Lighting and Exposure in Erotic and Non-Erotic Photography

How you manipulate the light depends on how you read the light. That’s called metering and there are a few different ways to meter light.

My last post on Compositional Elements of Erotic Photography talked about Lighting, Mood, and Pose. I wanted to expand more on the lighting topic and discuss exposure with you here.

Lighting can make or break a photograph whether erotic or non-erotic and for this post, I want to review a few photographs from photographer Jan Scholz ( Flickr/ Instagram). I consider him a master of light and admire his work greatly.

I was first introduced to his work by someone on Flickr. He was actively posting his work there and I fell in love with how sensual and tender his photos were.

There’s so much to unpack in this single photograph but let’s start with the light and exposure, our main topics for this post.

He calls himself a hobbyist photographer but regularly shoots female and male models. His portfolio is weighted toward female models but he does shoot some landscapes and lifestyle stuff too.

His choice of medium is film and he shoots 35mm, 120(Medium Format), and large format.

For our first image, I’d offer my readers the model Marine.

(c) Jan Scholz

There’s so much to unpack in this single photograph but let’s start with the light and exposure, our main topics for this post.


First, what is exposure? Exposure is simply the amount of light that hits the film or camera sensor. It’s how you control the light that’s available to you. While you can’t bend light, you can manipulate it to create the mood of the photograph.

How you manipulate the light depends on how you read the light. That’s called metering and there are a few different ways to meter light.

The most common way and automatic way to meter light today are inside your camera. You can do it manually and I still do this when using my film cameras. I have a hand-held light meter that I use to read ambient and incident light.

But the three most common methods of metering light for a digital camera are matrix, spot, and center-weighted.

Let’s take a deeper look at Marine, this time with my markups.

Matrix metering reads the light in the entire frame and for simplicities sake, averages the entire light from the scene and recommends the shutter speed and aperture. Spot metering (I use this one a lot), meters the light on a small area of the frame and then recommends the shutter speed and aperture. The center-weighted meter is similar to spot metering but it takes a larger area of the center to meter and gradually disappears in the frame as you move away from the center.

9 times out of 10, your camera will default to matrix metering. Do yourself a favor and find where you can change the metering type for your camera and switch to spot or center-weighting.

How do we read, interpret, and express light levels? Some photographers use the EV method and other use the Stop method. Both are essentially the same thing but they have different terminology. I prefer the stop method.

A full stop is either 1 unit of over or underexposure from your baseline exposure. If your camera says that the perfect exposure for your photograph is ISO 100, F/16, and 1/125s (0 Stop), then a +1 Stop could be ISO 100, F/8, 1/125s. Or it could be ISO 100, F/16, 1/60s, Or even ISO 50, F/16, 1/125s. Exposure can be adjusted using your ISO setting, your aperture, and your shutter speed.

A partial stop (i.e. -0.5 stop), using the above baseline example, could be ISO 100, F/22, 1/125s. (More info here on aperture F stops).

There are reasons why you might want to manipulate your shutter speed over the aperture or ISO, but that’s for another post.

Let’s take a deeper look at Marine, this time with my markups.

© Jan Scholz / Analysis by Thomas Ott

The model is in a classic feminine pose, her back partially exposed and there is eye contact with the viewer. There’s a wonderful angle to this pose because your eye first lands on the “hot spot” (0 stops) of her back and then moves up to her eyes that hold on to you.

From there you begin to explore the photograph in a very gentle way. Your eye does not hunt around for something interesting. She holds your interest.

Marine appears to be lighted from a narrow shaft of light. Based on Jan’s other photos, I’m going to guess that this is from window light that he’s controlled using curtains. From all the work I see from him, he likes to use ambient light and a handheld light meter a lot.

The light gradually falls off in a pleasing way from the center of the photograph. It’s so gradual that there’s plenty of detail in the shadows, which is a hard thing to do on film.

The point of exposure is right on her skin where my arrow is pointing. If Jan was using a handheld meter (and I think he was) he would meter that spot on her back and then her face. It only looks like 1/3 to 1/2 a stop of light difference between her back and her cheekbone under the left eye. Then light falls off faster. Her right eye looks to be greater than 1 stop difference from the exposure point.

5 Tips for Better Photos

Tip 1 — I highly recommend that you use a camera where you can either touch on the screen where you can take the exposure from or be able to change the exposure settings in the camera. My preferred method of using in-camera metering is the spot metering method.

Tip 2 — You don’t need fancy flash and lighting gear. That great big yellow star in the sky gives you so much free light that you can use. Look around your house. Where’s the gorgeous light? If you have windows, you have light.

Tip 3 — Think about where you want the point of exposure to be? Is it the face? Is it the back? Is it somewhere else in the frame and expose accordingly.

Tip 4 — Think about how fast you want to light to fall off from your point of exposure. In Marine’s case, it was gradual across her body and then faster after that. It can be gradual, fast, or no fall off. That depends on you.

Tip 5 — Experiment. If you have a digital camera then take lots of photographs. Find the ones you liked and the ones you didn’t like, but pay attention to what was the differences in exposure and light for each of them.

Extended Analysis

I wanted to add two more photos from Jan that I adore and wanted to review the lighting.

The first one is from model Danika.

(c) Jan Scholz

Danika is illuminated with full-on but diffused window light. The light is pretty even throughout the entire photograph with maybe a (+1 to +2) to (-1 to -1.5) stop variance throughout the frame.

Once again, I believe he metered the light using a handheld meter and expose her face.

(c) Jan Scholz / Analysis by Thomas Ott

She is in a wonderful pose, reminiscent of the Cassiopeia’s Chair constellation and the focus is on her. Your eyes are instantly focused on her because of all the negative space around her.

The last photo I want to review from Jan is of model Sophie.

This is a classic (partial) nude in nature and this one is a tough photo to meter right.

(c) Jan Scholz

The light around Sophie is even but flat. There’s nothing exciting going with light shafts or sunlight dappling leaves and casting small shadows.

Here’s the best part, you can make great photographs when the light is flat or not that interesting.

From the level of bokeh, it looks like Jan is shooting with his lens wide open. This means he’s using a shallow depth of field like f/4 or f/2.8, or even smaller. Why? I think this was a very low light environment and he wanted to gather as much light as possible to expose Sophie.

(c) Jan Scholz / Analysis by Thomas Ott

There is very little light variance in this scene relative to Sophie. My guess is that the day they shot was overcast
Yes, there’s a big drop-off under the dead tree but who cares? Your focus is on her, then the dead tree she’s resting her hand on.

The thing with ambient light is that you don’t know what you’re going to get sometimes. It’s all weather-dependent.

But, and here’s the big but, you can still shoot in any light condition provided you know how to meter the light and adjust your camera settings. One of my biggest mistakes when learning photography was not shooting on days where the light was flat. You can make some beautiful photos in flat light if you know to expose the scene.

Anyone can shoot a good photograph on a sunny day, that doesn’t make you an expert. An expert is someone who studies the light on good days and bad days. He or she makes mistakes but keeps going. Keeps working and keeps reading the light.

Then, one day, you’ll see the light.

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