Part One – Seeing the Light
Opinions about what a correctly exposed photograph is must be about as numerous as what people choose to take pictures of. Some opinions are more common than others.
‘Every photograph must contain an even range of tone with no details lost in the highlight or shadow areas.’ This is the one I encounter most frequently. It’s probably been learned from technical books and academics.
Performing a quick Google search on this topic brings up the Canon Australia website with this:
“The act of having ‘correct’ exposure means your combination of settings between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO speed have produced a perfectly exposed image. When nothing is blown out (highlights) or lost in shadow in an image, it has achieved correct exposure.”
I’m not including this quote to get at Canon users or Aussies, (even though I am a Nikon user and a Kiwi,) but because it represents a purely technical approach to exposure choice.
How can creative expression be judged as correct?
Photography, at its best, is a creative expression of how we perceive what we see. Our world view is unique. Each of us has the ability to interpret and convey our experience through the photographs we capture.
Freedom to expose our photos so some parts of our compositions have no recorded detail is a natural part of this art form. If our minds are boxed in by technical restraints such as are expressed on the Canon Australia website, our expression is inhibited.
I’m not suggesting we disregard technical quality – this would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am recommending you reach beyond purely technical restraints to expose your photos so that they are more expressive of what they are about, not just what they are of.
Conforming to the opinion that photographs are best when no details get lost due to exposure choice can provide documentation of what you are photographing. This approach to taking pictures will not often infuse your photographs with much life, emotion, or energy, apart from what your subject may naturally provide.
Histogram bells taste like Vanilla ice cream
Vanilla ice cream – enjoyable sometimes – but plain nonetheless. You are likely to get bored with it if that’s all you eat. It’s not the most exciting flavor at the ice cream parlor.
A bell-shaped histogram indicates your camera has recorded a lot of mid-range tones and little or no extreme dark or light ones.
Striving for a bell-shaped histogram is not going to produce the most flavorsome photographs. At times you’ll make a great image that’s got a bell-shaped histogram, but not often.
I believe it’s a common myth that the ideal histogram is bell-shaped.
You can see that the histogram for this image is reasonably balanced. There are no spikes to the left or right. This indicates we will see detail in the darkest and brightest parts of the composition.
I took the photo mid-afternoon on an overcast day. Because the light was soft and even, and the tones in my composition are all fairly neutral, I have obtained a ‘correct’ exposure.
Subscribing to the ideal of the bell shape, you might look at this histogram and think the photo is extremely underexposed. You might even consider deleting such an image based on this information alone.
It is the same statue photographed on a sunny day in the mid-afternoon. It’s a much more appealing photograph than the one made on the overcast afternoon.
It was my intention to lose shadow detail. I wanted to isolate the statue from the dull background and add some drama.
Exposure choices are as personal as ice cream preferences
Seeking to only create photos with an even exposure throughout the tone range is like choosing to eat just vanilla ice cream and always ignoring all the other flavors.
Great photographs express what the photographer sees and experiences. Sometimes they are technically correct, many times they aren’t. It all comes back to the intent of the photographer.
Choosing to let most of your composition fall into darkness is your choice. If you want to use the shadow areas to enhance your subject, then do it. If light streaming into your lens from behind your subject creates softness and depth of feeling, let it happen.
Don’t just focus on the technical details. You will usually end up with photos containing little or no feeling.
Before you bring your camera up to your eye, you need to see the light. Consider the brightest parts of a scene. Are they important? Do you need to show detail in them to convey what you want to with your photo?
Likewise for the dark areas of your photo – if there are a lot of distracting elements in the shadow areas – let them be buried in the darkness.
Behind the woman and elephant was a large, open building casting a helpful shadow over its messy interior. By positioning myself so I could only see the shaded area behind my subjects, I knew I could isolate them. I set my exposure for the woman’s face, as it’s the most important part of my composition.
The fact that the background is dark and contains no detail helps make my photo stronger.
Understanding light and tone will help you make more interesting exposures. Knowing how your camera evaluates and records light and tone is equally as important. How to manage your exposure is the topic of the next article in this series.
What’s the most important element in your composition?
Recognizing your key subject is an important early decision in taking a photo. Most often it will be your first.
This will be what you focus on and what you want to expose well, (usually). If your subject has a wide tonal range – say a bride in a white dress and a groom in a black suit – be careful. Your camera will not be able to render detail both in the dress and the suit because the tones are extremely different.
Likewise, if part of your subject is in bright sun and part is in the shade, you will need to choose your exposure carefully. The contrast created by sunlight and shade is also extreme.
Discerning your primary subject helps you compose everything in your frame around it. Exposing it well helps make it the center of attention in your photograph.
What mood do you want to capture or create?
To me, the answer to this question is more important to focus on than trying to obtain a full tonal range in my photographs.
The type of light you’re photographing in will influence the feeling in your photographs. So will your exposure choice. Is the light bright and hard, or soft and gentle? Should you set your exposure so you can see all the detail in the shadows or chose to let them become very dark and contain little or no detail?
Letting your camera make these choices for you, by not controlling your exposure, your photos may become flat and somewhat lifeless. By taking control and exposing your main subject well you can infuse story, drama, and imagination.
I have a mantra of sorts. Look. Think. Click.
Look at what you want to photograph. See what is before you. Your subject, it’s surroundings and the background. The light.
Think about how you want to portray your subject. What is your intention?
How much or how little do you want to include? What will fill your frame?
What quality is the light and how will it affect your photo?
Where will you stand or position yourself?
When will be the best time to take your photo?
Which exposure settings will you choose to best suit your intention?
Click. This should only happen once you have thought these things through.
It may seem a whole lot to do before taking a photograph, but this is what makes the difference between a snapshot and an image you may want to have framed and hang on your wall.
In the next article in this series, I cover how to manage your camera settings to match your intent.