Almost five years ago, I wrote an article with the same title as this one; it was about making the transition from film to digital. It’s a whole new world since then due to the great advances in the quality of both digital sensors and image-processing software. However, I maintain the same stance—that you can use any kind or style of lighting with digital images and still retain detail and information from highlights to shadows. To do this, it’s necessary to understand the parameters and limitations of your camera’s sensor, and to use good technique in your metering and exposure. In contrasty lighting situations, knowing how far you can stretch the light (and using good software such as Photoshop or Lightroom) can get you fantastic results.
A good exposure makes all the difference in creating a full-tonality image that retains details in the highlights and captures noise-free shadows. I still use my incident strobe meter, currently the Sekonic L-358 (which can trigger Pocket Wizards) when I work in the studio or with available light. It’s absolutely necessary working with strobes, especially with multiple-light setups. Yes, you can set up the lights, shoot, look at the histogram, adjust, and shoot again. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of trial and error, and you still may not know if you are getting the amount of light necessary and in the right place.
Or there’s the dreaded “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” approach. I don’t believe in that, and here’s why: Do you want to spend more time at the computer than shooting? I thought not— photographers are creators. So use your meter to measure the light and place the light ratios close to where you want them in the first place. I use the meter with natural light as well, especially when the amount of light varies a bit throughout the frame. But the truth of your exposure is revealed in your histogram.
Come clean: How many of you use your histograms to judge your exposure? It’s okay, most people use the monitor on the back of the camera, so you are forgiven. But you are about to take the pledge, so raise your right hand and repeat after me: “From this day forward I will use my histogram to judge my exposure for every scene I photograph!”
A camera’s LCD monitor is a lovely courtesy to help you get a general idea of what an image looks like, but it is not a true representation of image information. There are so many variables that if you compared five different cameras, all shooting the same scene at the same exposure, you would get five different results on the monitor.
I’ll explain how to read the histogram to know when it’s a correct exposure. You may have heard that a “good” histogram is one that has a wave of information from the left side (which is black) to the right side (which is white). That’s true only if the scene you are photographing has a full range of tonalities. If you are shooting high key (white background), then there will be a black line against the right side and extending all the way to the top. That means you have lost detail in the highlights. But in that situation, we want to lose detail in the highlights. (I suggest setting your camera’s highlight warning flasher so you know exactly where highlight details are being lost.) Conversely, if the image is low key, with a black or dark-gray background and darker tonalities, the histogram is pushed to the left. If there is a black bar on the left side that extends to the top, shadow details have been lost. Again, that’s okay if it’s what your intentions are.