Learn To See The Light

Good lighting can add shape and depth to our subject. The real art is being able to see the light and how it's going to affect or change our photo. With experience you become more aware and you learn how to manage or massage the light and use it to your creative advantage.

There are two ways to measure light. 'Reflective' metering and 'incident' metering. Reflective measures light bouncing OFF your subject whereas an incident reading measures the light falling ON to your subject.

Your camera's built in meter takes a reflective reading whereas most handheld light meters gives us the choice of measuring light both ways, reflective or incident.

Do you recall ever having seen a photographer walk up to a model and hold a meter under the model's chin? He's taking a an incident reading. He's measuring the actual light falling onto the subject. Obviously, this is much more accurate.

If I could make one suggestion it would be to get a handheld meter. Even the most basic model will help you.

The metering system in your camera is "reflective". That is to say, it measures light as it is reflected back onto the film plane or sensor.  And therein lies the rub with reflective metering. If you're in the bright sun looking at something bright white, it hurts your eyes… right? Whereas if you look at something black, it's not a problem. Even though the white is bright for you to look at, you're pupils (the human equivalent of an aperture) adjust automatically.

The camera's meter as no way of accurately adjusting for the two extremes of black and white. Sure, some camera models will try to average the scene, but if you're taking a photo of 6 guys in white shirts and two guys in black shirts, the camera's meter is going to read a lot more light than the camera/film/sensor actually needs. So our challenge is to outsmart our camera's reflective metering.

How do we do that?

Simple. We make the decision to either let in or keep out some of the light by adjusting the aperture or shutter speed based on the scene we are photographing. Meters are calibrated to accept a value of 18% of black (a light/medium gray) as average. We have to try and average out the reflective values of the overall scene and cheat the camera's metering. So speed up or slow down the shutter speed. Or, open up or close down the aperture. Remember, we want to control the stream and flow of light so as we reach the correct exposure.

If you like, you can buy a small 18% gray card and hold it between your lens and your subject and take an accurate reflective meter reading. Once you have the reading, you can manually set your camera to the aperture/shutter of your choosing. But, it is something that will ultimately come to you with experience.

If you're serious about getting good and being in control, get a handheld meter. The beauty of a handheld meter is after you take a reading it will provide you with all the available combinations that result in an accurate exposure. Thereby allowing you to choose a combination that will provide you with the right creative choice.

And a handheld meter is the quintessential learning tool. You learn the differences and how to 'see' the light. That's what it's all about… the light.  As you learn to 'see' light, you'll start making creative decisions based on what you want from the scene and manipulate the camera to see what you're seeing.

The more you use the meter, the less you'll need it. More importantly, the better you become at reading, massaging… even manipulating the light, the more your photos start to come alive.