Don’t Fight the Light


Today I’m going to discuss light – and how I learned a few years back not to fight it. I’m using this image shot at the Grace Cafayate in Argentina to illustrate my point.

Tools of the Trade:

– camera with manual settings

– any old lens in your bag (this write up is more about technique and less about gear)

The Down and Dirty:

This image is about what I don’t do as a photographer now versus what I would have done four or five years ago. Four or five years ago, I would have seen the blown highlights in the sky and the soft light as enemies to be vanquished from the battlefield, or balls to be smacked off the polo pitch. I would have strapped on at least one graduated neutral density filter to bring the sky back into play, and I would have jacked the contrast to obscene levels. I may have even fought against the gorgeous color of the light. I hate my old photographic self. He was a monster.

These days I do my very best to capture the world as it is presented to me. I go for natural beauty – not the type manufactured later in Photoshop (not to say that images don’t need some tweaking from time to time, but as a travel photographer, it’s sort of a good idea to be in the right place at the right time in the first place). This means that I shoot when the light is good, like it was this day in Cafayate. The sun was going down, and about to disappear behind a mountain ridge – but for ten solid minutes, it glowed beautifully just like this.

The first thing I wanted to do was represent the color accurately; Auto-White Balance mode would have washed out my color, so I flipped my WB setting to Cloudy to allow that golden light to shine. Next, I made the call to shoot with an aperture of f/5 because I wanted the players and their horses to be tack sharp, but the background to be nice and soft. This had the added benefit of allowing me to use a shutter speed of 1/1600, at ISO 200 – perfectly fast enough to freeze motion, and to keep the image free of noise.

Again, the light – I really wanted the light to be the star of the show here, and not beat it back with a stick. I wanted the image to have a bright, like feel to it, so I made sure to meter for one of the riders, and not the sky or the background. This kept the camera from pulling the exposure back to far and making the image a dark mess.

I used a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 lens to capture this image – I was standing on one side of the polo pitch, so I needed a bit of reach to see the guys on the other side. This was shot at 112mm.

Here’s what the image might have looked like had I let the camera do all the thinking for me:


This is kind of gross, to be honest with you. It looks like two guys playing polo in a nuclear winter, not in one of the prettiest places on earth. The camera wanted badly to “fix” the blown highlights in the sky, “correct” the color, and even the playing field, so to speak. This is exactly why it’s important that you understand the ins and outs of your gear, and know what the camera is going to do before it does it. You need to know everything about exposure and light, and you need to know what your histogram is saying – so that you can ignore all of it and make the camera do what you want it to do. When I’m working, I rely on technique and emotion, not on what the camera wants me to see, or how it wants to represent a scene. There’s a big difference between a guy who likes cameras and a photographer; tell the camera what to do. Be a photographer.

Image specs:

Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8

Aperture: f/5     ISO: 200     Shutter speed: 1/1600     Focal Length: 112mm

Special Thanks:

Special thanks to my friends at J Public Relations for arranging my visit to the gorgeous Grace Cafayate in Argentina’s remarkable Salta Region; Cafayate is about as impressive a wine region as there is on earth. Stay tuned for my print features, coming to a few of my favorite mags later this year.

And of course, huge thanks to Chimu Adventures for helping to put together a brilliant South American itinerary.  Chimu Adventures is the finest travel outfitter in Argentina, and offers tailor-made expeditions that get at the heart of the country’s most essential experiences.

Flash Light Photography Expeditions:

For more handy how-to photographic bliss, check out the Flash Light Expeditions Pocket Guide series I’ve written and photographed with Dylan Goldby of

Chiang Mai, Thailand: While We’re Here

This pocket guide from Flash Light Photography Expeditions will help you get the most out of your visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Created to support our annual Northern Thailand Photography Expedition, this tiny tome is all about helping you craft a winning travel portfolio during your time abroad.  Click here for more.

 Flash in the Wild: A Pocket Guide to the Right Light

Welcome to the wild. This pocket guide will help you get the most out of your small off-camera flash while shooting on location. Whether you’re a burgeoning amateur, semi-pro or professional photographer, you’ll benefit from the more than 20 step-by-step breakdowns in our new guide.
This guide is for anyone who ever wanted to create a big scene with small lights, but didn’t know where to begin. From city streets to the darkest wood, we work through one exciting location after the other while bending light on a whim. We’ll show you what you need to pack into your kit, how to build a lightweight, everyday shooting system, and most importantly, how to react to, read, and control your light. Click here for more.


One thought on “Don’t Fight the Light

  1. If this were faked for the realm of visual effects production that first photo would have what is termed “light wrap”. When compositing, say, an airplane passing near or in front of the sun, the digital compositor can add this effect via an edge matte. It creates the intrusion of light on the edges, reducing their contrast and detail in order to sell the shot—make it more realistic.

    Your second version of the shot lacks this attribute. Though nobody would consider either shot of yours as being fake, the second lacks that quality of light that pulls the viewer into the scene. We all identify with looking into the sun. We squint. It causes a physical reaction. Without that light effect in the second version, we have no physical reaction.

    Thanks for writing this up. It’s a great remind that visceral is often the best response to an image.

    — Lee Z.

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