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Monday, October 1, 2007

Best Techniques For Digital Exposures

Setting everything on full auto isn't always the ideal solution. Try these tips to get your best shots every time.

Best techniques for digital exposures
Film photographers have known for years the importance of correct exposure. If you overexpose a slide, the highlights are gone irretrievably. If you underexpose a slide, the image will be murky, with no true black tone in the darkest areas. Negative films have a little more leeway, in that you can make some adjustments when printing the negative, but again, the image quality won’t be great if the image is over- or underexposed.

An all-too-common attitude among digital photographers is, "Oh, I’ll fix it in Photoshop."

Hey, I’m guilty of it, too. During my first few years in digital after 40 years of shooting film, I slipped into sloppiness with my exposures. But I’ve learned that while you can do some amazing things with Photoshop and other image-editing software—things that film photographers can only dream about—you can’t make an under- or overexposed image look as good as a properly exposed one.

So, correct exposure is important whether you shoot film or digital images. Fortunately, there are a number of tools to help you get it.

Metering Modes

SLR cameras, film and digital, generally provide several metering modes, including a multi-segment one, the old standby, center-weighted average, and sometimes spot metering.

Multi-segment metering produces good exposures in a wide range of exposure situations with no hassle, so it’s a good "default" setting for quick shooting. While some photographers who grew up with center-weighted metering still use it (that was the only metering mode my film cameras had), I find that multi-segment metering gives me better results more of the time.

Spot metering, done properly, can produce the most accurate exposure of all, but doing it properly takes time and thus rules it out for action shots and fast-breaking events. And the spot meters built into SLR cameras generally read too large an area for precise control, especially when you’re using a wide-angle lens.

Handheld Meters

Before cameras had built-in TTL meters, photographers used handheld exposure meters, and these can still be useful accessories for today’s photographers. The most useful handheld meters for outdoor photographers are spot meters. These read a small (generally one-degree) area, so they can measure the brightness of subjects or portions of subjects precisely, such as that moose in yonder meadow. Ansel Adams used a spot meter, as do his legion of followers. (See the Exposure Meter sidebar for more details.)

Bracketing Exposures

Bracketing exposures means making one shot at the exposure you think is right, then additional shots giving more and less exposure. The idea is to make sure you have one good exposure in tricky situations. Bracketing is difficult with moving subjects and fast-breaking situations, but many cameras offer automatic exposure bracketing (AEB), in which the camera shoots the bracketed exposure series in rapid succession with one push of the shutter button when the camera is set to continuous-drive mode. In single-shot drive mode, you have to press the shutter button to make each bracketed shot. You generally can set the bracketing amount in ½- or 1/3-stop increments up to +/- two or three stops; I usually use ½- or one-stop brackets.


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