Category: Photography Instruction

Photography 101: Light

category: Photography Instruction

Break down the word, and “photography” means “writing with light”. In this era of digital media, Photoshop, and the like, it’s easy to forget that light is the essential component of photography and no amount of post-production can “fix” bad light.

Most of my photography students come to class using the “P” or “Program” setting or the “Green Idiot Box” as I  refer to the fully automatic setting. These students are generally frustrated because they spent a lot of money on their nice camera, yet they get inconsistent results with their photography; sometimes they “luck” into a decent shot, then in others it’s over or underexposed, blurry, or partially out of focus.


I always tell them, “the camera doesn’t have a brain; you do! Setting your camera on “P” or the “Green Idiot Box” is essentially telling the camera, “You’re a lot smarter than I am, so go ahead and make all the decisions for me.” And trust me; the camera will certainly try. You have to remember this; the camera really only cares about light and having enough light to make an exposure on the “film” or “digital media”.

I learned an important lesson from one of my mentors, Jerry Ghionis: look for the light first; then look for location. How many times have you spied a beautiful location–let’s say the beach at sunset–and  you say to your kids, “OOH! Go stand over there with your back to the sunset so I can capture a picture of you with that lovely background.” You take the pic  on “P” and what do you get? Probably a nice picture of the sunset with very shadowy children standing in front of it. Look for the light first.


I took the picture below with my iPhone to demonstrate this point:


If you notice, the background is perfectly exposed; the camera did what it is supposed to do! But what about the little girl? This is not the image we are seeking. Had I turned her 45 degrees from the window and exposed for her face, I would have had a nice window-lit image and no underexposure.

If you get brave and decide to try out some of your camera’s other settings, you’ll soon discover a world of possibilities will open to you. In future posts I’ll be talking about how to get there.

Does this mean you should never shoot into a back-lit situation? In general, yes, but if you learn to adjust your camera properly, you can indeed shoot into the sun and get great results. As in all situations, learn the rules first and then you can break them. For example, I purposely placed this high school senior in a back-lit situation:


I metered for her face and set my camera accordingly. Is the background blown out? Yes, but that was the effect I was seeking. Incidentally, this was her favorite image from the session.

I encourage you to be brave and take the camera off “P”! Go out and experiment before you try this at an important event. Subscribe to this blog to receive updates on future posts. Happy shooting!


One Response

  1. InezLOkane

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I remember when I first starting taking pictures regularly–not professionally, but just for fun–I was overwhelmed by all the camera settings. I had a “good eye” as they say, but a good eye won’t take you very far. As I tell my photography students, a good eye is only as good as the brain behind it! It’s fantastic to get a great shot by “accident,” but if you can’t recreate that shot–at least mentally–then you are not truly utilizing your camera to its fullest potential.

At any rate, part of my mission as a professional photographer is to help others become better. I know so many of you out there have fabulous cameras and maybe fabulous lenses, but you continue to shoot on “P” or the “Green Idiot Box” as I affectionately call it! I started offering photography classes a couple of years ago to at least get people started on learning more of the features of their cameras. The problem was, 3 hours just isn’t enough to learn what you need to in order to feel comfortable with your camera. Therefore, this past weekend, I offered a 2-day course: the first was in classroom learning to cover the basics of photography, and the second was on-location shooting with models.

I had such a great group of students! They were all eager to learn and asked tons of questions. After our day of in-class discussion, I could see most of their heads were swimming with tons of information; most left a little bleary-eyed. They showed up on Sunday afternoon looking a little overwhelmed, but once we started putting our knowledge into practice, everything started clicking (no pun intended!) I loved seeing the light bulbs going off over their heads as what I had taught them in class finally made sense in a practical setting. Having models to work with helped as well because they got to experiment with different settings and lighting conditions.

We finished up with a post-class discussion at The Frothy Monkey, where we talked a little about post-production and some of my favorite iPhone apps! Now that my website is live, I will be posting weekly photograph tips and tricks, so be sure to check back in. And, if you want to learn more about YOUR camera, stayed tuned for the next photography class.


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