Terms – Exposure

I have written several posts that mention photos should be properly “exposed”. What does it mean to properly expose a photo? Good question. That is exactly the issue I intend to demystify.

“Back in the day” when every photographer used film to capture a scene for posterity the process included light rays piercing the film and chemical coating. When I refer to exposure, it is based on this process and how long the film is “exposed” to the light. If the film was left available to light it will be unintelligibly “bleached”.

So what this means in our digital world is we look at our digital exposures for areas that does not accurately represent the colors of our scene.

Proper exposure is not dependent on your field of photography. For example, a photo-journalist does not use a different measure for proper exposure than a commercial portrait photographer would. Each vocation specialty may prefer different exposures for their purposes, but there is one common key; they all want their subject in this range of proper “exposure”. We will discuss this more in-depth in our next post “Terms – Exposure 2”.

Exposure is effected by length of shutter speed, amount of added light (flash, strobe or constant) and lens aperture. All of these we have covered in earlier posts. For now, what are the keys that will help us discern a proper exposure?

Detail – How much detail is visible in the photograph? Detail represents the photographic subject and the surrounding scene.

Depth of Shadow – How dark are the shadows in the photograph? This will cause detail to be obscured.

Bright areas without detail – What areas in the photograph are saturated with more light than necessary? This will cause detail to not be visible.

As you look through pictures take some time to look at shadows and bright areas. Look for detail and consider other places the photographer could have stood for more or less light to expose the shot.

Showcase Lighting

Have you seen those pictures that take your attention and your will to look at any other photo dwindles? Maybe it is a picture of a young woman looking out the open window with the curtains blowing toward her.

The “best lighting” is directed from natural light source placement. This is what I mean by “natural light placement”, light should be coming through the window (back to the photo description above) and not around the window.

There is an important lighting technique which I refer to as “even lighting” or as others say “flat lighting.” “Flat lighting” means that the light is spread across the subject without creating harsh shadows or excessive amounts of light. Not meaning the shadow is absent but having control of the harshness or contrasted effects of the shadow is important!

I used to think that I needed no other light source but the ambient light of the outdoors; while the lighting is always perfect outside with the sun as the source, reflectors, diffusers and shades are great ways of flattening the ambient light.

Adding light with flash and strobe was my primary apprehension, because it is so easy to displace the natural lighting with one overpowering light source. This is not to say adding light with flash and strobe is bad, just a word to the wise that adding light in this way brings a lot more skill and thought to the table than anticipated.

“Showcase Lighting” is all about drawing the viewer’s attention to a specific place in the photo. This is to say, consider what your picture shows. Motion? Draw the viewer’s attention with the movement direction. Personality? Highlight the facial expression including eyebrows, eyes and/or mouth.

Lighting really is a way of communicating where you want people to look without words. Learning how to do this is not easy nor can it be reduced to a formula (at-least not to my knowledge).

Portraits – Flash

Flashes are designed to do just what their name suggests, “flash”. This operation is different from a studio strobe because flashes do not light as lamps before firing. Flashes are smaller when compared in size to studio strobes and much more portable.

Flashes are a quick and easy way to add light to a photo without requiring a full light set-up and accessories like reflecting umbrellas. Just to be clear a flash is no substitute for the full lighting set-up.

I have so long kept back from writing about strobe, flashes and every other studio light because it is very easy to think “If a little light is good, then more is better!” or “This shot isn’t quite right because of this dark spot, it must need more light.” These assumptions are not always true.

Up to this point I also have not defined the venue of the photography. Many portraits these days are shot outdoors. Yes a good number are shot in a professional in-door studio, but just because more or less are shot in one place over another means absolutely nothing when it comes to doing your best job with each portrait. As I write this article, I have an outdoor setting in mind with some great texture variations and color fusion. Something like your nearest botanical garden.

Never hesitate to use the light already in your setting. The more natural the lighting looks will enable you to focus on your subject’s personality and facial expressions.

I understand there is a lot to think about when taking photos, believe me, I do not work like some photography super hero. We will get better, faster and smoother the more we practice the right techniques and processes.

Having your subject looking into the sun can be hard to do for a while, so offer for them to turn their back or side to the sun and fill your shot with a flash. Perhaps even getting the hard shots over first and then just dealing with the flash in the rest of the shoot will not be as difficult.

Always being considerate to the subject so that looking any one  direction is not kept up too long, find a routine that works well for you and use it!

Portraits – Soft light

Softening light is a process in which light is made to evenly fill the viewing area. This can be done in many ways but often the simplest methods are the best. Soft-light is not only about adding light, it also involves making sure that the natural light in your shot is not too concentrated in one place.

Basics: When lighting a surface it is important to light the surface evenly to prevent overlapping coverage. Light is a key element to showing the rise and fall of a surface. So as you can imagine, if a person’s face has areas of their face better lit than others it can give them a very strange appearance.

Softening the light can be done basically two ways by either diffusing the light or reflecting it. Diffusing the light uses a direct light on the subject with a partly transparent piece of material between it and your subject. Lighting companies sell “soft boxes” which fit over the light making it easier to soften the light than holding a diffuser in-front of it for every shot.

Reflecting the light is indirectly lighting your subject by bouncing the light coming from your light source (sun, porch light, strobe, flash, etc) directly on your subject. Indirect or reflected light will not be as “harsh” as it would be from the light source but can still be too harsh if physically placed too close to your subject. So use distance (close or far) to your advantage here as well!

Listed below are some examples of diffusers and reflectors. Have fun and use your imagination! This is the stuff of artistic shooting!

Diffuser:

  • Umbrella (Great for artistic element in a shot too!)
  • Translucent fabric (not darkening fabric)
  • Plexiglas (colored Plexiglas)

Reflector:

  • Water
  • Disk (sold at any videography and photography lighting store)
  • Fill card (Light or dark-colored – darker colors absorbing more light)

Portraits – Lighting

Light is what I call one of the “basic three”. Without light, either natural or artificial, it would be impossible to see or photograph anything. Now we have an understanding that light is important, but what are the other two parts of the “basic three”? They really are so practical we think too hard when trying to answer this question; A quality camera and a well designed lens.

Onto our topic for today, light is so common and we have so much of it in so regular a time that we take if for granted. Lighting is essential for contrast and definition but before we scatter into all the areas to which light pertains, let us take a moment to remember some things which we have previously discussed.

Lighting angles are vital:

  • Portraits are best lit when the light source is within a 45 degree angle to the subject on a horizontal plane and not to high above the subject to avoid deep shadows around the eyes.
  • Silhouettes can be made when the light source is behind the subject and the camera is appropriately set.
  • Back-lighting is meant to remove shadows and highlight the edges of the object.

We have also talked about a few things which will add light to a shot by reflecting the natural light which already exists in a setting and how to soften this light. This is all well and good, but I would not serve you well if I did not address equipment which can add light in your photos.

Flashes and studio strobes are wonderful tools for adding light, however I must say they are not the cheapest tool. I am grateful to have some experience with studio lighting but it is this experience I want to share with you.

Studio strobe are adjustable in intensity and power as well as offering tethering ability, which enables the photographer to use more than one at the same time. In our next post we will look into strobes and how they use other methods of lighting with one source.

High Dynamic Range

Almost everyone has something to “show off” or say about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos. Well, I am like everyone else in that I have played with HDR photos, using it and many other techniques to draw out the beauty of each photo’s subject. However, I can not say that I am completely enamored with HDRs more than any other technique.

So why write about HDRs on your blog if you do not like them more than other techniques, right? Ah, well that is the beauty of appreciating each tool that is at our disposal without over playing any one of them!

Please do not misunderstand my position. I like HDR photos, but I do not want the HDR technique to be so commonly used that it is no more amazing than any ordinary thing! A lot of things should be used in moderation. For example, would you add a tablespoon of salt to your bowl of soup? No! Salt is best used in moderate amounts, often spoken of by saying “add salt to taste.” It is this same principle by which I wish to use the HDR technique.

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HDR photos can be used in several ways. Again, I do not wish to disparage the use of HDR or call it “cheating”, because many things are required in shooting HDR. Just a few examples are:

  1. An in-depth knowledge of lighting.
  2. Vast experience in camera handling.
  3. Pointed expertise with image editing.
  4. Measured speed and timing of the shutter releases.
  5. Knowledge of how your camera sees the scene.
  6. Specific settings for each captured image.

So in no way is it cheating! Certainly some who may speak less of shooting High Dynamic Range photos would be correct to say it is not worth the effort because their ‘niche’ does not cater to the technique. Since I am a “minimalist” photographer, I love HDR for the fact that I can get 3+ photos, edit them together and “voila!” the photo has all of the detail we can naturally see!

Yes, I know that there are good reasons to use flashes and studio strobes; but why, with so many other techniques at my disposal, would I sacrifice the artistic ambiance for using flashes? It seems to me, to use such logic would be the same as saying “I cut my nose off because I run into the stone pillar.” Well okay, Cyrano,  but I would rather utilize all of my standard equipment than remove it because I tried to make it occupy the same space as a solid mass!

One other use of an HDR is to draw out the color of the scene creating a “wow” factor unsurpassed in any form of natural art I have ever seen. I have mainly seen the HDR used in this way for landscapes, seascapes and city scenes.

Thank you for reading!