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The Traveling Photographer: Photographing People: Taking Control of the Light

This is my second post of three on photographing people during your travels. My first article provided basic guidelines…paying attention to the background, camera settings, composition, and waiting to capture that special moment when everything comes together. This post will cover making the light work for you, the last of my guidelines mentioned in my first post.

Make A List And Plan Your Day

No flash.

Decisions regarding lighting begin before you leave on your trip. It is important to do some research and to make a list, even if it is just in your head, of the type of shots you hope to take. Based on that list, decide whether or not you want to pack a flash and the size of the flash if you have more than one flash. Many photographers use flash in landscape, wildlife, and macro photography as well as for photographing people. Many photographers make documentary photographs of people and don’t use flash at all.

Once you are on your trip, plan your schedule for the day based upon the type of light you would prefer for the subject you hope to photograph. Certain subjects will look better in the soft light of dusk or the golden hue of sunset. Perhaps you want to capture the contrasty shadows and highlights of a midday street scene. Also decide when you will need to carry a flash, if you have brought one. When I have a bigger flash unit on a trip I don’t carry it around all day. I plan my schedule to go back and forth to my hotel to drop it off or pick it up.

What to Pack

Small flash to use for fill and catchlights.

I own three flashes: small, medium and large. When I travel, I always take the small flash which comes with my camera, the Fuji X-T2. It is tiny, just a little bigger than a built-in camera flash. I bring it along just “in case” I need to add a little light to my image and I am not carrying a bigger flash. See my article on small flash photography for those of you who do not own a bigger flash or prefer not to carry a large one.

If I am not sure what I may need during my travels, but think I may need a flash as a fill-flash, or if I don’t want to carry around a larger, heavier flash, I will pack a medium-sized flash to use during my trip. My medium-sized flash is a Nissin i40. It is relatively light to carry around. I can use it TTL on camera and in manual mode off-camera. I even have used it off camera, hand-holding it to the side with my camera on a tripod, to photograph macro images of bugs or plants. The Nissin has a lot of punch for its size. I have had it for a few years now—there may be newer models.

If I plan to take portraits in low light situations, where my flash will be the primary light source for my subject, I pack my more powerful larger flash, the Fuji EF-X500 . As an example, I recently was in Venice for Carnival. I knew I would be photographing people wearing incredible costumes very early in the morning and later in the evening. Yes, I could push the ISO and go with no flash as many photographers did, but I knew to get the imagery I wanted, I would need a powerful flash.

If you do not own a flash unit, my suggestion is to discuss your flash needs with a B&H Photo representative, and see what they recommend for your camera.

Use The Light As A Compositional Tool

Using the shadows as part of the composition.

Paying attention to the direction, quantity and quality of light is as important as identifying the subject to photograph. Street photography is great in the harsh mid-day sun, using the interplay of shadow and light to define your subject. Look for patterns formed by the light or leading lines, and use the graphic designs as a part of your composition. If you are photographing your daughter at the beach you will probably prefer the soft quality of light on a cloudy day or the golden tone of sunset on her face. Perhaps you would like to have her hair radiant, backlit by the sun.
The varying aspects of light affect the composition of your image and how you tell your subject’s story. I look for the light first, and then compose my image. If possible I move my subject around to the light I prefer, or I wait until he or she moves to better light. If I find great light as I walk around a city, I may wait for the right person to walk into it.

Control The Light

It is hard when we travel. We don’t really know what streets we’ll be walking on, if it will be raining every day, or if there will be a sunset with nice clouds. Luck will determine whether or not we will have “good” light. Even with “bad” light, we still must learn to control the light the best we can.

Natural Light–Waited for subject to move under street light.

For example, if you are taking a portrait and your subject has harsh shadows on his face that you would like to eliminate and you are not using a flash, move your subject to open shade, maybe to a doorway or under an awning. Keep your subject just a few feet into the shade, from the brightly lit area, not deep into the doorway or area under the awning.

If you need more light on your subjects face, look to see if there is a white wall that is reflecting the light nicely that you can place your subject near or if it is dusk or night-time, a street lamp. If you are indoors, look for a window with soft light flowing through the panes.

There are tons of books about photographing people in existing light. Do some reading before your trip to prepare yourself. Check out articles by the Photofocus authors.

Having a flash with you on your travels and understanding how to use it does provide you with more creative options. For example, in very low light or at night you can light your subject with the flash and use a very slow shutter speed to improve the visibility of the background (known as dragging the shutter). My feature image at the top of this post was shot very early in the morning, just after sunrise, with my Fuji EF X-500 flash and a slow shutter speed to bring in the pillars in the background.

My third and final post on photographing people will discuss using a flash. Stay tuned.

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