Getting It Right in the Camera: The Imagination Game, Part 1

I propose to you that getting photographs right in your camera is a game of imagination, and in this series of three articles I plan to introduce you to that game and identify many of the possibilities available to you, including:

  • An approach for capturing the photographs you want, the way you want them, in your camera.
  • A checklist for remembering the important points.
  • A roadmap for creating more memorable photographs.
  • Some creative concepts.

So this series is for you if:

  • You want to capture the best quality photographs you can.
  • You want to spend less time in post-processing trying to make up for what you did not remember to do with the camera’s exposure settings, and composition, when you took the shot.
  • You are an enthusiast who has relied on the camera’s auto or programmed settings and are wondering: now what?

Figure 1 shows the subjects we will cover and the role each plays in creating a memorable photograph. Initially, reading this will take you a few minutes; however, the more you practice thinking this through when you are in the field, the more intuitive it becomes.

Figure 1: Checklist

Part 1: Seeing the Light

“In the fields of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur

Getting photographs right in the camera is a combination of using your imagination and of creativity, art, and technique. Understanding how to apply these is part of being prepared. Another part of being prepared means that you know how to use your camera, lenses, and other photo gear, such as filters, and can quickly make the most of any opportunity.

The Subject and the Light

The process starts with consciously and actively looking, and seeing (not the same thing), of being aware of what is going on all around you, and imagining the possibilities this subject, in this light, has to offer. Consider what you want your photograph to look like, what story you want it to tell, the emotion you want it to evoke, and visualize how you would like to take the photograph.

You see something that interests or inspires you, or arouses some emotion within you, and demands you take a photograph of it. You may have gone to great lengths to get into the right position at the right location at the right time and you may be there only once in a lifetime, so you want to get it right. At the same time you have some ideas about what you want to do with your photograph that may include how you want to capture it, how you want to treat it in post-processing, and where and how you want to show it. These considerations will inform how you approach taking photographs.

Light is the critical component of composition, and light is what the camera’s image sensor captures when you take a photograph. Armed with the knowledge of where light comes from and how different light sources impact photography, you can learn to use light creatively and incorporate it as a component of composition.

Light Characteristics

There are many light sources and each has a different characteristic (or color temperature) that affects photographs. The White Balance setting on the camera determines how the color temperature of light is captured. If you are not already familiar with this setting, automatic white balance does a great job getting it right, and, if you are shooting RAW, White Balance is very easily adjusted in post-processing.

  • Natural light. Natural light, such as sunlight, has different characteristics depending on time of day, location, and weather conditions. It can be warm, such as around the golden hours at sunrise and sunset. It can be direct and provide hard-edged shadows, such as at midday. You may be in the shade or shooting into the shade. Alternatively, there may be no direct sunlight; it may be diffused and softer, such as when there is an overcast sky, haze, or even fog. Each of these conditions provides unique photographic opportunities.
  • Artificial light. There are many sources of indoor and outdoor artificial light. Incandescent, tungsten, halogen, and sodium vapor sources add a range of warm orange-yellow tints to photographs. Fluorescent and LED light sources tend to add cooler blue tints. At night you may well have combinations of different sources creating a “light soup.”

Light Conditions

As you compose your photographs, you are likely to encounter many different lighting conditions. Whatever the lighting conditions, consider:

  • The quality, intensity, or brightness of the light, which will influence your choice of shutter speed and possibly ISO settings.
  • The direction from which the light is coming, which will determine whether your subject is front lit, side lit, back lit, or in the shade.
  • The angle of the light, which may be low, such as at sunrise or sunset, high, such as at midday, or level with you, such as light coming through a window. This will influence the direction in which you aim the camera and frame your photograph, as well as your choice of shooting strategy.
  • The weather. How cooperative the weather is and the impact it is having on the light will provide you with opportunities. The challenge is to see those opportunities and take advantage of them.

The photographs in Figure 2 demonstrate some of the effects that different lighting and weather conditions have on indoor and outdoor subjects at different times of day.

Sunset Light

Figure 2a: Sunset light (1/30 second, f/16, ISO 200)

Window Light

Figure 2b: Bright light through windows (2.0 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 200)

Morning Haze

Figure 2c: Morning haze (1/4 second, f/16, ISO 200)

Evening Fog

Figure 2d: Evening fog (1/60 second, f/22, ISO 400)

Exposure and Histograms

Three camera settings—aperture (f/stop), shutter speed, and ISO—determine your exposure, and a good exposure is the result of the interaction between these three settings. This is discussed in detail in Part 3: Shooting Strategy. This leads to the inevitable consideration of what it means to have good light or a good exposure. A good or “normal” exposure is one that captures a well distributed range of light and color, and is not overexposed or underexposed, as shown in the examples in Figure 3.

Next Step: In Part 2 of this three part series we are going to build on this discussion of visualizing the subject and the role of light. We will introduce composition and identify the roles framing, design basics, and focal elements play in creating a memorable photograph.

Thank you for reading Getting It Right in the Camera: The Imagination Game!
Part 1: Seeing the Light
Part 2: Composition
Part 3: Shooting Strategy

Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting and the software industry. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera, processing his photographs in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop or thinking about his next article. He is a workshop facilitator and author of a number of articles published by, and he shows his landscape, urban, and night photography on

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    • One doesn't get a photograph right. One gets it the way one wants it. Often that can't or won't be done "in the camera." Actually, every photo will have to go through some process to appear to the viewer's eye. So, nothing is ever "right" in the camera. It will always require more than the camera.


      If I ever thought there was a right and wrong in photography, I'd take up another art that didn't have such constraints.

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    • Hi Fred G:  Thank you for reading my article and for your comment “one gets it the way one wants it.”  I believe we are in agreement on this.  To paraphrase what I say at the beginning “I plan to introduce ..... possibilities for ..... capturing the photographs you want, the way you want them, in your camera.”

      I also agree that “it always requires more than the camera.”  My personal tag line is "I try to make interesting subjects more interesting".  In addition to the ideas discussed in this series, I try doing this using all of the tools - Lightroom, Photoshop, Filters and add-ins - at my disposal.


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    • Hi Mike. Thanks for the response. Yes, I think we probably do agree. It was that headline that kind of got to me. I often hear the phrase getting it right from others (not you) who do seem to think there is a right and wrong in terms of what they come up with in their photos. More importantly, I so often hear people assume that post processing work (you mention Photoshop and Lightroom, which I use as well) is to fix things, as opposed to often being used by those with creative instincts to simply achieve a vision they have. Not that Photoshop, sometimes, can't be used to fix mistakes or errors in initial judgment when shooting or technical deficiencies, but it's not limited to that kind of thing. But I certainly agree with you that my job in Photoshop is made much easier if I know my camera and settings well, if I know how to approach light and composition. It allows me to get to the creative stuff with less distraction. Interestingly, though, sometimes my more creative side comes out when I've, through my own negligence or lack of previsualization, forced myself to deal with "mistakes" in the original shot once I get to Photoshop. That's because, sometimes, these mistakes give me a different take on photographic possibilities. Seeing the potential in some accidental mistakes and getting creative in that space can be very liberating and exciting. It can twist my whole view of what a "good" photo is and open me up to seeing in different ways.

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    • Fred:  This is a very thoughtful contribution and good addition to the upcoming series – thank you. 

      I thought long and hard about the titles, about how to get found and capture people’s attention in a crowded space, and I used the advice of a successful photographer-author-friend, “Don’t bury the lede”.


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    • The example here that's labeled "Overexposed" is actually closest to the Optimal Exposure for this scene. This is commonly referred to as ETTR ("Expose To The Right") and is used to produce a RAW file that will capture as much data as the sensor is capable of retaining, but without blowing out highlights. I know that the excellent piece is aimed at those shooting in Auto mode, seeking to move toward better photography. Rather than confuse the neophyte, it's probably best to save that discussion for a more advanced class about, "why shoot in RAW?" or something like that.

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    • Hi David:

      Thank you for reading my article and for your very perceptive comments.  I have heard the case made for underexposing, (without losing detail) and overexposing (without blowing out highlights).  It seems in photography there are always choices to be made which is perhaps one reason why answers to most questions start off with "it depends".  For my part I shoot RAW and bracket everything.  There are advantages to this which I discuss in the upcoming Part 3 – Shooting Strategy. I then select the image – or images - that work for me to achieve the effect I am looking for.  But, as you so correctly say, I don’t want to confuse the neophyte so for this article I selected a neutral and workable middle ground. 

      I recently shot some jewelry for a website and was definitely ETTR.

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    • Thanks Mike for that article.

      The quality of light also includes hardness or softness - the "size" of the light. That's a whole article in itself, of course.

      It's one of the reasons for the quintessential "dawn or dusk" light - not just the colour but the quality of being soft, multidirectional, diffused (as an example - that can work into a discussion of reflectors, bounce-flash, etc., etc.)

      Thanks once again.



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    • Hi Charles:  Thank you for reading the article and for your comments, I appreciate the additional information.  If you read Parts 2 and 3 of this series the same kind of observation would apply to each of the subjects I cover.   There are so many considerations and I think this explains why answers to photography questions invariably seem to start with "it depends".

      If I were to take on just the subject of Light I might call it Facets of Light for the Photographer.

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