Monday, January 1, 2007
The Myth Of Protective Underexposure
Hamlet's new D-SLR dilemma: to underexpose or not to underexpose?
I've heard from participants in my classes that they have been told there's a rule that one doesn't overexpose highlights. Highlights are sacred and must be preserved! So maybe underexposure for insurance isn't so bad. We must preserve the sacred.
Okay, so I don't much believe in "rules—I sometimes suspect that comes from being a teenager in the '60s! Guidelines are helpful; rules, to me, can be problems in creative fields where there are so many variables. Trying to fit photography into arbitrary rules makes it way too automatic for me. It's like stereotyping people because "most" of a certain "type" act the "same."I believe in the power of the photograph. I care about what a photograph does and how it impacts a viewer, not how it meets some arbitrary standards. I can guarantee that no one is going to look at your photo and wonder why highlights are blown out if it looks good.
What makes your photograph, your subject, your composition look good? Only you can know that. It's true that it's worth learning why blown-out highlights (or any other problem) can give you trouble and how to expose to keep them looking good when needed. If bright highlights wash out your image and make it look bad, distract from the subject and keep your viewer from seeing your image properly, then they're wrong—but underexposure might not be the answer. A different angle to the subject, a different light might be better.
On the other hand, if you expose to keep unimportant highlights, making your image dark so that it looks bad, distracts from the subject and keeps your viewer from seeing your image properly, then that's wrong, too. Every technique must be mentally processed by the photographer to be sure it fits a particular subject, composition and purpose for the image.
Bottom line: Sure, you can underexpose for "insurance" and still get good images. Pros who do this prove that's possible. However, that doesn't mean you're getting the best images or using the investment in your camera to its best advantage. To me, it's like keeping your speed at 55 mph just to ensure you don't go over 65 mph because you might get a ticket. Why not just go at 65 mph?
You get good exposure by watching your histogram to be sure there isn't a big gap at the right side, by letting bright and unimportant highlights go bright, by using the exposure warnings smartly (not always trying to get rid of them, but trying to minimize them or at most, changing exposure until they just disappear) and so forth. You can also get exposure insurance by that good old film technique: bracketing your exposure. Most digital SLRs include it as a menu option. This can guarantee you get the right exposure.
You get better with experience—exposure is a craft. Ultimately, exposure that gives you the proper color and tonalities for your scene, as best as you can manage it, is the best exposure
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