Light for us photographers is our raw material. How we use it dictates the look of the resulting photographs. How to measure light and effectively record it to convey a feeling has been the goal for photographers from the start. Over the years we have gone from exposure guides on film boxes to handheld meters, then from there to in-built meters and now electronic viewfinders. All of these tools and methods still apply, and Fujifilm gives us access to the latest of them all, the EVF.
Camera sensors are only able to hold a limited range of light at any given time. This is called the sensor’s dynamic range and is measured in stops of light. How we deal with that constraint in different circumstances is a big part of the art of photography. Different types of light require different approaches and different tools to work with them.
Fujifilm offers us 4 different metering (photometry) modes: spot, centre-weighted, multi, and average. These all have their uses, and will work equally well for those who understand their use. Today, I will mostly talk about spot and multi (although in most cases, multi and average will produce almost the same result). I will also reference the most powerful tool we have for determining the exposure we want for a given scene, the EVF.
Here we will assume that you have your EVF set to display the resulting exposure in manual mode as well as in any of the program modes. This will allow you to judge if the camera’s metering system is returning the exposure you want and finesse it to the point where you are happy with the photograph.
So, let’s dive into light. We’ll look at cloudy days, shade, front light (light coming from directly in front of your subject / behind you), side light (light coming from the left or right of your camera position, and backlight (light coming from behind the subject). Time to get started!
Let’s start with the simplest form of light to work in: a cloudy day. The giant softbox in the sky gives us an all-encompassing soft light to work with. This makes metering and exposure decisions very easy. Once you have your exposure for your subject set, everything else falls into place and because of the even light, does not produce more dynamic range than your Fujifilm camera can handle. During the post-production process, you can push and pull parts of the exposure as far as you need to without image degradation.
Although soft light is easy to work with in terms of exposure, it does result in other challenges. Composition and moment both become extremely important. You need to work much harder on a cloudy day to make your composition and moments stand out as background and foreground elements that could be hidden or accentuated with light are now in exactly the same light as your subject.
Because the light is so even on cloudy days, I like to work in multi or average metering mode on my Fujifilm bodies. By using this mode coupled with aperture priority shooting and Auto ISO, I am able to control what is most important to me and let the camera decide the rest. Simply twisting the exposure compensation dial with my thumb allows me to brighten or darken my image while dialling in my aperture allows me to control depth of field.
Notice in the photograph below how nothing is blown out and detail is maintained throughout the entire frame. This is thanks to the overcast day we had.
Shade may seem similar to a cloudy day when you first look at it but on closer inspection, it is quite different. Shade is much more directional than a cloudy sky. Typically, there are other objects nearby that reflect light back into a shaded area and sculpt objects inside the shade.
Think about a tree casting shade on a grassy area. The light is coming from somewhere above the tree in order to cast the shade. However, it is also bouncing off the grassy area around the tree and any other nearby objects. This not only gives the light direction but also colour as it reflects. You should be conscious of both of these.
Once again, I find multi metering to work quite well in shaded light, but if there is a large difference between the light on my subject and the light in the background, switching to spot metering can sometimes give me an easier way to get an accurate exposure. When shooting in shade, I like to expose for the side of my subject that is getting the most light at then let the shadows fall where they will. This gives a nice three-dimensional feel to the light.
Similar to the above, I am able to maintain detail everywhere in this frame, but the light is given direction by bouncing off surfaces nearby. In this case, the building opposite was grey cement and offered a beautiful directional light without any significant colour-cast.
Front light is another type of light that is quite easy to meter for and work in. In this type of light, I often use spot metering to establish a base exposure and then work in manual exposure mode so I can vary my composition without having to worry about the exposure changing. If the light in the scene is quite even, multi or average metering will also work well and using the exposure compensation dial will be all I need to get consistent exposures.
One concern when working in front light is your own shadow. If the light is coming from a low angle, you may find your shadow encroaching on the image. The only ways to really avoid this is to lower your camera, tilt your camera up, or use a longer focal length to create a tighter composition. If these are not an option, moving to the side and making use of side light might be a better option for the scene.
Here the setting sun was coming in through the doors of a train repair yard. This hit my subject directly and was softened by the ever-present haze of a Yangon sunset. Note that this light has an almost ring-light-like quality about it.
Sidelight is a great way to create the illusion of depth in your photographs. The light and its resulting shadows give the viewer a way to reconcile a two-dimensional image in their mind. It also reveals texture through the same process and can allow the viewer to feel the subject more.
Consider the bark of a tree. If we use front light, the colour will be visible, but the texture will not as there are no shadows to help us understand depth. By employing sidelight, we are able to reveal that third dimension to our viewer.
For me, side light is most beautiful when I expose for the highlights. This means that I will work hard to ensure my highlights to not blow out. Doing this and allowing the shadows to fall dark gives a sense of depth we could not get with other types of light.
If contrast is high, it is important to note that exposing for your highlights may render your shadows irrecoverable. The opposite is also true. This can be a tricky exposure to make if you wish to maintain both shadow and highlight detail. This is where the EVF and Fujifilm’s excellent raw files come in handy.
Here the raking light of late afternoon comes in under the trees and onto the balcony where we shot this photograph. The result is bright highlights and deep shadows, which creates a lot of depth. This exposure is easy to get perfect thanks to the Fujifilm EVF.
Typically, when shooting into backlight, you will be seeing more dynamic range than your camera can record in a single frame. You have a choice to make; do you want to make a silhouette or maintain detail? Both are valid and both have their own set of challenges.
When shooting a silhouette, you need to expose for the highlights behind the subject (usually the sky or some powerful light source). If you do this, you will lose detail and contrast in your foreground subject and create a silhouette. This exposure is easily achieved on Fujifilm cameras because of the EVF. Using the exposure preview, you are able to very quickly create a pure silhouette. Use the exposure compensation dial or manual mode to achieve this.
If you are looking to maintain detail in your subject, the process will require a more careful approach, especially if you want to keep detail in the background as well. One thing I have found more difficult when using the Fujifilm X series than the GFX or my previous Nikon system is maintaining contrast in back-lit situations. Foreground details get washed out very easily. Thankfully, the EVF is our saviour again as we can preview the detail being washed out before we shoot. Carefully dial in your exposure and then dial it back 1/3 stop as soon as you see the subject beginning to wash out. By doing this, you will keep detail and contrast in your subject that can be brought back in the raw editing process.
I find that working in full manual mode for situations with backlight is the most effective way to get consistent exposures as even the slightest movements can wreak havoc on your metering system. Once you’ve established a good exposure in manual mode, you are free to change your composition and get many different images out of the same scene.
This dramatic light is created by the light coming in from a window behind. By placing the steam against a dark wall, I am able to show it clearly. Again, the EVF makes this tricky exposure a breeze.
Although there are many more types of light and a multitude of ways to work with them, I hope that this article has been useful to some of you as you begin to use light and understand how your camera reacts to it as well as how you can manipulate that. Take some of these tips into your next shoot and work with them. You may find that these are exactly what you needed, or you may augment them to work better for your shooting style. The most important thing is that you feel your way through an exposure. The technical part is the camera’s job. Have fun!