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3 Ways to Take Better Photos in Bad Lighting

Travel photography is unique in many ways. One aspect that can be challenging for many is learning how to manage difficult lighting situations. When traveling, you get what you get. With limited time, and likely a desire to enjoy other aspects of travel, sometimes you get stuck with some crappy lighting conditions.

Before heading off on your big vacation, you’ve probably dutifully read the endless articles and tip lists telling you early morning or late afternoon into the evening are the best times for travel photography. The light is prettier, softer, easier to manage – your photos will by default be better just for the timing. 

Example showing how to take better photos in bad lighting - downtown denver modern architecture in bright midday light and clear blue sky

A cloudless sky combined with harsh midday light – hardly ideal lighting conditions for travel photography. I used it to my advantage to create a minimalist photo showcasing the modern architecture and punchy blue of the sky.

Or maybe the weather has turned on you – blah skies, rainy days, or even cloudless days can make taking jaw-dropping travel photos feel impossible. No matter the situation, it’s absolutely possible to take better photos in bad lighting.

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Improve Your Travel Photography in Any Lighting Situation

If you’re traveling with companions, general consideration may preclude 5AM wake-up calls and scheduling each day around the sun’s angle. Sometimes you just want to shoot when it’s convenient, rather than build the day around photography. 

Of course, even if you are willing to get up at absurd hours or stalk sunsets, weather may just not cooperate. This can lead to flat, boring lighting or (sometimes even worse) blinding cloudless sunny skies.

Don’t let the the day go to photographic waste. You can easily capture great travel photos images during non-ideal hours, whether doused in harsh contrasty light or the flat dullness of an overcast day. You just need the right approach!

Take Better Photos in Bad Lighting: Mindset Matters

While having the right travel travel photography accessories does matter, technique and mindset is critical. Conquering difficult lighting situations is about utilizing technical and creative knowledge. In fact, it is a great time to flex your creativity and document a destination with a totally different vibe than you would get in ideal conditions.

Knowing how to approach not-so-ideal lighting conditions, rather than using niche accessories or editing pre-sets, will serve your photography journey time and again. If your goal is to take better photos in bad lighting, knowledge will be paramount.

Take Better Photos in Gloomy Lighting

Few things are more disappointing than checking the weather (via an app or just looking out a window) to see dull skies or rain drizzling down. Even if it’s a thunderstorm (not the time to go tip-toeing through the tulips), many of these techniques can be used inside or under cover.

Long exposure black and white photos of a waterfall and rocks
  • When the rain is really coming down, photographing through windows can make for moody or even abstract scenes that capture your travel destination in a unique way
  • Fog and mist lend well to dreamy landscapes or cityscapes, with subtle colors and softened forms. This also works well in black and white too.
  • If you have a tripod handy and can set up where you and your camera are out of the way (of rain or traffic), it becomes easy to take long exposures that blur moving elements. You can even “empty” a scene with a long enough exposure, creating an eerie or post-apocalyptic scene
  • In landscape photography, overcast lighting can actually be preferable. For scenes with water, the light will be soft and gradual – meaning it gets that soft, silky look with exposures of a few seconds or more. There won’t be bright spots or harsh reflections to deal with, which makes that type of photo much harder to achieve in bright sunlight

A gloomy sky means silky waterfalls and streams, like this one captured in north Georgia’s Cloudland Canyon. >>>

Photography accessories helpful in this lighting situation include a tripod, a waterproof camera cover, and high quality Neutral Density filter (ND) and high quality Circular Polarizer (CPL).

Take Better Photos in Harsh Lighting

On the opposite end of the spectrum is harsh lighting. This can be particularly problematic in summertime, when the days are longer. Sunrise can come as early as 5AM in many locations (talk about an early start!), and harsh midday lighting lasts longer. There are several ways around this though, and none require special equipment.

  • Use the high contrast and harsh shadows to your advantage: utilize these for modern or minimalistic takes. Shadows and color can be used to create leading lines or strengthen composition
  • Look for texture: high contrast lighting coming in at an angle can be used to highlight textures – natural or man made.
  • Find shade: finding or placing a subject in the shade is a great way to work around harsh lighting. Many photographers refer to “bright” or “open shade” – this is where the surrounding environment reflects light into a shaded area. This can be very flattering for portraits. One caveat is they might find themselves squinting, so try different angles or have them close their eyes and relax their face for a moment before you take a few shots.
  • Look IN to shady areas – under overhangs, in narrow alleys, slot canyons, just inside doorways – the interior “scene” will sometimes have a glow to it that is quite special!
  • Hard lighting can make for great black and white opportunities: colors can get washed out but take that away and you get graphic, dramatic photos.
  • Zoom in – harsh lighting can make shooting wide less than ideal. Since this light results in a lot of harsh shadows and highlights, choose a small section of an overall scene to focus on.
Approaching Capri on a bright sunny day. Blue sky, puffy white clouds, reflection on the water and a white ferry boat in the foreground.

Blue and white are dominant and create balance in this bright morning image on the way to Capri. Shot in 2008 with a Canon 40D off the Amalfi Coast, Italy.

A CPL intensifies colors and manages reflections. While it won’t work with metallic reflections (the sun reflecting off a chrome bumper) or if you’re shooting towards the sun, it will be the most useful to have on hand. For smaller subjects (food, a flower, a person in shade), a small light reflector or diffuser can be quite powerful. It can be used to fill in shadows or soften the light, sometimes adding an almost studio-lighting effect.

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Take Better Photos Shooting into the Sun

When your desired subject has the sun behind or nearly behind it that is backlighting. Shooting towards the light is also called contre-jour: literally meaning “against the day”. If you expose the subject correctly, the rest of the scene will end up hopelessly overexposed. In the reverse, your desired subject is just a dark blob.

  • Use HDR: this is not a technique I’d typically advocate, as it looks terribly unnatural when not used correctly. What is HDR in photography? It stands for High Dynamic Range – a photo editing technique that uses multiple exposures to capture details throughout the light to dark range. How to decide if you should use HDR? If you can easily see detail in the bright and dark areas with your own eyes, moderate HDR editing can work well. Some cameras have this option built in, otherwise you will need special software to process this. It is a more advanced technique, which merits its own separate post.
  • Look for silhouettes: when the sun is towards the back of the subject, it’s a great opportunity to look for silhouettes. From skylines to mountain ranges to people, silhouettes are an effective way to use backlighting to your advantage.
  • Position the sun at the edge of a building, mountain, tree, etc. When using a smaller aperture (f/11 or smaller) a starburst effect is created. Contrast is often softer in this type of image, but playing with the exact position of the sun will control this effect
  • Sunrises and sunsets might be beautiful, but from a technical perspective it is very much difficult lighting. If you’ve ever tried to capture one but ended up frustrated because if the sky looked good the rest of the image was hopelessly dark, that’s because there is just too much dynamic range for the sensor to capture properly. The solution can be the HDR technique, or using a Graduated ND Filter – similar to a regular ND but instead a filter that goes from dark to light gradually. It won’t work for every scene, and the best option uses rectangular filters with a special holder.

To be fair, this isn’t bad light – but it does require care. It’s a matter of finding the right exposure balance so as not to overexpose the highlights but retain some shadow detail. The result though showcases the texture and shape in the dunes and scrub at White Sands National Park.

If you decide to utilize multi-exposure HDR and don’t have an in-camera HDR feature, you’ll need a tripod when shooting and editing software to process the final image later. A graduated ND filter kit can be expensive, but if you decide you’ll use it often it’s a good investment. Cokin is one of the longest running makers of these and is highly recommended. A tripod isn’t absolutely necessary to use a graduated ND filter system but you will most likely end up needing one to get the best image quality.

Parting Thoughts & Examples

Careful attention to composition  – level horizons, variations on rule of thirds, leading lines and so on will be perhaps even more important than usual. A thoughtfully composed image in average light can absolutely be just as strong as a less well composed image in fabulous light.

What many consider to be “bad” lighting is some of my favorite lighting to work in. Contre-jour and the hour before Golden Hour (late afternoon) are two of my favorite lighting scenarios. It may sound a bit trite, but the most important tool really is your photography knowledge. Difficult or complex lighting conditions will test your knowledge but also develop your travel photography skills.

Learning to take better photos in bad lighting is a great exercise, and can be practiced before you travel anywhere. This allows you to troubleshoot, try new techniques, and gain confidence. Scroll down to explore examples of travel photos taken in the lighting situations covered above.

Photos Taken in Gloomy Light

Photos Taken in Harsh Light

Photos Taken Shooting into the Sun

6 Comments

    • Ella

      Yay, I hope you get to put these in play (although I hope more for magical weather and lighting on all your travels!) next time mother nature isn’t so cooperative.

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