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Light And Your Photography: Some “Seeing” Exercises Bookmark and Share
In order to gain an understanding of how to use your metering system to get great exposures it is important that you begin to see with a “camera eye”. Before you get too deep into this issue, take some time to walk around outside each day. Like in this glowing fall scene (#1) take a look around and notice how the world is composed of levels of light and dark and how surfaces and different colors reflect more or less light. Observe how shadows form, how their depth is influenced by the proximity of the subject that created them and the brightness of the prevailing light. Look at how color creates mood and a sense of place. Look at the shadows and how they define form and space and help define context and movement in the frame.

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All Photos © George Schaub

Look at the brighter areas in the frame, as in this interior shot (#2). Observe how the surfaces affect the light and how the direction of the light has a profound effect on our perceptions. Find a scene where there are many levels of brightness—as in this photo made in a flea market in Santa Fe, New Mexico (#3)—and see how light and dark cause some areas to come forward, others to recede and how that interplay creates dimensionality in the image. Frame a picture that has a rhythm of light to dark and notice how the composition of those elements create depth and spatial relationships, as in this photo of a staircase in Las Vegas, Nevada (#4). Shadows define form and brighter light creates context. The interplay of detail and silhouette can be a powerful compositional technique.

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Light and color also create texture—an almost visceral presence in photographs. If you want to understand texture and light just look up at a stormy sky (#5). The play of light and dark define texture, which in turn creates edges, scale and shape. If you are near water, take special note of how it reflects the light and how changing your point of view can create “spectral highlights” — the glint from water that is texture formed by bright light and deep shadow (#6) as in this photo made along the Spree River in Berlin, Germany. Squint a bit and blur forms. Look at how color and light form a kind of halo around certain places and things, how they form geometric shapes of light and color that are the building blocks of composition, as in this arrangement of light and massive forms of the San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico (#7).

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Once you have observed your “framed” scene, change your point of view so that the sun strikes it from a different angle. Walk to the side or around the scene so that you are 180˚ from where you originally stood. You may notice that every time you change position the relationship of brightness values also shifts. A pond is an excellent subject for this study (#8) because you can walk all around it and see it from many different aspects, each with its own character and quality of light.

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A tree that was bright and lustrous before has become a silhouette. A body of water that sparkled with light is now a dark mass. Leaves on a tree change in the wind as they reflect the light.

These suggested seeing exercises are an important part of understanding how a photographic metering system works and how light is translated from the real world onto an image. The aim is to understand how light intensity is ordered from light to dark and how brightness values are relative to your point of view. It is the first step in seeing through a “camera eye” and gaining an instinct about how brightness values are translated to vibrant tonal values in your photographs. It also is a way to effectively shape our compositional and point of view decisions.

The ease of use and automation of today’s cameras should not relieve us of “seeing” and understanding how all of this works. No matter how automated or sophisticated the camera might be, the way we interpret light is what leads us to making exciting, effective images of the world around us.

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