Lessons for Beginning Photographers: Good Exposure

In the last class we noted that a good photograph will most often have:

  • good exposure (not too dark, not too light)
  • good focus (the center of attention ordinarily will be clear, not fuzzy)
  • good composition (the visual elements in the frame are arranged in a way that is pleasing to the eye)

In the next three lessons we’ll cover how to achieve good exposure, good focus, and good composition.

Getting Good Exposure: Working Skillfully With Available Light and Forced Flash
Starting out, simply set your camera on automatic and let the camera’s meter set the aperture and shutter speed for you. This will give you good exposure in most cases. However, here are some difficult situations that require adjustments. Maybe you have heard it said, “Don’t shoot into the sun.” In general, that’s wise advice. If your subjects are people, ask them to move so that the strong sun is not directly in their eyes and also is not directly behind them. This will give you a well exposed picture where the people are not squinting their eyes.

What if you can’t control where the subject stands with respect to the light source? Then you need to change your own position to take advantage of the light. Get used to asking yourself where the main light is coming from, and how strong it is. These factors will determine your strategy for positioning yourself so that you get a well exposed picture.

Front Lighting

front_lighting

A front-lit subject is the easiest to expose correctly. When the sun is behind your back as you take the picture and it is shining on your subject, we say the subject is front-lit. The light is falling on everything in the frame. There are almost no shadows (unless the sun is low in the sky). In this situation the meter gives a very accurate reading, most areas in the picture have the same amount of light falling on them. We say that there is a narrow dynamic range, which means that there is not much difference between the lightest light and the darkest dark (because everything is well lighted). A front lit scene will be well exposed using the automatic setting, but the disadvantage is that the lack of shadows in the picture will make the scene look flat. The colors will be vibrant, but there won’t be much texture to the scene, that is, a sense of three dimensions.

Side Lighting

mother_and_baby

If you want more texture in your picture, move so that the light source is to your side, (and also the side of your subject.) Any irregularities in the surface of objects in the scene will cast shadows. The shadows will give the scene texture. Side lighting does not usually cause exposure problems. So, side lighting is very useful!

Back Lighting

Finally, what about situations where the light source is behind your subject? These are called back-lit scenes. In these scenes if you rely on the meter to set your camera properly you will end up with an underexposure, because the camera’s meter will see the strong light and tell the camera not to admit much more (by setting a faster shutter speed and/or smaller lens opening). But you may need more light to illumine your subject’s face. So, set the camera to flash even though in general there is enough light to make photographs. This is called “forced flash.” Even outside in strong daylight, use forced flash if your subject’s skin tone is dark and his/her face is in shadow, because if you don’t there will not be enough light to reveal facial features clearly.Also, use forced flash outside if your subjects are in deep shadow. This will give them adequate detail.

beach backlightFinally, if a strong light, such as the setting sun, is directly behind the people you want to photograph, then if you do not use forced flash you will get just the dark outlines of those people, their silhouettes. This can look very dramatic, and may be just the effect you are after, but if you want to see their features you must use forced flash.

Photography is Drawing with Light

After you have been photographing a while you will begin to notice that the light in some photographs is more beautiful than others. You may at first notice this by accident, but as you keep taking pictures you will become aware that most of those taken with flash, even though they do show the features of your subjects well, are not as becoming as ones taken in gentle, natural light. The pictures taken with flash often look flat, “washed out,” whereas the natural light ones seem more three-dimensional; and the transitions between lights and darks in the the natural lighted ones are more gentle.

profileEventually, by taking lots of photographs and noticing what you achieve under different lighting conditions, your eye and brain will learn to recognize “good light” when you see it. You may think now that being a good photographer is mostly a matter of acquiring technical skills, but that’s only part of the learning challenge. The greater challenge is training your eye and brain to notice beauty. Or, as some great photographers have said, its about learning to see. There is beauty all around us, but most of the time we’re busy with other things and not aware of it because we’re not paying attention. When you learn to pay attention to light you will come to see everyday things in a new way. You will come to realize that some light is extraordinary, very rare indeed, very special. I find beautiful light all the more beautiful because it is fleeting. If you aren’t quick enough and skilled enough to capture what you see, the gossamer gift will be gone in a few moments as the sun shifts or does behind a cloud. When you come to realize that photography is not merely about making images of objects in the world, but rather is drawing with light, and with a reverence for it, then you are well on your way to using your camera as an artist.

If you’d like to see some pictures taken in extraordinary light have a look at my Flickr set, “What’s the Light Doing?”

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