Out of Darkness – How to Find Dramatic Light

Dramatic Light, Venice

How to find dramatic light any day of the week

“Look out of darkness, into the light”.  I know, it sounds like a metaphor about depression, but it’s not.  This is a simple formula for finding deeply dimensional photographs with dramatic light even on flat-light days.

Climb into a dark hole and look back out.

Wherever you are, simply climb back into the darkest, narrowest spot you can find. As you look back toward the light, you’ll see a large area of foreground that is many stops darker than the fully lighted areas at the end of the “canyon” you’ve chosen. This creates a dramatic effect.

Dramatic light, Venice

Venice near Santa Maria del Gilio, by Drake Busath

This effect worked nicely for me recently in Venice, pictured here. In fact it works well all over Italy because of the long narrow streets. It it is equally valuable however, among large boulders, in deep canyons or in a forest of tall trees. Simply expose for the brightest areas at the end of your “canyon” and allow the larger area of foreground near you to go dark, even black.

Be aware that your camera meter will not be able to determine this exposure for you. It will see the large amount of dark foreground and try to lighten the image, thereby overexposing the small area of light at the end the tunnel that is your focal point.

How to properly expose a mostly dark image

Here’s how I get a proper exposure in a mostly dark scene.

1.  Switch to manual exposure mode. Zoom in on the bright area you want to expose for. If you don’t have a zoom lens, zoom with your feet.  Zoom back into your dark hole and shoot. This is the simplest and most accurate method.

2.  Stay in whatever automated mode you use (I’m often shooting in Aperture priority Mode), and press the exposure compensation button (+/-). Dial your meter to show -3. In other words, tell the camera to underexpose by three stops. Take a picture and see how it looks. From there, either lighten or darken by dialing up or down with the same exposure compensation button held.

3.  Here’s a trick I sometimes use when I’m in a hurry.  This works in Aperture Priority or Program, or any other automated mode. I simply aim the camera straight up at the blue sky and lock in on the sky for my exposure. Then I recompose and shoot. The blue sky is generally about the same brightness as sunlit objects at the end of my “tunnel”.  The brilliant camera engineers have placed a button on the back of my camera (and yours) called exposure lock. On my Canon cameras Exposure Lock is assigned to the star (*) button by default. I press it once while aiming at the sky and it stays locked on that exposure until I recompose and take a picture. On other camera makes this function works slightly differently, but you can look up “exposure lock” in your manual and master it easily.


So next time you’re feeling uninspired and faced with a dull, flat-light day, find a dark canyon to climb into and look toward the light.