When the Light is Beautiful

Fuji X100 | 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO 400 -2/3EV

The most common questions I get in my inbox and in comments on the blog lately go something like this:

  • Is there a post processing trick you use to give your images that dimensional look?
  • What camera settings do you use to get your images to look the way they do?
  • JPEG or RAW?

These questions most often pertain to my work with the Fuji X100, which makes sense since I use it for 90% of what I’ve been shooting lately.  But my answers aren’t very cut and dry. JPEG or RAW? Both, but mostly JPEG with the X100, mostly RAW with my DSLR. Camera settings? It depends, but usually my X100 is at default settings.  Post processing tricks? My post processing workflow is usually pretty simple, especially when I shoot JPEG for my casual work. If I do anything to a JPEG in post, it’s usually adding some vignetting, converting to black and white, and/or making slight tweaks to exposure or tone curves. Emphasis on slight. Nothing crazy.

If these answers aren’t terribly satisfying, it’s simply because I believe the look of my images has more to do with what I decide to point my camera at than with how I process the images or what picture control parameters I have set at the camera. Everyone sees and thinks differently, and my settings and work flow match my own vision and depend on how I desire to interpret a given scene. But what works for me may not work for you.

That being said, for this post I’ve chosen some random images I’ve taken over the last few weeks, either while on vacation or just out and about. I’ll discuss them briefly in order to answer what I feel is a more important question:

What am I looking for when out shooting photos?

Fuji X100 | 1/350 sec, f/5, ISO 800

I’m always on the lookout for dramatic light. When looking to add a sense of dimension to an otherwise flat image on photo paper or on a computer screen, focal length choice definitely comes into play, but light does as well. I try to put highlights next to shadows in my images, which reveals texture and shape and makes simple objects look pretty interesting, even, say, an old broom.

The above image was shot during sunrise on my way to grab some coffee. The early morning sun was low in the sky, casting some dramatic side light through the city. Most of the sun was being blocked by the tall buildings that surrounded me at the time, but slivers of sun light made their way through trees and spaces between structures. From across the street I spotted this broom sticking out from a homeless person’s cart, spot lit with this dramatic beam of light. My eyes were drawn by the texture the lighting revealed on the brick, the long shadow cast by the broom, and how the broom head broke the repeating lines in the background. This is a JPEG file out of the camera, with a little vignetting and shadow darkening applied in post.

Fuji X100 | 1/400 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800

Even something as mundane as a standpipe can look interesting in the right light. Again, highlights next to shadows bring shape and dimension into an image. The above was just a quick snap made during sunset while I was waiting outside a store for the wife to finish shopping. Below? Dramatic sunset light hitting a building. Not much else to it. Find that beautiful light, and go click!

Fuji X100 |  1/450 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800 -1/3EV

Fuji X100 | 1/450 sec, f/6.4, ISO 800

Above, the door of a subway train opens to reveal some fantastic light and shadow on the ground. Click! A couple more shots below:

Fuji X100 | 1/350 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800 -2/3EV

Fuji X100 | 1/220 sec, f/4, ISO 400 -1EV

The most common exposure setting I use is aperture priority, which I tend to stick to because it lets you make depth of field decisions while the camera takes care of the rest. It’s worth noting, therefore, that I’m on the exposure compensation dial a lot in response to these kinds of high-contrast scenes.

Fuji X100 | 1/300 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400

Light coming from behind your subject can give your viewer a sense of dimension and contrast as well. In the image above,  I made sure to compose the brightly back-lit leaves against a darker background (the building), which, in the final image, gives the leaves a more dimensional look, like they’re popping out at the viewer. A little vignetting was added in post to keep the viewer’s attention fixed on the leaves.

Fuji X100 | 1/30 sec, f/4, ISO 200 -1/3EV

In trying to create strong visual contrasts, I’m also on the lookout for colors that vibrate well together. One of my favorite looks is warm-colored light against dark, cool-colored light. The shot above was taken at Blue Bottle Coffee, where I regularly order up a brew made in these nifty siphon pots. The pots are lit by very strong orange light as they heat up, and using the tungsten white balance setting on my camera cools the orange light a little while making the daylight coming through the windows a really deep blue. I shot this one RAW, which allowed me to bring the overall color temperature down even lower in post, further cooling that blue daylight. I often use this technique by putting orange gels over my flash units.

Fuji X100 | 1/950 sec, f/2, ISO 400 -2/3EV

I made Suki stop at the sliver of sunlight above as we exited a local dog park. I think her facial expression says it all.

Fuji X100 | 1/1,000 sec, f/11, ISO 1000

For those who have been wondering about my black and white images, I convert them in Color Efex Pro II.  I also receive many questions about how I focus with the X100. Usually I’ll use the manual focus mode with the rear AFL/AEL button to activate focus. Works like a charm. If I’m chasing Suki around, or in the case above, Suki is chasing my wife and they’re both coming towards the camera, I’ll often preset my focus manually and use the camera’s distance/depth of field scale judge what’s in focus. This lets me catch the action immediately, without waiting for the camera’s auto focus to lock on my subject.

Fuji X100 | 1/250 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400 -2/3EV

I’m often drawn to reflections. Taking a walk among massive buildings covered in glass during sunrise or sunset is the best time to capture images like the one above.

Oh, and one more thing. If your intention is to get better and better at taking photos, you should always have a camera with you. Seriously. My friends make fun of me constantly because I take my camera absolutely everywhere, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense (don’t ask me to explain that). I bring it whether or not I think I’ll be taking pictures. But you know what? All of these shots were taken on outings when I didn’t expect to use my camera very much, if at all. Out on dog walks, taking trips to the store, out for a cup of coffee, these are often the only opportunities I have to focus on my personal photography these days.

But the main point? I try my best to shoot when the light is beautiful, which has a significantly greater impact on my photos than what settings I use. Hopefully this post gives those who have asked a better idea of my thought process, however. Find the camera settings and post processing techniques that match your vision, and experiment like crazy. =)

23 thoughts on “When the Light is Beautiful

  1. Thanks for your great post! I just started getting back into photography again and you have answered so many of my questions in your posts and have inspired me to get better by taking my camera with me everywhere!! Thanks 🙂

  2. You have gotten a very good grip on it all, well done. Just to let you know 98% of my shooting is jpg fine, a 24×36 print is no problem. I have used jpg normal a great deal and have excellent 20×30 prints.I have four principles I use.
    1.Fill the frame.
    2.Correct WB.
    3.Focus it. (The best lens is no good out-of-focus)
    4.Correct exposure.

    You will be surprised how many get at least one of these wrong to ruin a good shot, but you are under control.

    Oh yes Nikon Capture NX2 is still my favorite, but if everyone listens to you they will get better.

  3. I was just wondering if the light was as beautiful in other parts of the country right now, as it is here in the midwest now I know the answer! Wish it was like this all year

  4. Wow wow wow, hello jon,

    Thank u so much for the writing your techniques. I m pretty sure a lot of X100 users including me have been waiting this kind of post from you. Why? simply because your photos are amazing and everyone following your blog like to take photos like yours.

    I, myself also trying to reach your standard. Well, u know i think i got at least 5% of your standard now. (for X100 haha) .. Not the DSLR.

    Again, Thanks a lots for write up. Have a wonderful day.

    Billy from Singapore.

  5. Great post!! I know nothing about photography and this was very informative to me. My fave pic is the first one with the girl in the yellow. What perfect timing!

  6. Hi Jonathan. New to your blog and love it. Can you tell me how you create the vignette effects that look so good on your photos? Cheers, paul.

  7. Awesome advice Jon. The key is definitely to bring it everywhere with you. Sometimes you just find a shot that you were never expecting and that is the one that delivers most times. Your pictures are amazing man. Keep up the good work!

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