Optimizing the Light in the Caribbean

Optimizing the Light in the Caribbean

Having just returned from the Caribbean on an assignment last week, I thought it might make a nice subject for my first post here on Fstoppers. Photography in the Caribbean (and really any tropical island locale) presents a few challenges - or opportunities depending on how you look at it. Namely balancing good light with good water color. When the light is best at the beginning and end of the day, the water color usually doesn't hold its typical rich blues. Here are some tips I recommend trying to get the most out of your Caribbean photos.

Do Drag Yourself Out for Sunrise

It hurts no matter where you are in the world, but after the fact I've rarely hated myself for getting up and photographing in the magical sunrise light. When you're on an island this can often present the best time to grab a still image that might normally be crowded during the day. Perhaps you want an empty pool at your hotel or a silent beach. Find out the day before through observation where the sun rises and sets on the island and map out a good place to capture either a silhouetted sunrise or perhaps sidelight morning beach.

If you have a friend or two along with you this might also be a nice time to photograph them lounging in a hammock, when the palm tree shadows will be much more elongated and possibly off your subject. Don't be afraid of details like sea-shells, palm trees and portraits during this time - when the light is softer and shadows longer is the perfect time for those images.

Capturing the Blue Water Without Harsh Shadows

Right around 3-4 hours after sunrise seems to be the optimal time when the sun is high enough to illuminate through the shallow waters around the Caribbean and really bring out the rich variety of blues. Unfortunately, this is long after it has lost the soft, sculpting quality of morning light in favor of harsher contrast and shadows.

I have found a few techniques work well at this time of day. Getting out on the water with a boat is a big plus around now. The main reason is to remove yourself from any large objects (trees, resorts, nordic weight lifters) casting patchy shadows across your frame. You'll want to be carrying around a polarizing filter as well to help cut down on the haze and ramp up those blues.


Once you've crossed into the middle of the day, always shoot away from the sun. You'll pull a far more even tone out of your images than that washed out look you get shooting in the direction of the sun. A polarizing filter can only help so much there - and usually not close to enough.

Sunset Isn't Only for Sunsets


Watching the big fiery ball in the sky go down over the water is pretty relaxing and makes a nice image, but once you've seen an image of a sunset over the water you've seen most all of them. I mean you can throw a nice sailboat in between you and the sun here and there, but for the most part it's the same orange ball hitting the same watery horizon line.

Sunset is a great time for portraits in the Caribbean. Scout around during the middle of the day if possible and find where local fisherman gather or other locales outside the resort scene. Shoot with the sunset at your back or to the side when working with landscapes. Good travel photography gives you a sense of all parts of a location - not just picture perfect beaches.

Keep these few tips in mind to maximize your shooting time and light on your next Caribbean trip.

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those are some bad examples of a photographer "on assignment" in the Caribbean. Coulda took those w/ P&S

Matt Dutile's picture

Trying to use some generic examples as our assignment images are under lock right now. But with an international list of travel publications, resorts and agencies I think I probably know what I'm doing in this regard.

Zach Sutton's picture

We complain that it's not the gear that makes the photographer, but then use gear as an example when we're looking to insult people...

Some exceptional photos have been taken with pinhole cameras....so certainly great ones can be taken with point and shoots as well.

another short sided opinion. whatever.

Perfect timing, and great tips, for my upcoming trip to Bahamas in Feb!

Matt Dutile's picture

Enjoy the Bahamas! Try to find local spots and you'll get much more rewarding images... and usually find better spots to eat too. Don't fear the random road side BBQ stand, some are pretty amazing.

Perfect timing, I'm going to keep all of your tips in mind for our upcoming trip to Curacao in 17 days!