Learning to “See the Light”

In a podcast last year, a listener asked about “finding the light.” My glib response was that you just look but I think he deserved a more detailed answer and here it is:

Cafe Berlin in Old San Juan, Puerto RicoLight has three major qualities: quality, quantity, and direction. As photographers seeking to master the art of exposure, seeing that light is the key to mastering the art of proper exposure. Notice that I said art. Chiaroscuro, as Italian Renaissance painters called it, is the use of effects representing differing contrasts of light to achieve a sense of three-dimensionality within a two dimensional frame. Learning to see light is not difficult but does take some practice. That practice should take the form of not only constantly making new images but also taking the time to analyze those photographs after you’ve created them.

Part of learning to seeing the light isn’t just looking at what you think the subject of your photograph might be (I think that it’s really the light, but that’s a post for another time) but instead looking at the shadows and the highlights, keeping in mind that the difference between the two determines the image’s contrast. Sometimes you will hear the term dynamic range tossed around in relation to the range of contrast in a scene. Dynamic range is the technical term that’s used in a number of fields, including photography, to describe the ratio between the smallest and largest possible values of a changeable quantity such as light. There won’t be a quiz later but you should be familiar with the language of exposure so that you can better understand other concepts, such as High Dynamic Range, when you bump into them.

The other part of making consistent and correct digital exposures is understanding the technology that is inherent in the process and the other part is learning how to see the light, a tired hoary cliché that is nevertheless true whether you’re using the newest digital SLR or a pinhole camera.

Joe Farace is co-author of Better Digital Available Light Photography.

Author: Joe Farace

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