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Light is essential for creating a photographic image. How the light is measured and captured in the camera will affect the resulting image. In this chapter, you’ll learn to control how much light is rendered in your “light drawing” or photograph. In the following chapters, you’ll learn to compose within the frame of the viewfinder and to adjust the tonal range during the post-production process. Since outdoor light is a direct product of the sun and moon, the amount of natural light in a photograph also relates to the time of day. Conceptually, time, considered as both duration and as the shift in lighting as day passes to night is a rich theme for photographers and artists to explore and interpret. The new media artist duo Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead (known simply as Thomson and Craighead) created an installation titled Horizon that displays a representation of the time at one specific location—the horizon (FIGURES 4.1 AND 4.2). On their website, they write:
- Horizon is a narrative clock made out of images accessed in real time from webcams found in every time zone around the world. The result is a constantly updating array of images that read like a series of movie storyboards, but also as an idiosyncratic global electronic sundial .
FIGURE 4.1 Thomson & Craighead, Horizon, 2009. Screen view, Dundee Contemporary Arts. Image provided courtesy of the artists.
FIGURE 4.2 Thomson & Craighead, Horizon, 2009. Installation view, Dundee Contemporary Arts. Image provided courtesy of the artists.
Your camera may offer you anything from no control over the way light is registered on the digital sensor (which is ultimately responsible for the resulting image file) to complete control in manual mode. Some of the information in the Camera Mechanics exercise won’t apply to your situation if you’re using a point-and-shoot camera or a mobile device. However, most of my students have access to consumer- or prosumer-level (not quite professional but a step above the consumer level) digital cameras and many have digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. This range offers the photographer some degree of or even full control.
Photography began as a technical and scientific pursuit of creative and documentary expression. The pervasive nature of digital cameras makes it difficult for some people to conceive of the craft as specialized. For many, the camera is just another gadget. Harrod Blank’s Camera Van (Figure 4.3) includes one of every Polaroid camera ever made along its front grill, and that’s just the beginning. The word “SMILE” is printed across the top of the van, each letter formed of Kodak Instamatic cameras (Figure 4.4). On the driver’s side, a camera-mural of the Kodak Instamatic is made of mounted Instamatics. Do they work? Yes, they do! Screens display photos taken with the van (Figure 4.5). Blank showcases image galleries for each set of audiences he’s driven past in Camera Van (Figure 4.6). After learning of the many ways to control the production of a single photographic image, even skeptics should agree that the craft is as rich and complicated today as it was in the days of glass negatives.
FIGURE 4.6 Harrod Blank, Soy Bean Farmer, MN. Photograph created by the Camera Van.
The amount of light required to make a photograph is measured with a meter. In the predigital era, some SLR cameras had built-in light meters, while large-format cameras did not. External light meters are still used today in photography studios. Digital cameras include a built-in light meter. The light meter registers the amount of light that’s either in the center of the frame, averaged throughout the frame, or—for some cameras with the “spot” option—at a specific location within the frame. Understanding how to adjust your camera settings to comply with the light meter specifications requires you to understand the role of the f-stop and shutter speed camera controls. The light meter reading will show you how much light will be required to make a legible exposure for a balanced combination of f-stop and shutter speed settings discussed in Exercise 1x. Generally, the purpose of your exposure will be to present photographic details at the extreme areas of contrast in the image. That means you’ll want to capture details in the highlights and details in the shadows.
If you’re shooting in automatic mode or can’t control these settings, you’ll simply point and shoot, and then hope for the best. Be careful when composing images in high-contrast lighting situations. Avoid shooting at or near noon, when the sun and shadows are strongest. And avoid low-light situations.
If you’re working in manual mode, once you know how much light you need, balance the f-stop (which governs the diameter of the aperture) and shutter speed (which controls the duration of the shutter release) settings. Your choices about these two settings will depend on the depth of field (in the case of aperture) and movement (shutter speed) you want to include.
Some cameras let you create photographs in “aperture priority” or “shutter speed priority” modes. This means you can choose which of those two features you want to control. The camera will set the opposing lighting variable according to the choice you make.