“How do you photograph that great light?” is one of the top three questions I’m asked about how I make my photographs. It’s a good question because the camera sees light differently than we do, and unless you know what’s possible, you’ll struggle with retaining the mood of beautiful light. That struggle is more difficult for photographers who are still chained to their histograms and using some kind of automatic mode without EV Compensation. As good as today’s cameras are, you still have to do some of the thinking, because the camera tends to average things out a bit.
Average is the enemy of mood.
I don’t do “tips & tricks” articles, but here are three ways you can think differently about light to make images with the kind of atmosphere or mood you’re hoping for.
One: Meter for What Matters
I no longer use metering in the traditional sense. I look at my histogram to see what I’m capturing and what I’m losing, and then I weigh that against what’s important to me. Sunset rhino? I want those shadows nice and dark, and I don’t want to lose the highlights. I want the image to be dark and the colours saturated, so I often underexpose by at least three stops. If you’re exposing manually, you know how to do this. If you use Shutter or Aperture Priority mode or even manual exposure with Auto ISO (as I do much of the time), you’ll want to use your EV compensation to knock the exposure down three stops (or whatever is necessary for the scene you’re photographing).
EV Compensation is your way of telling the camera, “Hey, make this scene lighter or darker by a stop or two,” and it’s probably the camera function I use most. Throughout a day of photographing, I’ll move my aperture and shutter around now and then, but I’m always moving the EV compensation up and down to save highlights or darken the scene to keep the mood. Because I tend to favour strong shadows, I’m more often forcing my camera to see the scene darker, and I’ll want to preserve highlights at the expense of detail in the shadows. Sometimes it’s the opposite. But you have to know what you want. If that means exposing manually, do that. If it means getting really comfortable with your EV Compensation while in one of your automatic modes, then do that.
Expose for mood; don’t let the camera push you around.
Two: Know Your Light
It’s one thing to be able to say, “Wow, that light is nice!” and another to understand what you like about it, what to do with it, and how to change it. As I write this, I’m on my back porch, looking at the light streaming through the ferns. Because the light is coming in from behind, the ferns have a beautiful rim light. I know that if I got my camera out and underexposed them (or exposed for the brightest highlights), I’d have a beautiful shot with dark greens and just a lick of light revealing the contour of the leaves and their distinctive fern shape. Other ferns I’m looking at, not so much; the light is hitting them from the front, and there’s not much magic there. If I wanted to photograph those, I’d move around them and explore the possibilities. Sidelight amplifies texture. Backlight allows light to shine through the ferns, as though they’re lit from within, or it can create a beautiful rim light. But the moment the sun gets too high, the magic will be gone, and I’d have to take my cameras deeper into the woods behind my home if I wanted to chase the mood.
Three: Chase the Mood
I’ve said before that there’s no good light and no bad light, and I still believe this to be true. But some light creates a stronger possibility for mood than others, and you won’t see it if you only photograph at mid-day in great weather.
Interesting mood is found at the edges: the edges of day, the edges of weather, the edges of light and shadow.
Finding mood and magic is often as much (or more) about when as it is about where. Actually, it’s usually at the intersection of when and where, and you need to be there when it happens. If your photography is a hobby of convenience and you’re only out on blue-sky days, you can’t possibly hope for the kind of mood we’re talking about. You can make photographs that are strong for other reasons, but they won’t be especially moody. You’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to be there then. When it happens. In the fog, at dusk, in the rain and the snow.
There are other ways to make photographs with a sense of mood. Shallow depth of field and out-of-focus highlights (bokeh) can do it. Nice and dreamy. So can a slow shutter and a moving subject (or a moving camera). Multiple exposures can do it. And a fantastic moment, no matter the light, when a friend throws their head back in laughter—that too can be emotionally ladened and full of mood.
When I do portfolio or image reviews, my most common reaction is one (if not all) of these: there’s not enough mood, there’s not enough story, and there’s not enough you. If you’re looking for a new challenge, consider looking at your work and asking how you could amplify any or all of those. If it’s mood, I hope some of the ideas above will nudge you forward. As a start, look at the images in this article and ask yourself how you feel about the images, what’s the mood, and what choices did I have to make to get that mood into the photograph?
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Two More Things
In case you missed it, I’m back on Instagram and sharing not only my photographs, and my ideas, but also my progress since the amputation. I’m there @davidduchemin and if you’d like to hear from me more than once every two weeks or so, I’d love to see you there. And if you’re part of a camera club and you’d like to bring my teaching to your club, I’ve got a great evening presentation on video that’s free to any camera club that will host me. It’s a great way to bring something really meaningful to your club and I’d be so grateful if you shared this with those who plan the events and lectures. You can find more information and get the video lecture and everything you need to promote and host the event here at InspireYourCameraClub.com.
Finally, a footnote. It’s now exactly two months since the amputation surgery. I’m walking a lot, though always with crutches. I put more weight on the prosthetic leg and foot every day, and the time is coming soon when the crutches will go into the closet and I can start putting my efforts into regaining my lost muscle and figuring out how to return to the activities and adventures for which I swapped my real foot for a prosthetic one in the first place. Many of you have been cheering me on, especially since I returned to Instagram. I can’t fully express my gratitude, but thank you.