SEEN: Exposing for the highlights
BY CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Sunday, January 20, 2013
1/20/13 at 3:44 AM
Editor's note: Seen is a weekly feature showcasing the work of a Tulsa World photojournalist.
Composition and moment are key factors in the creative control of photography. But a factor that often gets overlooked is exposure. It is as important as the others when making a photograph that works on multiple levels.
A camera can see only a limited range of highlights and shadows. It is far less than what the human eye can account for. We refer to this as tonal range. The eye and brain can find detail in bright light and dark shadow, but the camera must choose one or the other. As a photographer, that choice can make a big difference in what a photo communicates.
Exposing for midtones and shadows means bright, high-key photographs. Exposing for highlights means low-key, dramatic tones. Shadows go darker, and only those things in the brightest highlights grab the eye's attention in the photo.
There are a couple of ways this can be done with a camera. Many point-and-shoot cameras have an "auto exposure lock" button that is sometimes labeled "AEL." Simply point the center of the frame at the brightest spot of your scene then hold the button and compose and shoot. On a single-lens reflex camera you point the center of your frame at the highlight then manually adjust your exposure to the right setting according to your camera meter or use the AEL button if you're shooting on an automatic setting.
My default is to expose photos for the highlights. To me it is a richer and more dramatic way of presenting a scene. As a photographer, I feel I must grab the reader's attention quickly then hold it as long as possible. Using exposure is a great way to do that.
Here are two photographs that are good examples of exposing for the highlights and letting everything else in the tonal range fall where it may. As a result, shapes and shadows become compositional elements adding to the interest of the photos.
They were shot in color, but by presenting them in black and white, it becomes easier to see the difference between highlights and shadows.
Steam pours from a manhole cover on Seventh Street west of Denver Avenue on a recent chilly winter morning. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World
A pedestrian crosses an alley as a beam of sunlight cuts between the buildings in downtown Tulsa. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World