Digital Exposure Tips From The Pros

Don’t rely on setting the camera to auto or fixing a photo after capture. Check out what the pros have to say about exposure.
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Mastering exposure is every bit as important for a digital shooter as it is for a film photographer. Routine technical choices about metering, lens aperture and shutter speed remain the basic ingredients for a well-executed photograph. But what if you’re trying to capture a forest freshly covered in snow, or photograph a close-up shot of a bee crawling on a sunflower, or compose an image of the ocean just after sunset?

Exposure becomes trickier when the light becomes more challenging. Yet, these situations can be the most photographically rewarding because a proper exposure becomes a creative element of the image. So we polled some longtime OP contributors for their tips and techniques for getting the best exposures in various conditions.

1 Center-weighted metering. As a rule of thumb, I always try to get the best exposure while taking my photo as opposed to fixing it in Photoshop. I encourage everyone to make tests with their cameras and metering systems to see what kind of exposures they get at different settings. I use Olympus cameras and find that center-weighted-averaging metering is the most suited for almost all of my shooting. I also check my histogram to see that the extremes don’t get blown out.
—John Isaac

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2 Getting close. This is an example of a common exposure problem for close-ups—an image filled with bright white, yet with a very dark key element. The camera meter has a tendency to underexpose this type of scene because it’s overinfluenced by the white. That’s a problem, however, because the underexposure will make the dark tones and colors of the bee record poorly. You need to adjust exposure so that you get enough brightness in the dark areas, but you must be sure to keep tones in the bright area as well. One way to do this is to increase exposure until the highlight warnings start to blink and then reduce exposure just enough that they quit blinking, but no less.
—Rob Sheppard

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3 Spot-metering wildlife. Whenever I photograph wildlife, I try to meter directly on the animal to make sure my subject is properly exposed. In this case, I spot-metered on the side of the fox and, in manual-metering mode, made my meter read one stop overexposed (or +1). I did this because the white fur of the fox is one stop lighter than medium in this light. In hard sunlight, I’d overexpose by a stop and a half or maybe even two stops. This was a tough situation for matrix or evaluative metering because of the extremes in tonalities—black background, white foreground and white fox. It might have worked, but with spot metering I knew it would work. I’ll take a sure thing every time. —David Middleton

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4 Shooting against light. There has been a lot of haze in the mountains of California this year because of many forest fires. This haze can translate into interesting images when you shoot against the light—it actually gives more color to the air at sunset and helps define the planes of a scene. The challenge is that the camera sees all of this brightness and tries to underexpose the picture. This makes the scene look rather muddy in its tonalities, and increases noise and causes color problems. Expose to keep the bright areas bright without turning them white through overexposure.
—Rob Sheppard

5 Shadows and highlights. The biggest exposure problems can occur in the shadows and highlights, just as with film. Fortunately, digital sensors capture a wide latitude of contrast. Still, you must guard against blowing out highlights so that no detail is recorded or underexposing shadow areas. When you take your initial exposure, carefully note where the tonal values fall, especially the far left and right sides. With this image of surf in motion, I watched the right side of my histogram very carefully, so I was able to record a great deal of nuance in the highlight water values.
—William Neill

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6 White on white. All meters want to make the subject a middle tone, so no matter how beautiful, bright and fresh the snow you photograph, your camera, left to itself, will render it dingy, middle-tone gray. To outsmart the camera’s automated metering, switch the exposure-metering setting to “manual.” Fill the frame completely with a snowy area of the scene and modify the camera’s reading to +11⁄2. Because you’re on manual, that reading will be locked in. Reframe your scene and shoot. The resulting image should render white all of the snow within your image, but still retain detail in the bright areas. If lighting changes during your shooting session, reframe a snowy area and modify the new exposure again to +11⁄2. With a digital camera, you can check to make sure you have detail in the whitest areas of the scene by assuring that there’s a small amount of space between the right edge of the histogram and the right axis of the graph.
—George Lepp

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7 Truth or glare. (Does your LCD lie?) Many photographers routinely rely on the picture preview that appears on the LCD screen on the back of the camera to confirm that their exposure settings are correct. And since LCDs are difficult to see, they often adjust the display to its brightest setting, which gives an artificially bright impression of the image. The photographer may then assume that an underexposed image is properly exposed. There are two factors that can mitigate this problem. First, set the LCD to its middle brightness setting so that it reflects a closer approximation of the actual exposure. Watch for “blinkies” on the LCD image that represent areas that are completely blown out. Better yet, make your exposure decisions based on the histogram rather than the image on the LCD. To improve your view of the LCD in bright light, use the HoodLoupe from Hoodman (www.hoodmanusa.com).
—George Lepp

8 Getting the right backlight. Backlit situations are always intimidating to photographers unsure about their metering. The way I think about a backlit subject is to ask myself how dark do I want the shaded side—the side facing me—to be. If I make the shaded side very dark, then I’ll emphasize the rim lighting of the backlight. If I make it lighter, then I’ll emphasize the subject and deemphasize the backlighting. In this case, since I wanted to see the face of the bear cub, I decided to spot-meter the face and make it a half-stop darker than a medium tonality. This actually lightened up the dark, shadowed face of the bear. By doing so, I diminished the backlighting, but didn’t eliminate it altogether.
—David Middleton

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9 Strike a balance. When you’re composing a photograph, consider the overall balance of light and dark areas within the frame. Bright objects, especially when seen along the edges, are often distracting. As I set up this image of corn lilies, I watched carefully to make sure there were no bright leaves that would pull the viewer’s eye out of the frame.
—William Neill

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10 Expose to the right. Generally, recovering highlight detail is easier than pulling out detail in dark, shadow areas. For that reason, most of my histograms are weighted to the right side. I’ve found the Recovery tool in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to be useful at pulling information back into slightly overexposed highlights. When shadows are underexposed, it’s not too hard to lighten them up, for example, by using the Shadow/Highlight adjustment in Photoshop or the Fill Light slider in Lightroom. But often, the penalty for this is noise in the dark tones. In this photograph, I had very high values in the water along with deep shadows. I decided that the water detail was more important, so I made sure that the histogram fully contained all the highlights within the right edge of the graph.
—William Neill

11 Flower exposure. Backlight is great for flower close-ups—it makes the flowers glow and the details pop. There are a few considerations, however: If there’s a lot of dark area around a bright flower, the camera tends to give too much exposure, washing out detail. If a flower takes up quite a bit of the image area, the meter might be overinfluenced by the brightness of the flower, giving too little exposure. That’s a problem because dark colors, especially rich dark colors, will be exposed improperly and can’t be “fixed” to look their best in Photoshop.
—Rob Sheppard

12 High dynamic range.
In some situations, you can increase your dynamic range by double-processing the same RAW file. First, process the original capture to bring out the shadows. Then go back to the original RAW file and process it a second time to control the highlight values. Blend the two files into one image, and you’ll end up with a dramatically higher dynamic range. While in the field, it’s better to expose for the highlights in one capture and the shadows in the next and process those together, but a great deal of contrast problems can be solved even if bracketing isn’t done during capture.
—William Neill

13 Spot-on metering.
In a scene of many contrasts, how do you guide your camera’s metering features to concentrate on the most important subject? Without spot metering, the camera takes an average of the overall scene to determine the exposure. The result, for example, might be that your moose in a bright meadow is underexposed. Your camera’s spot-metering or center-weighted metering function can considerably narrow the exposure sampling to key on the subject and the area around it, offering a better reading for the subject. But for a truly precise reading similar to the handheld 1° spot meters of the past, use a zoom lens at its greatest magnification to spot-meter on a very small area of the subject. Lock the exposure and reframe the scene, and you’ll have perfect exposure where it counts the most. A note of caution, however: If the exposure for your subject is significantly different from the surrounding area, you risk dramatically under- or overexposing the overall image.
—George Lepp

14 Capturing the twilight hour. Twilight is a magical time to photograph. No matter the weather, the sky opposite where the sun was or will be turns a wonderful cobalt blue. But the light is changing every second—before sunrise, it’s ever increasing, and after sunset, it’s ever decreasing. The best way to meter in this confounding light is to let your camera do all the thinking. I use matrix metering and aperture-priority mode. This lets me concentrate on the composition and lets the camera figure out the exposure based on the ƒ-stop I’ve selected. Just to make sure I don’t get too many blown-out highlights, I also dial in a -0.7 of exposure compensation. This creates a little fudge factor and minimizes most of the blown highlights.
—David Middleton

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    This is something I have been struggling with. I am still very new to photography and I sometimes take my cameras advice. Most of the time it does not lead me astray but sometimes the settings are just way off and I knew I should not have paid attention to it. Thank goodness for instant viewing in digital.

    This tip embodies what is probably the most crucial concept I’ve internalized since I began shooting digital with the advantage of a histogram display! I lived by the Zone System for a lot of years, and the histogram distills it to its essence!

    Dave Graham

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