Understanding Light – And Shooting It Right

Understanding Light – And Shooting It Right

In 30 years of photographic experience, I ‘ve made several great friends who work in Photo Labs. When asked about the biggest mistake they see every day; the response is always the same. They usually answer after a long sigh, “These people just don’t understand light.”

Remember: all cameras average the existing light. What that means is, just because you can see it .doesdon’t mean the camera can. The human eye is far more sophisticated than the most expensive camera money can buy. If for example, you stand someone in front of a bright window, your eye can still tell who that person is . . . but the camera can not, at least, not without help. Your eye will zoom into a person’s face and ignore that bright light around them, but the camera will not.

The camera’s whole purpose in life is to make an image that is 18% gray. Long ago, someone decided that 18% gray was as close to the human eye, as a camera can get. But if for example, 80% of the picture frame is filled with light that is brighter than 18% gray, what does the camera do It tries to average out the given light. It will take your best friend and makes him or her, a silhouette. Don’t get mad at the camera, it’s only doing what it’s told to do.

Remember, if you want a subject to actually be white (a wedding dress for example) you will have to give the shot more light than the camera suggest. If you want it to actually be black, (a black horse for example) you have to give the shot less light than what the camera is indicating.

I like using a flash and do so about 80% of the time. Some events won’t allow a flash indoors. If that’s the case, get a higher speed film (400 or 800 ISO) and use a tripod. If you can’t give a subject more light, give it light for a longer period of time. If you use a flash, the camera speed is usually about 1/125th of a sec. or faster. But if you re not allowed to use a flash for example, you may shoot available light at 1/30th of a sec. or slower. (That’s why I also suggest the tripod.)

I use flash more than most photographers I know, even outdoors, (when I happen to be shooting people, that is). Why Just because there s plenty of light, doesn’t mean that it’s the right kind of light. Bright light (like at high noon) causes harsh shadows. I can give a short burst of flash (commonly called: “Fill Flash”), and suddenly my colors are more vibrant and the shadows are less harsh. Keep in mind, if you don t want the flash itself causing harsh shadows it has to be higher than your subject. That s why studios use those light stands to begin with.

You have to make the decisions about how to expose your photos, not the camera. The camera is only a guide, but it has no artistic taste. It will only do what it knows how to do, which means it will give you an average exposure. If you want your shots to look extraordinary, don t rely on just an average reading. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but not every combination makes a great novel. What you do with those 26 letters determines if you are a great writer. What you do with the information your camera has, determines whether or not you are a great photographer.