Whether you’re using the newest digital SLR or a pinhole camera, learning “to see the light” is a tired photographic cliché that’s nevertheless true. Light has four major qualities: quality, quantity, color and direction. No matter what camera mode you use, seeing how light in a scene affects its overall impact is the key to mastering the art of proper exposure. Yes, its just as much art as it is science because the final exposure controls the image’s mood.
Learning to see light isn’t difficult but takes practice not only making new photographs but also taking the time to analyze those photographs after you’ve created them. The above photograph of my wife, Mary, has dark, dark shadows and blasted out highlights; it’s an exposure nightmare with lots of contrast, yet I think it works because it replicates the mood of the real-world situation. Mary and I were walking on the Island of Kauai and saw this natural pool and I asked her if she would climb out to the rock and let me make a photograph of her.
Part of learning to seeing the light isn’t just looking at what you think the subject of your photograph might be but instead looking at the shadows and highlights, keeping in mind that the difference between the two determines the image’s overall contrast. You’ll often hear the term “dynamic range” in relation to the range of contrast in a scene. Take the above example, photographed on the beach at Acapulco. It’s the opposite of the darkly quite mood of the first image and is bursting with light and life. It was made using a Leica D-Lux 2 with an exposure of 1/1000 sec at f/8 and ISO 400.
If understanding the art of exposure is the first part of making consistent and correct digital exposures, the other part is a working knowledge of the technology inherent in the process. And that involves practice. Tip: Make a new photo every day and try to learn something new from the experience.