Question of Creative Exposure

Recently one of my workshop attendees reguritated an often overused and frequently misunderstood cliché “See the light shoot the light”

Many photographers both professional and hobbyist alike have been led to believe that this quote means that the light is everything in photography. That it is in fact the end all be all. While it is true that without light there is no way for us to record the image the light is truly only one side of the coin. The flip side of that coin is exposure or more importantly the proper exposure for the creative image we have in mind at the time.

I cannot count how many times a student has asked me what should my exposure be? A simple question it would seem but in truth it is a creatively complex question with an answer that is often simply “you exposure should be correct.” So perhaps the more appropriate question is where should take my meter reading? The answer to that lies in the answer to the question what is your creative vision for the image you wish to create?

We all know that exposure is a combined result of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. These same three factors play into our creative decisions so before we can determine our correct exposure we must determine the creative goals for our image.

So let us consider our image let’s assume that we are in the park photographing our children in natural light in the late afternoon. Now let’s determine what we want from our images from a creative point of view.

Do we desire to freeze motion? If so we will need sufficiently fast shutter speeds to freeze the motion something in the area of 1/500 sec or faster and to achieve this we may need either a fast lens f2.8 or a higher ISO to achieve the correct exposure for the image.

Do we desire a very deep depth of field? If so we will need to consider using a tiny aperture of say f/18-f/22 to insure that we have that crystal clear image from front to back. In this instance the shutter speeds and ISO will differ significantly. We may be able to leave the ISO at 100 for the best possible pixel quality but may need to drop to a significantly longer shutter speed.

Do we want a shallow depth of field with that butter smooth bokeh that so beautifully separates our subject from the background and removes otherwise distracting elements form the image? If so then we need to go back to our fast lens and add in a longer focal length and again the exposure settings are going to be different then for the previous two creative choices.

While each of the above examples are theoretically being shot in the same “LIGHT” each will require a different set of exposure settings to obtain the creative results we are after. Of course we could set the camera to AUTO and allow it to think for us and leave the creative element of our photography to chance. Sadly too many do just this because they lack the basic understanding of exposure and the results of course are erratic and simple snapshots. In a snap shot the lack of creative control of the light is clearly visible. A snapshot may be good enough for the family photo album but is rarely consistently good enough for the family mantel or wall. If all you want to do is capture snapshots then for you it really is ALL ABOUT THE LIGHT.

However as photographers we challenge ourselves to be creative, artistic even. Part of that artistic vision is of course our ability to see and shoot the light but it is only the beginning. When as photographers we start to recognize the light as yet another tool in our tool box to help us creatively capture photographic images we truly begin to understand exposure. When we understand exposure we develop the ability to be consistent in our photography and when we become consistent we begin to create images that tell a story, capture a moment in time and elicit an emotion. As photographers we know that the light is the tool we need most to accomplish our ultimate goal of recording a creative exposure. In short, correct exposure is the result of the photographer’s ability to control and manipulate the light.

Playing In Water

Young girl playing on roundabout in sunny park

Playing in autumn park

Photo credits: Nicholas Stubbs, Pro777, Raycan.
  • Photoshow
  • Loveland, United States
I am a creatively driven and artistic freelance commercial photographer with 15 years of full time commercial photography experience. This experience includes both studio and location photography and I am equally comfortable in either environment. In addition to working as a commercial photographer, I am also a recognized photography instructor and have in the past 9 years successfully produced in excess of 800 photographic lighting, posing and post productions training sessions for small to medium sized groups of aspiring photographers and interested individuals in Nevada, California, Colorado and Arizona.

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August 11, 2019

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August 26, 2010

Very nicely said! You hit the nail on the head for me. Not being a professional photographer, with lots of experience under my belt, I find it a struggle at times to blend my creative vision with the technical aspects of my camera while understanding how to use light as my tool. Thank you for sharing.


August 25, 2010

Great blogs about photography comes from pro people like you! Thanks for sharing the useful explanation about exposure!


August 25, 2010

useful information and nice photos!


August 25, 2010

Your images are amazing... Wow.


August 25, 2010

Wonderful theorie and blog!


August 25, 2010

Good explanation. And I would like to take good pictures like that!