Seeing The Light

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.
If we see, or visualize, that difference in advance, we know, even before we look through the viewfinder, that when shooting in aperture-priority or shutter-priority mode, we need to use our camera’s exposure compensation control to dial down (reduce) the exposure to the point where we have no "blinkies" on our camera’s LCD monitor. That’s required because the darker areas of the scene fool the camera’s light meter into thinking the scene is darker than it is, therefore overexposing the smaller highlight areas.

For my photograph, I reduced the exposure to -1.3 EV (11/3 stop). That setting worked in this situation. The amount of EV compensation depends on the size of the highlight and shadow areas of the scene. The smaller the highlight area or areas, for example, the more you need to reduce your exposure.

When shooting in manual mode in this situation, you could take a spot or close-up reading of the model’s face. If the contrast range is too great for the camera to capture, you have options: Shoot HDR (high dynamic range photography), add fill light with reflectors or flash, or shoot at a different time of day—or even a different time of year.



Seeing the direction of light is important because that tells us where the shadows will fall and how deep or shallow the shadows will look in our picture. It also tells us, perhaps even more importantly, what areas of an image will appear brightest in our photographs. With that knowledge, we’ll know if important parts of the scene will be illuminated, and correctly exposed, or not. We need to set our exposure for those bright areas. In my panorama of a section of the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley (above), it’s the sidelighting that created the dramatic shadows.


Getting a good exposure of a front-lit subject is relatively easy because the contrast range is relatively small.

Front lighting can look cool, but rim lighting can be more dramatic. I photographed a polar bear in Churchill, Canada (left). The sun was setting behind the animal and off to camera-left. I knew I wanted a silhouette, but I also knew that rim lighting would create a cool effect.

In situations like this, your camera’s highlight alert is especially important. If those very small areas of rim light are overexposed, you could get what’s called "pixel blooming," where very bright light spills over to other pixels on your camera’s image sensor, resulting in even more overexposed areas. A general rule in a situation like this is to dial down the exposure compensation even before you start shooting.
Look for rim light when photographing animals. That light, combined with a silhouette, can result in a dramatic image.

Speaking of silhouettes, one of my favorite silhouette photographs was taken in the Masai Mara in Kenya.


At sunrise and sunset, the light changes very, very quickly. You often need to adjust your exposure second by second. The key when including the sun in the frame is not to overexpose the areas around the sun, and the sun itself, if possible. Yes, your camera’s highlight alert comes to the rescue once again—if you have it activated. Not all digital cameras have the highlight alert, and those that do often don’t activate it by default.

Knowing that the sunlight is coming directly into your lens tells you something important: You need to remove all filters. If you don’t, the sunlight will pass through the filter, bounce off the front element of your lens and back onto the filter, and you’ll get a ghost image of the sun in your photograph.



The next two photographs, taken at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, illustrate the importance of the quality of light. I took the first of these photographs about a half hour before sunrise when the quality of the light was soft and warm. Getting to the site in the dark and planning for this predawn photograph was the key to getting the shot. My basic philosophy when I go to a location to shoot: You snooze, you lose, and I can sleep when I’m dead.

Look what happened shortly after sunrise. The quality of light in the second photo was very harsh and totally changed the mood and feeling of the scene. So the main tip here is to plan your shoot around the light, which is also illustrated by the next pair of photographs.




Seeing the color of light is imp
ortant, and these two photographs, which I took minutes apart at Artist’s Palette, Death Valley, illustrate that point quite well. I took the first photograph with my camera’s white balance set on Cloudy, shortly after sunset. Just look at those amazing and wonderful colors in the rocks.

Yikes! Although I basically used the same composition for the second photograph, taken shortly before sunset and with my camera’s white balance set on Sunny, it looks like a totally different scene. The only difference: the light.

Yes, we can change the color and white balance in a picture in Photoshop and Lightroom and with plug-ins, which I enjoy doing. These photographs are straight shots, however.

When it comes to color, we have two major choices: true color or our color. Me? I’m often interested in my own color because I like photographs on the warm and colorful side. However, when I was working on my book, Flying Flowers, I was interested in true color, as were my science advisors.

To get accurate in-camera color, I suggest using a device called the ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite.


Why is it important to see the intensity (brightness level) of light? Because, if we do, we can begin to set our ISO even before we start making pictures.

For example, when my workshop participants and I set out in total darkness to make sunrise photographs at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, we knew, before arriving on site, that in order to capture the predawn light, we had to set our ISO higher than the ISO settings we would use for our after-sunrise shots, when the intensity of light would be much greater.

When it comes to the ISO setting, as the light level increases, it should decrease because, unless you’re looking to add noise to a photograph for a creative effect, you should always shoot at the lowest possible ISO setting for the cleanest possible image (unless you’re shooting action, which often requires high ISO settings).

Tripods allow us to shoot at low ISO settings even in dark conditions. Keep in mind that for long exposures—say, 15 seconds and longer—noise increases, especially in nighttime shots. To reduce the noise, it’s best to use your camera’s noise-reduction feature. Noise can also be reduced afterward in Lightroom and Photoshop and with plug-ins such as Topaz DeNoise.


When I talk about the movement of light, I’m referring mostly to moving objects such as water or automobile lights at night. When we see the movement of light, we can visualize how different shutter speeds will affect a photograph, either blurring or freezing the action.

I can’t suggest the best slow shutter speed to use when photographing moving cars and flowing water. It depends on the speed of the water or cars, as well as on the desired effect. My advice would be to shoot at several different slow shutter speeds, and choose the image you like best when you get home. Oftentimes, it’s hard to make a selection of the best image on-site because everything looks good on a small screen.


Here’s an example of capturing the movement of light. The relatively long shutter speed added to the mood of the scene. Looking at this image, as well as most of the images in the article, you can see how all the qualities of light—contrast, direction, quality, color, intensity and movement—come into play when making a photograph. That’s why it’s so very important to learn how to see the light. Once we see the light, we can make the correct exposure decisions and make the best possible in-camera photograph.

To help you find the best light in any location around the world, I developed an iPhone and iPad app, Rick Sammon’s Photo Sundial. You can find it at the App store and on the My Apps page at

Rick Sammon is a longtime friend of this magazine. See more of his creative digital work on his website at

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