One of the most amazing things about being a photographer is that you can create your art literally anywhere. From the backyards of your hometown to the beaches of Bermuda, photography and travel were made for each other. But the biggest challenge you’ll find yourself running into time and time again when traveling as a photographer always comes down to one thing: finding the perfect lighting. One of the most magical things about travel and photography is that it allows you to capture your subject in a unique, unaltered environment while still emphasizing your personal style. But in order to really make the most of the environment within your lens, you’ll need to know how to control the lighting first.
Between strobes, sun bounces, uncle sams, scrim jims, and reflectors, finding the right lighting on the road can get overwhelming if you’re not used to thinking outside the box on how to find it and create it. In this post I am going to share with you a particularly tricky lighting situation I encountered on a recent travel job and how I made it work using only natural light.
A few years back, I had the chance to shoot in a location I had dreamed of shooting in for years. Call it luck, manifestation, or just good old hard work (or honestly all of the above!), but after 7 years of pitching this idea, I had successfully proposed a shoot in my dream location: The Baths on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this travel destination, prepare to be BLOWN AWAY by its beauty.
Not only is the entire area simply mesmerizing to the eye of any photographer, but the caves themselves are like walking into a dream. My father in-law lived on St. John, a neighboring island, and after visiting it the first time my husband and I always dreamed about what it would be like to bring a client there to do a shoot. And then that dream came true.
It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely MAGICAL. We spent the first four days of the trip scouting out locations all across Virgin Gorda, with our entire production crew in tow. Two of those days were spent scouting the islands by boat, the third was spent scouting the ruins at Caneel Bay, and on the fourth day we scouted the local beaches of St.John.
Scouting our locations was essential for this trip because there is always a slight mystery surrounding what the lighting and location will actually be like when arriving for a travel job, and there is an extra air of mystery when traveling to tropical locations because the weather is so unexpected. You can only bring so much gear in anticipation of what it might be like, and then when you arrive you have to use your knowledge and creativity to make it work with what you have no matter what. There is no running to the store real quick when you’re on an island in the middle of the Caribbean.
Going into this shoot, I already knew that I wanted to do everything I could to highlight the natural beauty of the location and environment. It is such a unique location that I wanted to be sure to convey all of its magic within each photograph—to showcase the wonder that comes with travel and exploration while also highlighting the beauty of swimwear line we were there to capture. But this came with its own challenges.
After 6 days of prep, our shoot day finally arrived. We woke up early—like 4-am early—to get through all the prep before finally hopping on a boat and heading over to Virgin Gorda. We were staying on the neighboring island of St. John, which luckily was pretty close to our shoot location. After our model’s hair and makeup was finished up at the hotel, the crew and I got to work prepping all the gear and loading it onto the boat.
The weather was gorgeous, which was a total relief after having spent the previous day shooting on St. John under the tumult of an unexpected tropical storm. (Stay tuned for a whole other blog post dedicated to that adventure!) By 6 am we were off. It was a 45-minute boat ride to Virgin Gorda and the sun had just started to come up. I remember the wonderful feeling of the warm sun on my face and the cool saltwater splashing up at us as we floated over the waves. It was going to be an amazing shoot day; I could feel it in my bones.
Our model had stayed wrapped up under a towel during the boat ride to preserve all the hard work that the hair-and-makeup artist had done back at the hotel, and after a few touch-ups and a quick bus ride to The Baths, we were ready to start shooting.
We had all our reflectors, sun bounces, and gear ready to go, and we did a quick scout of our final location selects. I hadn’t brought any strobes or flashes because I prefer to shoot with only natural light outdoors. But there was a slight problem. When we arrived at the baths, we set up in the cathedral room – the most iconic cave on site – a majestic, high-reaching cave made up of two rock walls leaning softly against one another, letting in just a sliver of light from a crack from where the two rocks meet but don’t quite overlap. This light then falls into a shallow pool of sea water flowing through the bottom that’s so clear you can see the effortless shimmer of each grain of sand shifting in the sunlight.
I had a few important tools with me at my disposal: my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, my Canon 24-70 lens, my camera set up to shoot in RAW, and a pair of 5 in one reflectors (which would soon prove to be invaluable).
The problem was that the cave, in all of its shimmering beauty, had very little ambient light aside from the tiny sliver coming in from the ceiling. Mesmerizing, yes, but definitely not enough light needed for us to shoot inside the cave without completely ruining the image quality by shooting at ISO 12500. Getting the right lighting was going to be a little bit tricky, so I had to get creative.
Luckily, I had two amazing assistants on my team, so I had each of them grab one of the reflectors we brought in. The first assistant used a silver reflector to catch and reflect the light beam coming from the ceiling onto the walls of the cave. I decided to do this because I knew that by bouncing the light off the rock walls, there would be a larger surface area of diffused light to work with – and ended up adding a lot of gorgeous ambient light to the scene. Doing this caused the interior of the cave to suddenly light up as if there were a floodlight inside. We were then able take advantage of the – now available – ambient light, by using a second reflector on the white side to softly fill in the remaining shadows on the model.
See below for a behind the scenes of how we lit the shot.
Below is the amount of light we had before adding the fill light…
And this is what we were able to achieve by modifying the little available light we had to work with…
Pretty crazy what a few reflectors can do right?!
After getting this technique down, we then played around with modifying the light even further. We used the same method, but this time bouncing the light directly into the water. It created a magical glowing effect under the water that brought all the natural tones and textures from the sand and rock walls to life around our model. We were all ecstatic!
After this, we spent the afternoon roaming along the shore and shooting under direct sun, capturing a variety of different angles and locations before wrapping up for the day. In total, it ended up being a nearly 17-hour shoot day under sweltering sun that nearly seemed to be melting the sand under our feet, with the rocks around us radiating so much heat we could hardly go near them. Sunburned, soaked, and happy, our whole crew ended the day laughing hysterically and half delirious, all while blasting reggae and drinking victory beers as the sun set beyond the ocean horizon. It was perfect.
Aside from a beautiful day doing what I loved with people who were as excited and passionate as I was, I also had the chance to literally create light where there was darkness. How incredible is that? I absolutely love shooting in natural light because, to me, natural light is limitless…it’s unexpected, inconsistent, you can’t always count on it and it is always a challenge and that’s what makes creating light so incredibly gratifying. You have to think on your feet, and natural light always keeps you on your toes.
When encountering a situation that feels like it won’t work, take a minute to pause and think about what you can do to MAKE it work. Don’t be afraid to think about light and lighting a little bit differently each time you’re on a shoot, and never let yourself be intimidated by it!
Light is truly limitless—all you have to do is give yourself the freedom to create it.