How to take better travel photos by practicing at home

I’ve been photographing the same three people—my family—for the past eight months. After the pandemic grounded travelers in March, our planned trip came and went, while we remained at home in a seemingly shrinking world.

As a photographer, I’m inclined to look outward, to people and locations beyond my immediate orbit. Home isn’t usually where I find inspiration. But these days, like most people, I’ve had to make the ordinary interesting, to keep myself sane and to prepare for what I’ll do when I am out and about in the world again.

One project I’ve been focusing on is the use of unconventional light sources in ways that I hadn’t considered before. To my surprise, it turns out that a helpful photographic tool happened to be in my pocket all along, and so I experimented with photographing my family over the course of a day using my smartphone or tablet as a light source for my DSLR camera. (Learn some tips for taking the perfect family selfie.)

As I was shooting, I thought about how my approaches could solve problems that commonly arise when traveling.

Hatching a bright idea

For National Geographic, I normally take photos in a studio, where I have a multitude of flashes, softboxes, and light modifiers. Without easy access to my usual equipment—or interesting places to take it—I’ve gotten creative.

In my experiments, I discovered a number of challenging photographic scenarios that can be solved with the light from a tablet or smartphone. While these tools won’t do the trick every time, they can be quite handy as long as you keep a few pointers in mind.

Tablet and smartphone screens will never be brighter than daylight, so consider where and when you’re photographing. For my testing, I was able to control the ambient light or shoot at a time of day when I could maximize the impact of the screen lighting. And I used a camera that allowed me to adjust the exposure manually.

The images in this article were shot in my house and neighborhood, without any subsequent Photoshopping or other significant editing. I always used the highest screen brightness and a white screen background to eliminate any color cast. (An app such as MyLight—Flashlight can be helpful.)

Here are four photo problems that tablet or smartphone illumination can help solve. Practice at home—and you’ll be ready for your next big trip!

Problem: Losing your subject in a busy background

Tablet light was practically made for challenges such as a restaurant or a hotel with an overzealous decorator. By bringing an illuminated iPad close to the subject’s face, and exposing for that light, the background will go dark, giving you a soft but dramatic look.

Since a tablet can’t outshine daylight, a dimly lit space gives the best results. I photographed my son in a busy room in our house, exposed for the light on his face, and was able to eliminate everything else from the scene, achieving a studio feel with one simple tool.

Hold the tablet near the person and experiment with moving it around to see how the light and shadows shift. Shooting these sorts of intimate portraits are a great way to understand how light behaves.

Problem: Bright lights botching your exposure

We’ve all been there, trying to photograph someone against the neon lights of a night market or the rows of candles in a cathedral. The camera auto-exposes for the scene, and everything is blown out. Or the lights look great, but your subject becomes a silhouette.

You can solve this with a flash, of course, but a tablet or smartphone light works, too. With this in mind, I positioned my daughter in front of our Christmas tree. My son held a tablet, set on maximum brightness, above and slightly in front of her face, just out of the frame.

By moving the tablet forward just a few inches, I was able to capture a little catchlight (a gleam of reflected light) in her eye and preserve the soft mood of the scene.

Problem: Not enough ambient light for a still life

Perhaps you’re in an artisan’s workshop, and you want to photograph the handmade creations. But you’re faced with too little daylight or too much unattractive overhead light.

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If you have a tripod to steady your camera, you can use a longer manual exposure, with the tablet as a really effective light source. Propping the tablet on its side will give you a nice raking effect. Even if you don’t have a tripod, you can still pull this off, but the key is to minimize the ambient light, so your tablet is the primary source. You can practice this at home by setting up a display of your favorite travel souvenirs.

Pro tip: Turn off the overhead lights or pull the blinds, so you don’t have conflicting color temperatures in your shot.

Problem: Sunset turning your subject into a silhouette

Like the bright lights scenario, this is a situation where you need to outsmart your camera. If the camera is left on automatic exposure, it will likely wash out a setting sun or make your travel companion a black blob.

One fix is to crank up the brightness on your tablet, bring it close to your subject, and expose for that light. The background will remain darkly radiant, and a soft light will fall on the subject.

Timing is obviously key here. If you’re trying to photograph at dusk, be prepared well ahead. I often start shooting before the light is right and continue shooting as it changes. You don’t want to be fiddling with your setup when the perfect illumination strikes. It’ll be there before you know it.

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