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

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