Recently a reader wrote asking about “how I find the light.” The short answer is that you start by just looking but there’s more to it that that:
Light has four major qualities: color, quality, quantity, and direction. As photographers seeking to master exposure, seeing that light is the key to mastering that art. Please notice that I said art because while there is the obvious technical or craft aspects of using camera controls to product the “correct” exposure, there’s also the art aspect and that where seeing the light come in. Chiaroscuro, as Italian Renaissance painters called it, is the use of effects that represent differing contrasts of light to achieve a sense of three-dimensionality within a two dimensional frame. Learning to see light and translating that painterly talk into photography 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.
caption: The above scene has dark, dark shadows and blasted highlights; it’s an exposure nightmare with lots of contrast, yet I still think that 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 of whatever and I asked her if she would climb out to the rock and let me make a photograph of her. She did, the pose was her idea.
Part of learning to see the light isn’t just looking at what you think the subject of your photograph might be. I think that many times the subject is really the light but that’s a story for another time. Instead look 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. Take in-camera histograms for example. They can be an invaluable aid in evaluating light under more or less normal circumstance with a modest about of contrast in the scene but the histogram for the above image would look like it was drastically underexposed. But is it? It all depends on the photograph’s subject and that’s why the final part of the equation is learning how to see the light. It may be tired cliché but it’s nevertheless true whether you’re using the newest digital SLR or a pinhole camera. The secret, as always, is practice.
Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your friendly neighborhood book or camera store.