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Seeing The Light

A primer on contrast, direction, quality, color, intensity and movement

We all want to get the very best in-camera exposure, and a good exposure is all about correctly capturing light, the main element in every photograph. That said, your idea of the best exposure might be different from mine because, for one reason, you may prefer photographs that are a little darker or lighter than I prefer.

The first step in capturing the light is to “see” the light, to visualize the effect of light on a subject. After all, if you think about it, a photograph isn’t a picture of an object, it’s a picture of light falling on and reflected off an object. No light, no picture.

As creative photographers, we also need to think about the importance of shadows. Here are my four easy-to-remember expressions that drive home the importance of shadows in a photograph. Light illuminates; shadows define. Shadows add a sense of depth to a photograph. Shadows are the soul of a picture. Shadows are your friend.

Of course, you can and should use your camera’s histogram and highlight alert to help you determine a good exposure. Basically, you want to avoid spikes on the right of a histogram, and you want to avoid “blinkies” (overexposure warning) when your highlight alert is activated.

In this article, I’ll share with you some examples of the effect of light—more specifically, the six qualities of light—on a subject. Those qualities are contrast, direction, quality, color, intensity and movement.


The most important technical element in a photograph is contrast. I say technical because the mood, or feeling, of a picture is of utmost importance. What’s more, we can control contrast in Photoshop and Lightroom, to a point, but for now, we’re just talking about getting the best in-camera exposure.

One of the elements that makes the opening image (which I took in Death Valley, Calif.) for this article interesting is strong contrast: The wide difference between the highlight and shadow areas of the scene. We need to see that difference in contrast because we usually don’t want to overexpose the brightest part of a scene—the woman’s face in this photograph—which is a very small part of the entire frame.

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