Traditional Thai Models Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f5, 1/125 sec, ISO 400

Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos

by
Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Understanding the way your camera works is the first big step to becoming a more creative photographer. Now you have learned how your camera gathers data and measures light. In the previous articles in this series, I hope I’ve explained it clearly.

With the left brain satisfied, I’ll now introduce you to the really important stuff. The need to express your creative intent in your photographs.

The Photographer’s Right Brain – Artistic Expression

All art is subjective. Photographers seek to show how they see the world around them. This is different for all of us.

This is where your creative intent comes into play. Technically correct photographs, without artistic expression, are often boring.

Engaging your right brain, as well as your left brain, empowers you to make unique photographs.

Hmong Hand Sewing Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f4, 1/3200 sec, ISO 800

There are a number of factors which combine to make interesting photos:

  • Subject
  • Relationship with your subject
  • Color
  • Composition
  • Timing
  • Tone   
  • Light

Choices you make about these are your creative expression. In this previous article, I explore in more depth why this is so.

Here I’m focused on light and how manually setting your camera gives you formative control of your exposure.

Light is the essence of photography. Without light, you cannot make a photograph. Control the light, in conjunction with the other factors in the list above, and you will make fabulous images.

Learning to See the Light

Seeing the effect of light will help you make important choices before you press your shutter release button.

Gold Elephant Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 50mm, Settings: f16, 1/160 sec, ISO 400

Ask yourself these questions about what you see through your viewfinder or on your monitor:

  • Is there high contrast or low contrast?
  • Is the light hard or soft?
  • What’s the brightest part of my composition?
  • What’s the darkest part of my composition?
  • What’s the most important element in my composition?

Being aware of the tone range you are seeing will guide you to set your exposure well.

Soft light and low contrast make an overall, even exposure possible. They will not challenge the ability of a modern camera to capture detail in every part of a photograph.

Hard light and high contrast require more imaginative thought on your part. Your camera has limited capacity to include detail across a broad tone range. So you must choose how you will set your exposure.

Kayaw Ethnic Minority Girl Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f3.2, 1/250 sec, ISO 100

Do you want to see detail in the highlights? Are the shadow areas more important?

Concentrate on What’s Crucial

Focus on the main element in your composition. Make your choices about exposure based on your subject.

You may want to underexpose and create a silhouette. Maybe overexposure will best fit the mood you wish to create in your photo. Most often you’ll want to have your main subject exposed well.

White Orchid Flowers on a Dark Background Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f14, 1/320 sec, ISO 500

Using your monitor to determine exposure settings it’s easy to concentrate on how your main subject is exposed. Alternatively, using your spot meter will allow you to take a reading from your subject.

This is why I alternate between averaged and spot metering frequently. I can place my spot meter precisely on the part of my composition I want. From the information the camera provides, I can set my exposure.

Use Your Exposure Meter as a Guide

Remember that your camera’s exposure meter is calibrated to middle gray. If you want your subject to render as black or as white, you’ll need to adjust your settings alternative to what the meter is indicating.

This is where your intent comes into play. By religiously following the data your camera displays, you’ll not always get the look you want. You’ll take photos which look like they were made on Auto.

Durian Fruit Exposing Your Creative Intent for More Powerful Photos
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f4.5, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600

I’ll often take a meter reading, set my exposure, and then check how the image looks on my monitor. If it needs tweaking because my subject is too bright or too dark, I will guess how much to adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed.

Practice and understanding of exposure will help you to do this too.

Ansel Adams’ Zone System

The famous American photographer, Ansel Adams, is best known for his black and white landscape images of the American West. He was particularly exacting in his exposures and tone range in his photos.

In the 1930s Adams and fellow photographer and teacher, Fred Archer, developed what they called the Zone System. This is a tool for better understanding and implementation of exposure.

Adams style of precise exposure and incredible tone range in his large format film photographs were made possible by his clear understanding of principles of light. The Zone System can teach you to be more exacting and have a greater appreciation of light.

In my next article in this series, I will explore how you can make use of the zone system to help you make more creative exposures.

Kevin Landwer-Johan photographer
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Equipment I used to make these photos.

Nikon full frame camera body. I use an older model D800. This link will take you to view the Nikon D850 which is the upgrade model.

Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G 

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G 

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