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Learn How to “Read” Light

Since there is so much to discuss, join me at Office Hours on March 5, 2012 (10:00 AM PT) for my FREE Webinar Series. The topic of discussion will be exposure, both in the camera and in post-production. You all know that I’m a Lightroom advocate, so we’ll be talking about Lightroom 4 and all the new exposure controls in this new release of the software. As always, this is a first-come, first-serve webinar, so sign up and show up early!

Jared Platt’s ‘Office Hours’ are Sponsored by The Photo Life and Pictage. For more information about Jared Platt go to http://www.jaredplattworkshops.com. For more information about Office Hours and The Photo Life, go to http://www.thephotolife.org/authors/jared-platt-authors-2.

Let me take you back a few years. Just ten years ago, we were transitioning from film to digital and twenty years ago, digital was still very Buck Rodgers and while it was a cool idea, everyone said that nothing would replace film. So, twenty years ago, I was learning the intricacies of film exposure. Back then, we talked a lot about the Zone System and because there was no instant feedback on the back of our cameras, we all carried around an incident light meter and we double and triple checked our exposures because, while negative film had a lot of latitude, if we underexposed that film, we had nothing!

Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. That was the mantra. You had to protect those shadows with your very life, because underexposed shadows gave you clear film and clear film equaled flat black with no detail…i.e. nothing! And for those of use shooting weddings, that was a very frightening prospect. The white dress could fool any camera meter into underexposing the shot and 50% of the people in the shot were wearing black tuxes.

Learning to correctly expose film with consistency required a sort of “boot camp” mentality. Mentors and instructors drilled us on taking readings and making exposure computations time and time again, which gave us confidence in our ability to see and read light and know the exposure of each tone within the frame. Then digital came along and a whole new generation of photographers entered the scene. Many may never have held an incident light meter. Many have never spot metered a tux or a dress. Most simply guess the exposure and look on the LCD screen and adjust! The most technical lesson digital photographers learn today is how to read a histogram after the shot. And if you have not learned that lesson, then we really have entered a brave new world.

Just because we entered the digital age and no longer blindly shoot latent images on gelatin does not mean that we can dismiss exposure. There are many exposure lessons in digital that are still critical to the final quality of our images. For instance, now, rather than protecting the shadow during the exposure, we must protect the highlight. With film, we could burn through the silver buildup on a negative and still get some detail out of an over exposed highlight, but once a highlight has reached an even R255 G255 B255 level in a digital image, you effectively have clear film! That means no detail, which will result in a flat white paper print…i.e. nothing! And if this is a wedding dress, you’ll have quite a disappointing image!

In the process of protecting the highlight (a dress or a cloud) in a shot, the exposure ends up darker than you would like. And if you are a “guess and cheat” shooter, you’ll invariably increase the exposure in the camera to get a bright, pleasing image on the LCD screen. The result? An image that feels nice on the camera screen, but falls apart when it is printed. I have heard it so many times, when discussing RAW vs. JPG shooting, “I just expose correctly in the camera!” But what photographers fail to recognize is that exposing correctly in the camera does not mean that the image will look perfect in the camera. Ansel Adams called it pre-vissualization: the act of seeing the final print from the point of the exposure. Often that meant he had to overexpose the negative and then under develop it, in order to get the perfect print. Don’t ever think your image must look perfectly exposed in camera. While that works in controlled lighting photo shoots, it is not the case with most documentary and available light images. Perfect exposures most often do not look great in camera because the photographer has pre-vissualized the final image from the point of capture and protected the highlights by under exposing the mid-tones.

In the example above, I am shooting without fill flash in open shade. The sun is blasting the grass and of course there’s sky and mountains to contend with as well. I underexposed the shot by a stop and a half to control the exposure on the grass and in the sky. This makes the subject too dark, but that’s why we develop for the shadows in Lightroom. If I had shot this image to look perfect in-camera, the girl would look great, but the grass and sky would be blown out. Could you live with a blown out sky? Maybe, but blown out grass is unacceptable. But because I exposed to protect the highlights and developed to perfect the shadows, I have the best of both worlds.

When you encounter an uncontrolled lighting situation with a wide dynamic range, you can still get a great deal of exposure latitude by exposing for the highlights and developing for the shadows. The trick is to push the exposure as bright as possible without blowing out the brightest IMPORTANT highlight. Experience will tell you how much exposure clipping can be recovered in a RAW exposure. The resulting exposure will often feel a stop or so underexposed in the camera, but when the RAW image is brought into post-production, the shadows and mid-tones can be brightened significantly to bring the exposure back up to that ideal look you envisioned in the camera. It is no different than what we did on film. We exposed for shadows and developed and printed for highlights. We are just reversing the rules when it comes to digital.

This does not mean that you can severely underexpose without consequence in digital anymore than you could severely overexpose without failure in film. But with experience and wisdom, you will come to know how far you can push the limits of your exposures in the highlights and the shadows. At this time, digital has far less exposure latitude than film, so exposure is even more critical in digital than it was with negative film. Learning exposure is critical to the success of your images. Do you know what your histogram should look like? Do you know how far you can push a highlight before it is unrecoverable? Do you know what type of exposure yields the greatest number of tones? Can you read your exposure meter and take a photograph without reviewing the LCD screen to make sure you exposed it correctly? If not, it is time to learn.

About Jared Platt

Jared Platt is a professional photographer and photographic educator. He studied photography at Arizona State University where he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees in Photography. He teaches college photography courses as well as workshops for professional photographers and provides online education for photographers and photo enthusiast throughout the world.


The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!