Tag Archives: light

sunset at Huntington Beach California copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Things About Light that will Make Your Photos Pop

In a completely dark room, you can take a 24-hour exposure and get this photo:


Your camera needs light, no matter how little, to make an exposure.

So knowing that light is the most important ingredient for you to cook up your photo, it’s important to know some things about the behavior of light. You can learn to see how light affects your subject, and use that knowledge to make your photos pop. Here are ten things about light that can help you see the light and make your photos pop.

1. Light on a subject can be direct.

Light from a source directly shining on your subject is called direct light. Say you make your subject face the sun. The whole subject will be lit, creating no shadows.

2. Light on a subject can be reflected light.

You can also have reflected light on a subject. This is when the light source hits a surface which does not allow the light to pass through it. That light will bounce off the surface and hit the subject.

Quality of light copyright Aloha Lavina illustration about light source and how it lights a subject

Light can be direct or reflected back to the subject.

 3. Light is directional.

Light is like water in that it spreads as far as the space it hits. But if the light source moves, that light will also move. You can choose different light directions for a subject depending on the effect you want to achieve. Sometimes, you might want backlit photos. Other times, you might want side lighting, where the light is coming from one side of the subject.

4. Light produces shadows when it hits a solid object.

If you use a light source that is shining on one side of your subject, that side lighting will create shadows on the opposite side of the subject if your subject is solid.

surfers and shadows copyright Aloha Lavina

Light from the sun produces shadows when it hits the surfers.

5. Shadows produced by light define your subject’s shape.

Shadows create the illusion of shape in a two-dimensional photograph because shadows help to define shape. Without a contrast between light and shadow, all you’ve got is something like this:

A flat image, two dimensional to our eyes. No shadows define the shape.

6. Light is softer when it’s from a bigger source.

Light that is from a big source is softer because it loses intensity as it moves through space to hit the subject. (There’s a mathematical way to compute how size affects the intensity of the light, but that’s another tutorial for a whole different blog.)

portrait in natural light copyright Aloha Lavina

Light on the model's forehead is directly from the window and is harsher than the softer reflected light on the blue part of the scarf.

7. Light is harsh when small.

When the light is focused around a small space, its intensity increases. So if you could funnel a light toward a subject, the light on the subject will be very bright.

open hands faceless portrait Balinese woman copyright Aloha Lavina

Midday light makes both light and shadow intense.

 8. Soft light produces soft shadows.

Because shadows are direct products of light hitting solid objects, soft light also produces soft shadows. So in the early morning when the light is soft, shadows are soft.

soft shadows on hills Batanes Batan Island Philippines copyright Aloha Lavina

Soft morning light means soft shadows, too.

9. Harsh light produces harsh shadows.

Conversely, as we increase the intensity of the light, the intensity of the shadows will also increase. At noon when the light is directly over us, shadows are normally harsher than they are in the early morning.

10. Reflected light carries the color of the surface on which it bounces.

If you reflect a light on a surface that reflects one color, the light will take on the color of that reflective surface. That means if you stand close to a red car and we take your photo, the parts of you that are lit by the light reflected off the red car will have a red tinge. This is partly the reason why it is so exciting to shoot during the times when light has a lot of yellows, such as early morning. The hues in the sunlight bounce off everything and there is a glow in the things that you photograph.

sunset at Huntington Beach California copyright Aloha Lavina

Reflected light on the sand and water at sunset.

Seeing the light and understand how it affects your image is something that you can learn. Try this last tip—go out without your camera with the goal of finding direct light or reflected light. Without the pressure of having to take a photo, your eyes will learn how light hits different things.

I promise you’re going to want to take your camera with you, next time.

If you want to journey with me as I rekindle my love for all kinds of photography in 2012, and learn lots of things along the way, head on over to our new Facebook page (and like us!), where you can participate in project modules, get some feedback, talk photography, and have your photography featured in a monthly roundup!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
Week 4 Module Looking for Light
10 Things that will Transform Your Photographic Composition
Editor’s Picks Week 2 “Backlit Beauty”
Week 2 Module Backlit Beauty
10 Small Things that Make a Big Difference in Your Photos


rock on clouds copyright Aloha Lavina

Week 4 Module: Looking for Light

Sooner or later, it’s the light you’re shooting.

This week, we’re going to attempt to make that sooner.

A lot of people who pick up photography as a hobby start out by shooting content. What does that mean? Shooting content means focusing more on what is in the image while taking a photo. Interesting stuff, like cats or other examples of cuteness, shapes and lines, people in action, beautiful flowers. This is perfectly fine to do; when you shoot content, you are documenting your world. Your photos report what you see.

But as photographers mature in their skills, they might begin to see differently. This seeing differently usually means they not only see the design elements in a composition, but they also see how light changes how those things look.rock on clouds copyright Aloha Lavina

“The moment you take the leap of understanding to realize you are not photographing a subject but are photographing light is when you have control over the medium” says Daryl Benson. I would revise this to say that that moment Benson’s talking about is when you begin to have control over your photography. It’s a long and challenging journey, and the learning is steep. So we’re going to break it down into smaller bits that are easier to handle in a week’s module.

In this week’s module, our main topics are: what is the difference between the light in different parts of the day, what is directional light and how can I go get some, and a few camera settings that can affect the way you produce an image in different types of light. You can choose which part you would like to focus on for the week, and make the module as easy or difficult as you want it to be. If you learn how to spot different lighting conditions and how the light changes the way your subject looks, you’ve got something pretty good out of this week.

Breaking the Day into Different Lighting Conditions

I learned this by shooting a lot, usually when I travel, from dawn to dusk. Light has different qualities at different times of the day. In the pre-sunrise hour, light is soft, and usually has a bluish cast.

Ampawa Thailand before sunrise copyright Aloha Lavina

Pre-sunrise light is soft and bluish.

Sunrise introduces the warm parts of the spectrum. Early morning light is usually soft and puts a light yellow cast on things.

Taiping Malaysia early morning by the acacia trees copyright Aloha Lavina

Early morning light is soft.

As the run rises higher and the day gets warmer, the colors also become warmer. The photo from Siem Reap was taken less than an hour after the sunrise. You can see the light is very yellow, very golden.

Morning light Siem Reap Cambodia copyright Aloha Lavina

Morning light is golden. Yum.

In the middle of the morning, you will find two things happening: the light is becoming more “white”—it’s no longer got that orange tinge in it. One of the tricks I have to keep shooting all day is to find an indoor or roofed area and shoot subjects with light coming in from one side. This is called side lighting and is one of my favorite types of lighting. Side lighting is also called “Rembrandt lighting” because the master used it in his paintings. The effect of side lighting is to light one side of the subject and put the other side in shadow. This creates a 3D effect on the subject.

Thai monk midmorning light Thailand temple saffron robe Buddhist monk copyright Aloha Lavina

Mid-morning light can be directed through a window.


Midday light is of course harsh and considered bad light since if you use it for portraits, you will not be able to avoid unsightly shadows under the subject’s eyes. But you can actually shoot other things in this midday, high-contrast light. Silhouettes, for example. (Please do not look at the sun directly through your lens as this damages your eyes. I used the LCD of the camera for this composition below to avoid staring straight at sunlight.)

Batanes Philippines lighthouse in midday light copyright Aloha Lavina

Silhouette at noon.

Mid-afternoon light is beginning to lose its harshness and becoming directional again. Since the sun moved, it is now coming from a direction and you can find shadows and light tracing the contours of subjects, again.

Swing and leaf in late afternoon light copyright Aloha Lavina

Directional light happens, again, in the afternoon.

Late afternoon light, of course, is golden. Sunsets, if the sun comes out and isn’t hiding behind cloud cover, are some of the most beautiful light we’ll ever photograph. Mundane subjects can look fantastic in this light. Below is a video from PhotoClassPro about photographing sunrises and sunsets. (You will find that this lesson also reviews what you learned about exposure compensation from Module 2.)


Artificial light at night is something you can explore, too. Streetlamps, shops, car headlights and city lights can all bathe our subjects in interesting light. Even a garden lamp and the screen of an outdoor movie can help you render an image.

outdoor movie copyright Aloha Lavina

Light was from a garden lamp and a movie screen set up outdoors.

Camera Settings and Types of Lighting Conditions


Aperture Priority (A or AV Mode) is a great mode to use when you are photographing different lighting conditions. Aperture Priority Mode allows you to open up or close down the opening of the lens when you take your photos. This means if there is a lot of light (say midday), you can close down to a small aperture like f/11 or f/16. If you are shooting at pre-sunrise, you don’t have a lot of light, so you can open up your aperture to something like f/2.8 or f/3.5.

Here is a list of aperture that film manufacturers used to print inside the box of film you bought at stores. Low light: f/3.5 or lower. Medium to low light: f/4.5 or lower. Midday bright light: f/8 to f/11. Really bright light: f/16.

Here’s expertvillage talking about aperture settings when shooting outdoors. He also talks about the camera settings and how you can use them to get a good exposure.


ISO Settings

Digital cameras rock because you can change ISO settings from shot to shot, unlike sticking to one ISO setting in the case of film. ISO is the sensitivity of the ‘film’ or sensor to light. The higher the number of the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor, and the better it can see in the dark.

If you are shooting in bright conditions and holding the camera, you might want to use a low ISO like 100 or 200. If you are shooting in low light conditions, such as the pre-sunrise hour or after sunset, a high ISO like 800 or more will help your camera make an exposure.

Note: if you are going to use a tripod to steady your camera during a shot, you can use a low ISO even if the light is low. The camera will take longer to take the photo, but it will be steady on the tripod, and your photo will come out sharp. If you handhold the camera at shutter speeds less than say 1/30 seconds, chances are just the fact that you are breathing will create a bit of camera shake, and your photo might come out somewhat blurry.

For this module, your assignment is to shoot the light. Take a photowalk or two this week, and find some beautiful light. It doesn’t matter what your subject is, but make sure you use only found light (you found it lighting the scene, didn’t make it using flash or other light source you own)—whether it is the dramatic sunrise or sunset, or light from a window on a still life scene you created. What you will learn from looking for the light will amaze you forever.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:

Week 2 Module “Backlit Beauty”
Beginner’s Guide to Light

Let Shadows Speak

Dynamic lighting in a photo begins with direction and quality of light, but it doesn’t stop there. Part of the effect in dynamic lighting is where the shadows fall. You know that rule in physics that says ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’? This tension also works in photographic lighting, except that we could rewrite the rule as ‘for every light there is an equal and opposite shadow.’

So controlling the light means controlling the shadows. This effect can create lighting that is dynamic, three dimensional, and eye catching.

We can learn basic lighting conditions, whether in a natural setting like in travel photography, or in a more controlled setting like when using strobes or window light. To add to this wonderful skill is the ability to read the stories that shadows tell.

Telling stories with shadows is a great way to learn dynamic lighting. When we can learn to see where the light falls, how much it falls off and in which direction, we can start designing images that tell stories.

Where you stand to take a photo affects where light and shadow fall in the final image.

The photo of the two people was lit using ambient light, light from broken walls and holes in the ceiling of an abandoned mansion. There was light coming from above both the woman and the man, and the shadows falling around them framed the shot. If I had moved a little to the left, two things would have happened: the man would have been out of the line of sight of the 50mm lens I was using, and the woman would have had less shadow on camera left. Positioning the camera where it was, I was seeing the way the shadows would frame the scene. Moving around is one way of controlling the direction and amount of shadow in a photo.

Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Another vantage point that was deliberate was in the next photo where the model is below the camera; I was standing on a ledge in another broken building. The light was coming from camera left, through a broken wall. The harsh midday light created deep, dark shadows around and beside the model, making shadows on the wall, and forming pools of shadow around the path she walked. The mystery created by the shadows gives the photo a story telling quality I would not have achieved if I had the whole scene lit up.

Paying attention to shapes created by shadow can make a shot dramatic.

Lighting a scene, we know, doesn’t need to be complicated. In this shot of some Indian fashion, I only had a high window to work with, and a distant doorway some 300 meters behind the model. I found a place where the window light would directly shine on her face and side. Having done this, I also saw that the curvy geometric shapes and their shadows in the image complemented the pose and dress of the model, so I played up the shadows by underexposing the background and using a small aperture. The slower shutter speed gave me a sharper take on the dress plus created a three dimensional image. Controlling the settings to augment shadows in a shot is another way of allowing shadows to tell part of the story.

Telling a story with a photo doesn’t just depend on where light illuminates and what it illuminates. Where the shadows fall also speak stories.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative


All You Need is a Window

As well as an inspiration on photo walks, light is easy to find at home. All you really need is a window. At any time of day when there is light coming through a window, you can use it to create a beautiful side-lit portrait. To make a portrait with side light, position the subject parallel to the window, like in the diagram below.

A lot of painters use window light.

Beautiful side light creates classic lighting for a portrait. The shadows created on the side away from the window make for dynamic lighting because the shadows actually show the contours of the subject—essential for a three-dimensional effect.

A floor to ceiling window camera left created this creamy lighting on model Chloe.

My friend DJ posed beside a window and his long hair made a 'rim light' effect with shadow, too.

If you’re looking for inspiration this week, try some photography at home! All you really need is a window.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Let the Light Inspire You
Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative

Let the light inspire you

Everyone who’s been through grammar school knows that photography comes from the Greek words for “light” and “write.” In a word, photography is writing with light. But for those of us who write with light, sometimes two things can happen. One, we focus more on the content of the photo—the elements in it, what the image “means.” Two, we have days when every thing we point our camera at says, “Blah.” These two things may not seem related, but maybe they are.

Take landscape photography, for instance. I’m not a landscape expert or one who shoots a lot of landscapes; most of my shots are portraits. But I like looking at landscapes, and I just came across this article at Digital Photography School saying “Shoot the light, not the land,” and how the light is really what makes or breaks a photograph. I tend to agree—the landscapes that have dramatic light are the ones I fave on Flickr or comment on in other forums. Light turns me on.

Which brings me to my second point. I think on days when we feel like the camera is bringing us blah, we should look for the light.

Light on a bunch of dead leaves can make the scene look alive.

That means the content doesn’t matter. We look for pockets of light that drape over a forest. We search for streams of light across mundane objects, like a chair at a driving range.

Light streaming from the side can make an uncomfortable iron chair look quite inviting.

We wait for the sunset to reflect its light on clouds above a pond with a rock sitting in it.


Dramatic light reflected on cloud reflected on a pond can make even a rock look magical.

Light is what inspired the first photographers, and light should inspire us now.

How about you? What’s your love affair with light?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
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Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.




Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative

The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity

With all the different dSLRs available at reasonable prices now, and the marketing money companies spend to push these cameras, it’s not difficult to think that the camera you buy can create brilliant photos.

Cameras are very smart these days. The Program mode of a camera has so much technology in its favor that it could actually decide all the settings, and all you have to do is press the shutter release.

But technology aside, photography is a creative art. And most of the fun of doing something creative is well, creating. Someone once said that the two most important things in a work of art are technique and impact. Without impact, perfect technique can translate to boring.

Understanding how a camera takes a picture depends on understanding the three most important settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO–the holy trinity of photography. Knowing how to use these settings to execute an artistic decision is a skill that will create photos with impact.

I am not a technical learner, so when I take photographs, I don’t really think about the settings before I think about the impact of the image. Impact comes first, and then I decide what to do to achieve it. This is what I call making a “subjective exposure.” A subjective exposure is when I use the settings of the camera to create an effect in the image.

Shutter Speed

Market motion in Vietnam.

When I spotted the two people in the market, I made an immediate decision to show how busy the market was using these two people isolated in the frame. To do this, I slowed down the shutter speed, to create motion blur in the two people. This slowing down of the shutter speed suggests haste, and that is the message in the image. What I did here was to make my shutter speed a lot slower than what I needed to take the photo at 90mm. At that focal length, I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/90s to take a sharp photo, but I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/30s.

Panning with bicycles in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Another way of showing motion is with a technique called panning. Panning can be done in low light, like in the early morning before the sun is really bright, or later in the day when there is less light. To pan, set the camera to Shutter Priority (or Tv), and adjust the shutter speed to around 1/30s for a moving bicycle, or about 1/15s for a walking person. Use a wide focal length, like 17mm for this shot. Focus on the moving subject from one side of the frame, and keeping the shutter button pressed halfway, follow the subject until they get to the middle or end of the frame, then press the shutter release to take the photo. What this action does is to make the subject you focused on sharp while blurring the background.


An aperture decision keeps everything relatively sharp, Nepal.

In this scene, I spotted the girl standing still by the blue wall, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy running. I wanted both of them in the photo, but I had to choose to focus on the girl and keep the running boy as sharp as I could. So I focused on the girl, making the wall and her sharp. I also knew that because I had a lot of light available (it was late morning), I could use a small aperture, f/9 or so, and still have a good exposure. So I adjusted the aperture and waited for the boy to run into the frame, and then got the shot.

Greasy boy isolated using wide aperture, Laos.

For this other portrait, I had a small boy who had painted his face with grease. I was talking to his father about the fishing nets he was mending when he ran close by and stopped. He would go away, and then come back again, and when he came back one time, I had my camera ready. I wanted to blur the background to give more emphasis on his face, so I took the photo at a large aperture, f/4, blurring the background and giving the boy’s face more prominence.


Dancer getting ready, Bangkok.

On assignment for CNNGo, I spent a day with classical dancers from rehearsal to that night’s show. My challenge was the low lighting in the dressing rooms and the almost dark lighting of the stage. For the dressing room, I was lucky to have a good fast lens, a 50mm f/1.4. But the only light I had was from the mirror lights, so I pumped up the ISO to 1250, and was able to take a sharp photo at f/2.8 of this  dancer with his costume being sewn on. (For an explanation of why the costumes have to be sewn on the dancers, read the article here.)

Dancers frozen in motion using high ISO, Bangkok.

Later, for the performance, ISO was again my friend. For the performance, I was only allowed to photograph from a row without any other audience, so I needed to use a long lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8. In the near dark of the theatre, I had to bump ISO all the way to something like 64,000 or something really dizzying like that. I got a high enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the dancers while they did these cartwheels, even with the very low light and the long focal length.

Difficult lighting

Girls in dappled light, Bali.

In situations where there is difficult lighting, like deep shadows and uneven light, decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO can help create a good shot.

For the girls under the thatched roof, the dappled light created drama, but I had to be very quick before they moved. So I kept the aperture wide, at f/2.8, and the ISO at 200. The shallow depth of field added to the mystery of the scene.

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Being published may not be everybody’s dream, but I’ve read somewhere in David DuChemin’s excellent book “Visionmongers: Making a Life and Living in Photography” that almost everyone who picks up a camera for the first time and enjoys using it invariably, perhaps fleetingly, see their name as a byline for a published photograph. Whether you are a beginner who is venturing into the steep learning curve for a photography newbie or someone who’s been shooting for a while, there is a way for you to explore your love for photography in greater depth, and to share your images  with an audience other than your family and friends.

At some point in your journey into image making, you might arrive at the proverbial “crossroad” where you have to pause and think of where you want to head next. Should you attend that next workshop? Is going pro right for you? Should you quit your high-power job and become a pet photographer like Grace Chon? Or do you prefer to perfect your technique and creative skills so you can take gorgeous images of your travels for friends and family to ooh and ahh over?

Many DSLR owners do not think beyond using their cameras to record their special days, but if you have that buzz of excitement every time you go out with your camera, you probably will experience your re-vision: a moment of rediscovery that will bring insight into the kind of photographer you want to be.

In my own journey I’ve been through a few revisions of my goals. In the 1980s my only goal was mastering exposure with a manual film camera. Then in the 1990s it was getting used to digital format, with the freedom of changing ISO in the middle of the same shooting session. In the mid-2000s, I found myself doing a 180-degree turn from people-less architecture and lonely landscapes into full-blown portraiture mania. And now, just six years after my first digital camera, I am working some 35-40 hours a week as a freelance commercial and fashion photographer.

As the decade comes to a close, here I am again, reinventing myself by registering at the amazing MatadorU travel photographer’s course, and my first assignment is: what type of travel photographer do you want to be? It’s certainly a loaded question, and less than a 100 words makes this new vision a challenge.

Hmong girls look longingly at balloons for sale in Sapa, Vietnam. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Then this morning, I woke up at 1.55 am on the western coast of Koh Chang in the South of Thailand. No one was awake at that hour; the beach was asleep. A stubborn wind rustled the palm leaves, and an almost full moon glowed, its faint light tracing a beautiful line across the water.

The answer to the question came to me. I am excited by light, and the way it behaves and makes every thing beautiful. Light is what excites me and pushes me to become a better photographer, whether in my commercial or editorial fashion work, my personal projects, or travel. So the kind of travel photographer I want to be is “someone who tells stories using light to take the audience to the three-dimensional moment captured in an image.”

What about you? What kind of photographer do you want to be? Tell us in your comments!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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