Much of the time photography is about capturing what we see – not necessarily what is real or correct – and delivering that to our audience. There are many variables, including composition, lens selection, aperture and shutter speed, focus point, position with regard to the background, position with regard to the light, and so on.
One aspect I keep emphasizing is exposure, or more simply, the apparent brightness or darkness of an image. One reason I keep hitting this point is that it’s one thing our cameras can do without any input from us. Our cameras can’t tell the model to smile, they can’t tell us where to stand, they can’t decide for us to be at a cliff at sunset, but they can determine how bright an image appears.
Brightness values come into play more than ever now, during the holiday season, when we are dazzled and amazed by Christmas trees and lighting displays, and are eager to photograph them. The trouble crops up when our camera sees bright lights and says, “Oops, the scene is too bright. I better make it darker.” Camera exposure algorithms are biased to protect highlights (since a pure white tone from a digital sensor contains no detail), so often a camera will, by default, pick an exposure like this…
This is not how we perceive Christmas lights, nor does it express to our audience the essence of the scene, which, in my view, harkens back to our childhood perceptions of the beautiful, bright lights of the holidays. Since the camera, presumably, has neither the desire to express this brightness nor childhood experiences on which to draw, we the photographers have to step in with aggressive use of exposure compensation. In the image below, everything is the same except the exposure time; made in aperture priority at f/16, I went from 0.0 exposure compensation to +2.7, which told the camera to change the shutter speed from 1/3rd of a second to 3.6 seconds. As you can see, the image below is much more expressive of the beautiful brightness of holiday lighting.