light” – even before dawn, and the few moments around sunrise provides beautiful light conditions – this can mean getting up before anyone else is up, but will make fitting your photography passion into the travel schedule easier.
When it comes to the direction of light, there are 360 degrees of possibilities. When the light isn't working for you, change it by moving your position or your subject's position, or the light itself, if possible. Sometimes waiting for the right light is an option, or noting how the light might be at some other time of day, and then coming back at that time for the photography.
The reason everyone positions people in outdoor photos to look into the sunlight is to remove shadows from faces but this is just a method of moving the subject to achieve front lighting. Learning how to use flash will improve your control of front lighting and with practise you'll use it in many situations including daytime photography, and especially in portrait photography. Other techniques including putting the subject near a source of reflected light.
Side lighting is perfect when you want to emphasize texture, dimension, shapes or patterns. Side lighting sculpts a subject, revealing contours and textures. Use side lighting to exaggerate dimension an depth. At a 45-degree angle to the side, its one the most flattering types of portrait lighting.
Light that comes from behind your subject is by far the most difficult to use. Taking a photograph that is backlit means that direct light is reaching your camera's light sensor so any auto program will reduce the aperture, resulting in less light reaching the foreground of your picture. If you have placed a person in the foreground, such as a person in front of the sunset scene, the result will be a silhouette of their body outline. If that's not your intent, then you'll need to provide some sort of front or side lighting. Many digital cameras will have a backlight compensation button (or learn to use exposure compensation) that will help in this situation to properly exposure your subject, but you may end up washing out the background and lose the soft sunlight glow. Using fill flash in this situation is usually the ideal - as this will give your portrait a glowing "halo" of rim light and prevents the silhouette effect.