Light is Light in Travel Photography

It doesn’t matter what person, place, or thing you’re photographing, the ultimate subject of any photograph is light. Whether it occurs naturally or artificially, light has three basic characteristics: quality, quantity, and color. The quality of the light on a subject ultimately determines the effectiveness of your photograph. That’s why most writers spend lots of time taking you behind specific photo shoots describing the conditions under which the images were made. These descriptions of the aesthetic decisions that were made are designed to help you literally “see the light” so that you can benefit from our experience, but the best way to learn how to learn to see light is shoot picture and examine the success and failure of each photograph vis a vis the way you handled light in the final image.

1/125 at f7/1 and ISO 200

Light on overcast days is flat. This photograph made from the balustrade of Fuerte San Diego in Acapulco shows the kinds of sights the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau doesn’t use on their travel brochures but shows much of the life and vitality of the city. Even under dull boring light the bright colors of this wonderfully vibrant city seem alive. Image was captured with a Canon EOS 1D Mark II N.

If light is the main ingredient in a photograph, then the quality of the light becomes the driving force in producing successful images. To gain some understanding about light let’s get some scientific stuff out of the way first. As you know, the earth’s complete rotation every twenty-four hours provides us with day and night. Our planet, with its slightly tilted axis, revolves around the sun every 365 days producing not only seasons but length of day and night. That is where those long, lazy days of summer come from as well as winter’s shorter days. It’s also why the far northern latitudes receive almost total daylight in summer and near complete darkness in winter.

1/500 sec at f/3.5 at ISO 50

Knowledge of atmospheric conditions is essential to your understanding of light and the golden hour. Did you know that air pollution from industrial sites and automobiles, forest fires and volcanic activity, affect the quality of light? Particulates in the air produced by these sources diffuse and scatter light rays. The haze in a Los Angeles basin sunset produces a different quality of light than the same sunset taken on a remote beach in the Hawaiian islands. Areas near Mount St. Helens and Yellowstone National Park had their sunrises and sunsets obliterated during the eruption and massive fires respectively. Yet photographers thousands of miles away had intense colors added to their low light experiences.

This photograph of the Fine Arts Center (above) on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was made at dusk with a Minolta Dimage X point-and-shoot camera. Exposure was 1/500 sec at f/3.5 at ISO 50 is straight point and shoot mode proving you can use a simple digital camera to make low light level photographs.

Author: Joe Farace

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