No, this isn't some spiritual guru blog entry, but it is meant to enlighten you and change the way you think and see things as you shoot.
We're all aware that photography is the science of light. Great. But what does that really mean? Often, most photographers get extremely hung up on exposure, taking light readings, estimating ev over and under, all in the name of a correct exposure. That's fine. It's good to get a correct exposure…. though, "correct" can lie in the eye of the beholder. I want to talk about "correct" exposure… but I first want to talk about seeing the light in creative terms.
So here we are in front of that shot we've wanted to take for a long time. Maybe it's your wife or girlfriend at a scenic location, maybe scenes on your vacation or even a landmark you've long wanted to visit. You carefully consider your composition… you find an accurate exposure, you focus… click, you preserve the memory for all eternity. Nirvana. Or is it?
How many times have you gone the through the steps above, only to download your pictures later and realize, yes… these are nice… but they're just not "pow?" They just lack what you felt when you were "imagining" the shot you were shooting.
I'll tell you what's missing... the light. I know you got the exposure right. You got the direction of the light. You composed it just right. You even dragged out your new XLDZR5000 Nanoguzi MKVII SE 50 megapixel DSLR with face recognition, image stabilization and 1080p HD movie capability. You know you did everything right!
Bridge with mid-day lightSame bridge at sunsetHere's what you need to ask; What is the light doing? I don't care where you are reading this… look up and look around. Start asking and noticing WHAT the light is doing? As light passes over us throughout the day, it changes strength, it changes temperature and it changes direction. It is these changes that you want to pay attention to. Specifically, you want to watch and learn how they change the things we are looking at.
Consider this: You could shoot the Eiffel Tower during the day or during the night. Obviously, it's going to look completely different in both instances, right? It's still the Eiffel Tower… but it's a completely different shot. And since we're discussing something that's photographed a zillion times a day, how can there be totally awesome photos of the Eiffel Tower and so many truly boring photos of the Eiffel Tower? Even if they're shot with the new "XLDZR5000 Nanoguzi MKVII SE 50 megapixel DSLR with face recognition, image stabilization and 1080p HD movie capability," they still suck.
Naples City Dock late dayNaples City Dock at sunriseWell, the light doesn't just have an on (daylight) and off (nighttime) position. It's on a dimmer. (Watch your house lights on a dimmer... they don't just dim, they change color.) Oh, and.. it's moving. So what you want to learn is two fold. First, what is it doing between on and off? How does it change… not just the direction, but color/temperature and the strength? And second, how does that affect what you are shooting? What is the light doing to your subject? How does your subject look from morning twilight to evening twilight? If you really want to experience variety and extra richness in your photographs, learn to see and understand WHAT the light is doing and how it is contributing to your photo… or more importantly, the story within your photo.
I spend a lot of time photographing two favorite locations here in Florida. The Naples Pier and the Naples City Dock. Often I'm asked, "don't you get sick of photographing the same places?" The answer is no. I'm not just photographing the same places. I'm photographing what the light is doing while I'm at those places.
Naples Pier at sunsetFrom 15 minutes before sundown and at least 20 minutes after sundown, the light at the Naples Pier goes absolutely nuts. Sure, sometimes it gets wiped out due to cloud cover, but for the most part, we're talking 2001 Space Odyssey on acid (or so I'm told). In that 35-45 minute window, you will learn more about light simply by looking around and really watching the light and what it is doing.
I watch the light bounce of the side of the pier's support posts…. all down the side like a string of diamonds. It bounces of the water. It reflects off the wet sand where the waves come ashore and scurry back… and the lower you get, the more reflection you capture. And after the sun sets, it reflects a whole new set of colors of the clouds or sky bouncing them down onto the water creating a palette of moving swirling color. Even the clouds and objects behind you are lit up or bouncing light in ways you never imagined.
Working the tide reflections in the sandThe sunset and twilight experiment gives you a quick crash course in what light can potentially do. But in subtle ways, the light is doing this all day. Maybe not as quickly, maybe not as exaggerated… but believe me, it's happening.
So add to your punch list… "What is the light doing to my location?" and "is there a better time of the day to shoot that location?"
I said I'd talk about "correct" exposure. When you start shooting lighting conditions that are moving toward the extreme, you need to compensate for your camera or meter's inability to think. This is where you come in.
Most of you are fairly aware of the diagrams in the camera's instruction book… heck, they used to use the same ones on film boxes and instruction sheets. If you're subject is standing against a bright background, you need to bump your exposure so their faces don't come out dark. Well, similarly, you need to compensate for other situations too.
During the brightness of the day, while the old sunny sixteen rule (ISO 100, 1/125 sec., f/16) may hold true for a wide loose snapshot, it's not going to be as accurate for a lot of other shooting situations. We're dealing with a lot of ambient "glare" in our modern world. I don't want get all scientific about it, but suffice it to say, we're adding additional forms of light that aggravate the look or finish of our daylight photographs. We end up with "blown" highlights. So if we slightly expose for the highlights (under)… we'll keep our average scene rich and colorful as opposed to too bright and washed out.
In low light situations you'll find you want to go the other way. Now we're dealing with details that are lost in the dark areas… or shadows. Our camera wants to average out the basic scene and weight the meter reading to center… since the camera assumes whatever we're shooting is going to be in the middle. Ultimately, the camera's meter is going to deliver a shot that is averaged to the muddy side and lacking detail. So in lower light, we expose for the shadows (over).
Try shooting slightly underexposed in really bright light and slightly overexposed in low light situations. Experiment… even if you like to shoot manual, throw the camera in automatic to get a preview shot that you like… then flip back to manual and play around bracketing the settings you "learned" from the automatic test.
Nearly 20 minutes after the sun had setIn closing… if you have the opportunity, look at the EXIF data in the photographs of others. See if you can back engineer the light. Not that you want to copy those settings, but you can use them as a starting point or to help build your mental library of knowledge.
If you learn to see the light for what it is and what it is doing… not just measuring its strength for exposure, you'll be well on your way to "making" photographs, not just taking photographs.
All images used for this article were shot with either the Leica M8.2 or Leica M9 rangefinder camera.