I organize photo tours and I am usually faced with a scenario that is hardly controllable: people are what they are, objects are where they are, and that light is where it is.
When you work in a studio, you control the variety, intensity and origin of light. But when you’re on a photo tour, you’re limited in options. You have to plan out the best time to be at the location, and the ideal subject and object placement according to the sunlight.
On a Nomad Xpedition photo tour when my customers find themselves in a field in Tuscany, the Malecon of Havana, or in tribe in Ethiopia, they can only count on their camera and little else.
They usually do not carry reflectors, or large flashes. The only advantage they can have at the time of taking a decent photograph is to understand how light works and how the camera “sees” light. While landscape photographers often repeat their photographs on several consecutive days at the same location, this is a luxury you can rarely afford in travel photography.
The impossible photo: what to do when light is not where it should be
As with almost everything in life: choose a battle you can win. Learn your camera, and how it sees light and captures photographs. You should understand that there are photographs that are absolutely impossible to achieve without the help of artificial lighting: the sooner you drop that impossible photo the sooner you will be able to envision photos you can capture.
The camera does not see things the same way we do. We want to capture what our eyes and our mind are seeing. While this seems like a logical thing to do, many times we’ll shoot a photo and find that it comes out differently than we imagined.
The heart has reasons that the mind does not understand. The camera has limitations that our brain ignores.
When faced with extreme light differences, we have to make choices because the camera can only capture so much dynamic range. When there are major differences in intensities of light we have to choose whether to expose for the highlights and clip the blacks, or expose for the shadows and blow out the highlights. For example, when we see a child with his back turned to the sun, the camera can only has enough dynamic range to either expose for the child or the sun. If you expose for the sun the child will be underexposed, and if you expose for the child the sun will be blown out.
To learn more about dynamic range and the limitations of cameras be sure to read the “What is HDR Photography and What Exactly is High Dynamic Range?” article.
We should learn to see as the camera does. The best way to learn is by understanding how metering systems work, practicing taking photos, observing the results, and adjusting accordingly.
Current digital photography technology allows us to see the results instantly: taking the photograph and comparing it immediately with the result we had in mind, allowing us to adjust until we get it perfect.
A little creativity.
Let’s come back to our impossible situation: when faced with that travel photo you know is impossible to take, don’t give up! Consider another way of capturing what you want from a different viewpoint, place objects in a creative way, and understand how they can be seen differently with the existing light.
- Move around your character. Walk around your subject and watch how the story changes according to your position and everything that surrounds it. At the churches in Lalibela (Ethiopia), during the last Nomad Xpedition photo tour, there was only one source of light and no flash allowed. I had to move in order to find the right situation, against the light.
- Learn to see. Search for subjects you were not able to see before which can contribute to the situation. Very often we are so obsessed by what we wanted to photograph that we never get around to seeing everything that is around it. Be sure to watch out for the light/shadow effect. The specific rays of light that will make the character stand out against the background.
- Adapt to circumstances. Many accidental or wrong photographs can turn into great opportunities. For example, you may get a tremendous contrast created by a halo around the character or a burnt background that adds an atmosphere of mystery to the composition. When you are faced by that photo impossible to take, I suggest you give the matter some thought. Consider the possibility that there is some other way of telling the story, from a different viewpoint or physical standpoint.
This image was taken from our workshop in Ethiopia. Find out more about them and Travel Photography with Nomad Xpedition
Technique, art and light metering
Light, along with color and composition, are the basic elements of photographic creation. When the source of light, it’s intensity, features and quality are practically uncontrollable -as happens almost always in travel photography- the challenge becomes formidable. And all this without taking into account that very often you are facing a stranger you want to photograph, in a remote country, in an unusual environment; a person who speaks a language other than yours. You are facing a stranger you want to photograph, in a remote country, in an unusual environment; a person who speaks a language other than yours.
It is obvious that photographs are taken with heart and mind. The camera is a mere instrument.When the source of light, its intensity, its features and quality are practically uncontrollable -as happens almost always in travel photography- the challenge becomes formidable.
The best way to understand light is by watching it, being always receptive to light and its surroundings. It is advisable to pay attention to how other photographers, filmmakers and painters handle light. Study their work, and analyze what exactly in the images we admire impacts us. Scrutinize light when we are in the street, see it’s effect on places and people in everyday life. A good photographer is primarily an observer, somebody who spends his life looking at light, colors and geometry. It is obvious that photographs are taken with heart and mind. The camera is a mere instrument. The problem is that without it, there is no way to produce photographs.
I am always exploring new exciting destinations. If you would like to learn more about travel photography in Ethiopia or come with me to other exotic destinations be sure to check out my workshops in www.nomadxpedition.com