Get Great Travel Photos in Crappy Light
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
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.
Shoot the Details
Whether the light is blinding and contrasty or dull and dingy, focus on the details. That blinding light is great to bring out texture and snappy colors. The opposite type of light can create an almost dreamy or abstract effect. Play around a bit and zoom in - with your feet or your lens.
With the sun high, in a city or town you can still find spots of shade with more manageable lighting. This is also a perfect time to execute portraits in a doorway or covered walkway with surprisingly lovely light bouncing in from across the way.
Embrace the Light
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Geometric modern architecture can lend well to contrasty images, as do any style 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 and really help colors pop.
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.
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.
What if it's Cloudy?
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.
Don't forget to use your lens hood when shooting with the sun near the edge of the frame, and experiment with a quality circular polarizer to manage contrast, saturation, and reflections. Using Neutral Density filters is a more advanced technique with many applications, but are worth learning about and spending a bit of money on if you're looking to take your photography to the next level.
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. Please share in the comments any of your favorite tricks for dealing with imperfect conditions.