Natural light is a valuable “tool” of every travel and documentary photographer. Most of us don’t really like shooting in the harsh midday sun, but sometimes there’s no other choice, especially when your time at a location is limited. In this video, photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich shares tips that will help you get the best of any lighting conditions. He will guide you through all weather conditions and parts of the day and teach you how to get the best out of the light they give you.
Most of us have learned that the best time for shooting in natural light is during golden hour. But, when you’re traveling, you often don’t get to choose when you’ll be shooting. For example, I often go to short field-trips, and my shooting schedule depends on the bus timetable. So I always try to get the most of any light I have that day.
Mitchell talks about these situations; when you have to work with what you have and can’t wait for the golden hour. So, why not make the best even out of the harsh midday sun? After all, this is much less limiting, and if you know how to use every light – there’s no “bad light.”
As Mitchell puts it, photos can tell stories and convey the mood of the moment when you pressed the shutter. The golden light makes them beautiful and appealing to the eye – but a photo “doesn’t have to be beautiful to be powerful.”
Even though golden light can make the photos look more appealing, sometimes the harsh midday light will help you tell the story better. For example, when shooting photos of a life in a desert, Mitchell consciously made the decision to shoot in the midday sun. The light during that part of the day added to the sense of hardship he wanted to convey in his photos.
Mitchell says there is not “good” or “bad” light. For travel and documentary photographers, it’s much more useful to see the natural light as a tool that helps them communicate visually. Choosing the right type of light will do a lot for the story you want to tell.
Adapting to natural light
What happens if you have an idea and the light you need to actualize it: but the weather doesn’t cooperate? This also happens a lot when you travel; it’s not something you can affect. Well, in the cases like this, you need to adapt. If you need sunny weather and nature doesn’t listen – then look for situations that don’t need to be enhanced by light, and scenes that tell your story regardless of the light.
Instead of feeling frustrated, try switching switch to capturing the mood and the surroundings as they are. You can also shoot indoors, but this video is about natural lighting outdoors, so we’ll stick with that.
Types of natural light
Mitchell distinguishes five types of natural light. These types of light affect how we see, what we feel, and the meaning we attach to particular photos.
1. The golden hour light
The golden hour light around sunrise and sunset makes almost everything look beautiful. The colors are vivid and there’s a golden tint. It conveys a sense of calmness and happiness and a generally positive feel. It’s also great for silhouettes.
2. Harsh light around the midday hours
The harsh light is useful when you want to show the “real, raw, gritty and unfiltered reality.” Depending on your position in relation to the sun, some textures can look prominent under this light. If you want to show wrinkles and skin imperfections, this is the light you should choose.
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All along the way to the remote Punta Gallinas in the land of Wayu there are “tolls” set up by the locals who live close to the road. A “toll" is generally just rope hung between two trees and it’s operated by children. For them it’s part game, part way to get sweets or coins from passersby. The thing is, there are so many of these “tolls" that the whole idea becomes ridiculous. Sometimes there are three tolls within the distance of 15 meters. I found out that if you show no intention of stopping, the children generally lower the rope and run off. However, the more enterprising locals don’t use ropes. They use chains or cables, for which of course, one must stop or risk damaging the windscreen. The elderly women in particular must have learned that many don’t stop for the "rope tolls”, so, you gotta pay for them to lower the cable/chain, or… find another way. This woman of one of the more enterprising grandmothers and here she’s coming to collect her “toll money”. #Colombia #laguajira #tolls #travel #wayu #journey #adventure #portrait #Panasonic #Lumix #GX80 #15mm
3. Light on overcast days
This type of light is neutral and flat and doesn’t add any tint or “punch” to the images. In the conditions like this, Mitchell suggests including the weather into the shots, almost like it’s a character. Also, you can photograph the subjects that are interesting in themselves, some sort action happening, or sadness/melancholy.
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Shamhal (the man) and Elvan are corn farmers. They’re Azeris living in Georgia. They’ve lived in the same village all their lives. Back in the day, it was all USSR. Shamhal is 85. He spoke to me about the difficult life after WWII. He said that there were so few people around. Many were sent to fight and to work on the front. He has fond memories of the collective farming system but emphasizes that life is much easier now. He’s happy. His son helps him and his grandchildren are working in Azerbaijan. Meeting people like Shamhal is always wonderful. A humble, hard-working man. He smiled every few minutes. “Wait, wait. There are almost none left, but… here.” He collected a few cobs and gave them to me. People like Shamhal make me want to be a more appreciative and better person. #Georgia #Lumix #traveltheworld #instatravel #travelling #arountheworld #traveler #travelstories #travelgram #travelphotography #letsgosomewhere #travelmemories #portrait #travelportrait
The light during twilight can cast bluish, or even purple, orange or pink tint before the sun sets. During the early twilight, the sky can get very dramatic, and it can be a part of your composition. When the blue hour comes, you can use the light to create a sense of mystery and mystique. The photos you create when the light is bluish can be suggestive and poetic rather than literal.
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Most beautiful camping spot ever? The road in the photo and video I posted the last couple of days led me to here. The little building is a shepherd's shelter and the little white boxy thing – that's my Landrover. I've camped at a few nice places, but this one might be the most beautiful one I've ever camped at. There were virtually 360º views of snow peaks. #Saqartvelo #DJI #Georgia #Svaneti #Landrover #Landrover_Defender #traveltheworld #instatravel #travelling #arountheworld #traveler #travelgram #travelphotography #videom #adventure #view #tinypeopleinbigplaces #letsgosomewhere
5. Lighting conditions in the fog
The light during foggy days creates atmospheric, strong sense of mood. In a thick fog, the light is very soft and everything is flat and greyish, similar to an overcast day. But the difference is that, when you move away from the subject, you lose details. This isn’t a bad thing, but it gives you new creative opportunities. You can create evocative, poetic, minimalistic, suggestive photos. Make fog the feature of the photo, almost like it’s your subject.
There’s also light on foggy days when the sun comes out. It’s very appealing and magical, and it could make you want to photograph anything. This brings Mitchell to another way of approaching natural light: using it as the driving force behind the photo.
Natural light as the driving force behind the photo
Sometimes the light is so striking, that it can become a character in its own right. For Mitchell, a foggy day is a time when he feels like he could shoot anything and include the weather in the shots. He also likes when the light interacts with other elements like smoke, dust or water. He advises that you use any lighting situation that inspires you: just go out there and shoot, experiment and enjoy.
In addition to the video, Mitchell also shares a free PDF guide to natural light, and you can download it here. I hope this video has inspired you not to worry so much about “getting the good light” when you travel. If you know how to use it and you can adapt, every light will be good.