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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Universal Exposure Strategy

How to harness the power within your camera and your eye to get perfect exposures for every kind of lighting situation

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Blue Lake At Sunrise, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Randall used the Rembrandt Solution to get this image. He stacked a photo exposed properly for highlights and one exposed properly for shadows, and combined the two in the computer.

Menacing gray clouds filled the sky when I arrived before dawn on the crest of Black Face in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, Colorado. I had wagered a good night's sleep on this sunrise, but my decision to get up at 2 a.m. and hike two and a half hours in the dark looked like a gamble I had lost. Minutes later, however, the clouds to the east began to tear apart, revealing ragged holes rim-lit with golden light from the rising sun. The scene was spectacular, but with both backlit clouds and deeply shadowed, forested valleys in the frame, the contrast was high.

Black Face, Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. As described in the article, Randall used HDR software after the fact to create this image from a series of bracketed frames of the rapidly changing scene.
What exposure strategy should I use? There was no time for painstaking calculations. Rather than spot-metering frantically, I resorted to the "Universal Exposure Strategy." To understand that strategy, you need some background. In my view, there are four basic exposure strategies for landscape photography. As I'll explain in more detail, the four strategies are: PhD, Limiting Factor, Rembrandt Solution and HDR. In an ideal world, photographers would always have the leisure to carefully analyze which exposure strategy would give them the perfect result. But the world is imperfect, and the most promising situations are often fleeting.

When I'm rushed, and nothing is moving within the frame (the big caveat), I often resort to the Universal Exposure Strategy. I set the camera to give me a five-frame bracket set with a one-stop bracket interval. With that strategy, I can come away from the shoot confident that I have the data to choose, after the fact, whichever basic exposure strategy will give me the best result.

Let's investigate the four basic exposure strategies more deeply.

1 PhD No, you don't need a doctorate. PhD stands for Push here, Dummy. If you're shooting a midtone subject in soft, even lighting, your camera will give you the right exposure time after time. The most common PhD situation is an intimate landscape of wildflowers on an overcast day. With no sky in the frame, the meter reads primarily off the green foliage, which is a classic midtone subject. The entire sky is the light source. Such a broad source gives you low-contrast lighting. You can forget about exposure and concentrate on composition.

2 Limiting Factor This is the best exposure strategy to use in slightly higher contrast situations. The limiting factor is the highlights: Don't blow them out! The simplest procedure is to shoot a test frame at the exposure recommended by the camera's meter, then check the histogram.


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