April 18, 2011

Seeing the Light


Post & Photo by Joe Farace – Follow Joe on Twitter

In a recent podcast (#71) a Photofocus reader 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:

Light 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.

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 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 story 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 Available Light Digital Photography

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This post sponsored by PocketWizard