Metering: The process of taking a light reading from a given area to determine what your camera settings should be for proper exposure of that area.
I remember my "Ah Ha!" moment very distinctly. It hit me one sunny afternoon while I was sitting on my couch, doing nothing in particular. I was several months into taking photography seriously and had spent countless hours pouring over every tutorial I could find. Suddenly everything I had been reading came crashing together in my mind, and from it a VERY useful piece of information floated to the top.
Getting my dial to center on my meter did NOT equal perfect exposure. Say What?!
One of the great things about getting a new camera is how the learning curve has inspired me to get reacquainted with some fundamentals. I find myself playing with different situations just to see how my camera will behave - and in the process, I reinforce what I know about photography.
Tonight, I played around with light. Literally. I was drying the baby off after bath time, and noticed the light spilling from the bathroom doorway into the bedroom. I knew there was a shot there, so I placed the baby in the middle of the doorway and started hunting.
Once you understand how truly limited a digital camera is, you really understand how amazing the human eye is. Just looking at Stella from my bedroom, I could see all of her facial expressions and the details of all of the light in the bathroom but my camera couldn't. There was just too much difference between the bright light of the bathroom, and the dark of my bedroom for the camera to make out her face - even though I could see her plainly. It's a hard concept to wrap our heads around, initially.
But once I understand where my camera is limited, I can use it to my advantage for some pretty artistic effects that one just doesn't experience in our everyday looking around.
First I expose for the background. My settings were ISO 2000 (it was REALLY dark!) f/1.6 and shutter speed of 1/320. By exposing for the background - the brightest thing here being the chandelier - Stella becomes a void of black, or a silhouette. The trick here is first to get your exposure correct, and then wait for the silhouette that tells the story. Here I waited for her to turn to the side so I could make our her cute little button nose.
Since I had some wiggle room in the shutter speed, I decided to slow it down and try to expose more for her face. By moving the shutter speed to 1/40, her face became recognizable, but the background light becomes extreme. Holy incandescent blowout!
It's definitely not the prettiest light for a baby (think more moody album art, bizarro thriller or even ), and it's definitely not in focus, but it was a worthwhile experiment - one I haven't done in quite some time!
When we created this site - we had two main goals. The first was to create a fun, warm, safe place for moms to show off pictures of their kids. Done - check! The second was to create a place where moms are continually challenged to learn how to take better pictures. Almost done- half check! :)
I (all bias aside!) think we are off to a GREAT start! The information is here and available to you, but I really want to to challenge you to take it a step further and start the process of taking better pictures! Don't worry, we are going to help! :)
So here's what I want you to do:
1) Participate in the monthly challenges! It's fun and there are cool prizes!
your set up. Myself and/or Adrienne will critique and give suggestions for improvement for every picture posted, from composition, to post processing, to focus, we will get down and dirty with SPECIFIC suggestions. We ask that you follow up our suggestions with another picture attempting to put them into action! It's going to be a conversation, give AND take to help you improve.
This thread will be in the same vein as "Critique Me", but will be much more in-depth and focused. Other members are welcome to jump in if they have something to add or a question about anything posted, but we promise to do the heavy lifting here. The goal is to have at least one thread strictly dedicated to helping you take better pictures! :)
SNAP TO IT!
So what is a good exposure? Simply put, it's an image that is an accurate and artistically satisfying recording of what you saw when you took the picture.
Every pixel that lives on your camera's image sensor records either red, green or blue, each measured in increments of 0-255. 0 = black and 255 = white with every shade inbetween. It's those numbers that make up a digital photograph.
In fact, your images are natively recorded in a color mode that your computer understands as RGB, referring to - you guessed it - red, green and blue. This will be important later when you bring your images into your computer... but for now, let's get back to exposure.
If too much light is let into your camera and allowed to land on the pixels that make up your image sensor, then you will get pictures that are a sea of white! Those tiny little pixels were slammed with more light than they could handle, so they recorded 255 (all white!) and BOOM - you lose important color information. This is called an overexposed photo - your image sensor was over exposed to light!
Anyone wanna play spot the child in this overexposed picture on the left?
Clearly, so much light was let into the camera that the pixels were all "blown out" (that's cool speak for pushed to 255 or all white). Not all examples are this extreme - think of when a blue sky appears white instead of blue, or when just part of your little one's nose or cheek gets lost in a sea of white. There was too much light let into the camera for the sensor to give you an accurate representation of what your eye saw so the actual color information is lost!
Compare that photo to one taken just a few seconds later on the right - this time with different camera adjustments.
It's your job (and sometimes your camera's) to determine how much light is allowed in. This is done by adjusting your aperture, shutter and image sensor settings to prevent images like this from happening. But before we get to how we determine what those settings should be, we need to look at what happens when not enough light gets into your image sensor.
So what happens when too little light is let in? The pixels lose out on information too - just to the opposite end of the spectrum. All the important information for your image gets lost in a sea of black! Your picture becomes underexposed - your image sensor was under exposed to the amount of light it needed to make the picture!
We weren't going for a silhouette of a rocking chair in this photo! There wasn't enough light let in the camera to accurately record these sweetie-pies' faces (or much else). So most of the pixels on the camera's image sensor recorded 0 - or black.
How then, do you control how much light hits the sensor? By finding the right combination of settings for the three most important parts of your camera. Again - aperture, shutter and image sensor.
Sounds simple right? Well, it's not. There are an infinite number of combinations and finding the right one for your situation can be really daunting at first.
If backlighting is what happens when your subject is lit from behind while you expose for their face, then silhouettes are what happen when a subject is lit mostly from behind and you expose for the light.
Silhouettes are created in extreme lighting situations when the light behind your subject is bright and the light on and in front of your subject is low. When you expose for the bright background, you render your foreground and suject to be darker, giving you a silhouette. It's a great storytelling trick that puts just the form or the "idea" of your subject completely in context with it's background. Just look at this story told at the beach near sunset...
When using a point and shoot camera or shooting in automatic, turn off your flash and the camera will do the work for you - automatically exposing for the brightest part of the image (the backlight). When shooting in manual, spot meter for the background (the brightest light) by pointing your camera at the backlight and get your settings from there!
One of the best things about Silhouettes? They're easy to accomplish with just a little bit of trial and error and they go a long way to help you understand how your camera handles exposure. Artsy and informative - what's not to love?!?
It's one of those things. You probably nailed it on accident once or twice and had no idea how to do it again. You've certainly seen in some really jaw-dropping photos but you could never put your finger on exactly what was going on. But wow, once you understand how backlighting works you can reap it's benefits and rock it in your own photos!
Backlighting is easy to describe. It's that beautiful light that shines from behind your subject, illuminating them to the point where they quite literally glow! It can truly take your breath away when done well. But it's not always the easiest effect to acheive - it's one of those lighting opportunities you have to be on the lookout for, and then know how to take advantage of it!
Generally, backlighting works when the light behind your subject is far brighter than the light in front of them. Momtographers will likely find when the late afternoon sun is low in the sky, there's plenty of opportunity for backlighting. Just position your tot facing away from the sun (look for that glowing rim around their hair!) get infront of them, and snap away. They don't have to be directly between your lens and the sun, in fact, it's better if the sun hits them more at an angle. And you'll have to be on the lookout for lens flare depending on how much light is directly entering your lens. It's a practice that takes, well, practice. But it's an effort that pays off in glorious images.
But once you find your backlighting - you still have to get your camera settings right. This can be tricky in and of itself. Backlighting creates a dynamic lighting situation that can be hard to meter for. Where do you meter? The face? The hair? And what mode do you meter in? Spot? Center? (Yes, yes, we promised simple, but you said you wanted "serious snap" so it's time we start asking some of photography's harder questions).
We suggest starting with spot metering and going off your child's face. You're going to get lots of blown exposure around the hair and in the sky - but that's part of what makes this look work. In fact, you're just going to have to learn to accept that with backlit photos, you will end up with some overexposed, blown out backgrounds. Because unless your cutie is a glowing ball of brightness like your light source, chances are their skin is go ing to be darker than the background. You can try slightly underexposing thier face to maintain more detail in the background area - you can always play with it in post processing to brighten up the face or bring the background down further. This is what we've found works best most of the time. Well, that and learning to live with overexposed, blown-out backgrounds in exchange for an illuminated glowing angel child!
There's one final challenge with a backlit photo... that's getting nice light on the face and a catchlight in the eye! Why? Well, the light's BEHIND them. But, if you have them facing a reflective source like a reflector, a body of water or a bright wall bouncing light at them, well then, voila!
We love love love window light! There is just something about it! We said it before in Brand Spankin' New - every home has at least one great pocket of light and often times it will be in front of a window, or better yet, a bunch of windows.
Window light is great for many reasons: you are almost guaranteed good catchlights, your light is lightly diffused and usually pretty even, (except for times when the sun is low in the sky shining directly through it), plus you have the added benefit of being indoors, sheltered from the elements - you never have the weather to blame for not getting GREAT pictures of your fam!
The other great thing about finding an awesome window is the predictability! Over time you will be so familiar with the light and how it come through your window, it will take little effort to create magic time and time again in your little "spot".
The key to really using good window light is to have the window behind you or to the side of you and your camera while your subject faces it. Here - sometimes it's just easier to SHOW you...
Adrienne's happy place in her Alabama neighborhood is her kitchen! As we see here, she has the window to her back and sweet Sydney directly facing the light streaming in.
And here is an example of some of that magic that Krista loves to conjure up in her living room! Krista is lucky enough to have a living room that is 3/4 covered in windows (quite the rarity in NYC!). Needless to say, she spends a LOT of time shooting there.
She's actually sitting on her window sill with little Miss Luca directly in front of her, looking up at her.
Oh - here's actually a picture of the window Krista was sitting on... but used differently. This picture is a whole other way to use window light - as a backdrop! But that gets a little more complicated, so we'll save it for another lesson or we'll check it out in our learn by looking section!
Bottom line - consider window light the gift that just keeps giving to your family-documenting journey. Even, beautiful, glowing light that will show your child in the best light!
If every day were a bright cloudy day, the world would be yours for the picture taking. Ah - if only we controlled the weather, right? But since we haven't yet figured out how to cue the clouds, we have to look for "pockets" of good light to optimize our picture taking conditions. Enter your friend, open shade.
Just like it's cousin, the cloudy day, open shade creates conditions favorable to picture taking because it is an evenly-lit soft place. When taking photographs outdoors with all-natural light, your biggest obstacles are hard-cast shadows and extreme brights and darks.
So what is it? Open shade is the place where light and shade meet to create an evenly lit space that is just off of the bright light, but not in it. You find it by looking for the hard line at the edge of the light - and then place your subject TOTALLY IN THE SHADE, but FACING the light.
Think garages, doorways, porches, overhangs, and alleyways. Anywhere a nice solid shaded area comes smack up against a wall of light.
You would never know by looking at this picture that just in front of Chloe was the high noon Las Vegas summer sun! The ottoman that she is laying on is right up to the edge of a cabana opening where she is facing that bright light, but not actually in it. 1/2 a foot back towards the wall and it she would have fallen into the dark. 1/2 a foot forward and it would have been too bright for a good picture! But right at the edge of where the two meet is MAGIC!
What to watch out for -
A common mistake made by beginners and (surprisingly) even some seasoned momtographers is when looking for open shade they go right to that beautifully shady spot under the tree in the backyard. While this may seem like a great idea, unless your shade tree area is very dense, most trees create what is known as dappled light. You know when you look at someone and see cheetah-like spots all over them from the shadows created by light coming through the trees?
Look at the top picture! The baby's got spots! What looked like a nice shady area really wasn't one!
Now look at the spots on the ground all around the stroller - that should have been our first warning. Before you start snapping under the tree - inspect the ground - do you see any of the telltale spots? If not, then go for it. If so, then it's really not true open shade - it's more like broken shade!
Again, your safest bet is to look for true shade next to or under a real stucture. Find that line between light and dark - put your subject i n the shade facing the light and VOILA!
Upside down and backwards.......if you haven't figured it out by now, that's how most things in photography go. So why wouldn't outdoor lighting be any different? Ask anyone but a photographer, "What kind of day do you think is best for taking your kids out for some awesome picture taking?" and the answer is going to be, "A bright and beautiful blue-skied sunny day!".
Well if your name is Annie Liebovitz or if you had an arsenal of equipment, years of experience and invisible sunglasses for your kiddos, that might be the right answer. But since none of the above apply (at least for us!), allow us to introduce you to one of our favorite secret weapons - the bright cloudy day!
We just adore bright cloudy days - they make Momtographers look good! See, an overcast sky is natures diffuser. The clouds capture the harsh bright light of the sun, filtering and spreading it into soft, even lighting that is very flatering - especially when photographing children. It's so flattering that bright overcast days should be written into the schedule as portrait days!
If you remember from our talk on light and exposure, the science of digital photography has to do with how your camera records light to make a picture. All cameras have limitations on how much information they can see and interpret - even the best camera doesn't have near the range of the human eye. For this reason, bright, sunny conditions can be extremely tricky for your camera. Generally, in bright sun, two things happen that work against you:
First, the direct sun is so powerful that it creates huge extremes between light and dark - too extreme for the sensor on your camera to interpret and record. In an effort to properly record one extreme (usually the white), your camera completely loses the other.
The second problem is the harsh shadows cast on whatever the rays of the sun aren't hitting directly making the difference between light and dark even greater. This means unless your children came stock with removable foreheads, their eyes will get lost in the shadow of their brow bone while the sun is overhead. That's if their eyes aren't already totally shut from squinting!
The photo above demonstrates both problems that sunny-day shooting can cause. The first problem is the harsh shadowing cast by the direct unfiltered rays of light coming from above. Because Sydney has her head tilted down, her entire face is covered in shadow, save for a little bit of light reflecting off of her Paw Paw's cap. And Paw Paw, are you even there?
But a BRIGHT overcast day - one with an even covering of light grey clouds that cover the sun - creates light that is soft and even allowing a digital camera to get much more detail from every part of the color spectrum. This ensures that you won't be searching for your little one's eyes in a shadow, or lose too many important details in the dark trying to keep the highlights from blowing out! All you have to do is look for a good background and you're covered.
See this picture of Chloe - she is standing out in the middle of the sidewalk where normally there is no shade and it would be far too bright to get an evenly lit picture. But because it was slightly overcast - Krista was able to effortlessly capture this portrait followed by Chloe's afternoon jumpathon!
Notice how Chloe's face is evenly lit and here eyes are bright and open wide! THANK YOU OVERCAST SKIES!!!
What is it?
We made it! A digital photograph does not exist until your camera's image sensor is exposed to light. It's the place where all those mysterious megapixels you were sold on live. Quite literally, your image sensor is a rectangular-shaped platter of millions of little light sensitive pockets called pixels waiting for you to snap your shutter so they can collect light, divide it into red, green and blue and save it as a file on your memory card. All that to say - the image sensor is what receives the light and interprets it into an actual digital photograph.
How is it measured?
ISO is the measurement of how sensitive your camera's sensor is. Why it's called ISO isn't going to help our cause, so don't stay up at night worrying about it.
Depending on your camera, ISO numbers are typically 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc.
If you remember anything about film cameras, ISO is very much like film speed. Changing this setting doesn't actually change how much light your camera collects (that's up to the aperture and shutter), it just tells your camera how sensitive it needs to be in receiving it. A low ISO setting means the sensor is less sensitive, while a higher ISO setting makes your sensor more sensitive.
What does this mean to you?
When there's lots of light, there's no reason to increase the sensitivity of your image sensor. So on a bright sunny day - set ISO to it's lowest available setting. As the light decreases (shade, evening or darker interiors) increase your ISO. That's it - easy peasy!
Your camera was optimized to make the best images when ISO is set to it's lowest setting. If the right amount of light is let through the shutter from the aperture, a low ISO setting allows the image sensor to deliver it's best work - crisp, clear, pristine digital images. So, if you can, you want to keep it low.
Sometimes, especially indoors, there just isn't enough light available for your sensor to get a good exposure. Turning up the ISO increases your sensor's sensitivity, making more out of the light it receives.
But NOTHING comes free, right? The higher you turn up the sensitivity, the less accurate the sensor becomes. What's referred to as "noise" is introduced to the image.
Look at the photo above. The ISO on a beautifully lit late afternoon was accidentally left on 1250 when it probably should have been closer to 200-300 (hey, it happens to all of us!), and what would have been a gorgeous set of photos was marred with noise. But on the shots where the exposure was pretty good, the noise wasn't that big of an issue, even at full magnification. You can see some of the telltale dots, especially in her hair and in the shadows on her skin, but unless this photo was meant to be blown up, it really is fine for the family collection.
Where we run into trouble is in the photos where the exposure wasn't correct. Normally we'd just adjust the exposure in the computer after the fact, but photos with noise resulting from high ISO settings don't respond very well to even minor adjustments in post proccessing. Below is another photo taken on the same afternoon with the same unfortunate ISO settings. A beatiful moment was captured, but underexposed. Look what happens to the noise when we try to correct the exposure - the noise practically jumps off the screen!
You don't want noise in your photos, but unless the only place you take pictures is in the bright outdoor light, raising the ISO is, at times, unavoidable. The good news? Camera sensors are getting more and more accurate at higher ISO levels, especially when you get the overall exposure correct. Need more good news? Even pictures with a lot of noise are fairly pleasing at smaller sizes (see the picture above on the left). So no matter what, never sacrifice missing a moment because you were afraid to turn your ISO too high! Go for it!
A low ISO setting is ideal. But nothing's perfect and you'd be much better off raising it and getting some noise than missing your toddler's first sommersault because the lighting at the gym was less than ideal. (oh, trust us, lighting at the gym STINKS!)
Low ISO number = use in BRIGHT setting = lower sensitivity and less noise
High ISO number = use in less light = higher sensitivity and more noise