3 Ways to Guarantee Good Exposures

3 Ways to Guarantee Good Exposures


There is no excuse for coming home from a photo shoot to discover that your images are over or under exposed.

Your camera’s light meter will guide you to choose the right aperture and shutter speed settings to get a good exposure, or it will choose them automatically if you are using the automatic or semi-automatic modes.

The problem is that your camera can be fooled by tricky lighting situations and that’s why your image may not come out exactly the way you want it, despite all the advanced technology in your camera.

Below are 3 techniques you can use to make sure you get a good exposure. Choose the technique that works best for the type of photo shoot you are on and how much time you have while making images.

1. Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

One way to make sure you get at least one image that has a good exposure is to use bracketing, which means that you take one exposure at the setting your camera’s light meter thinks is correct (0 on the light meter) and you take at least two more exposures, one at -1 stop and one at +1 stop.

That might sound like a bit of a hassle, but most cameras have a setting for automatic exposure bracketing which makes it quick and easy. Check your camera manual to see whether your camera has this feature and, if so, how to turn it on.

AEB in Camera Menu

AEB in Camera Menu

AEB showing +1, 0, -1 brackets

AEB showing +1, 0, -1 brackets

With automatic exposure bracketing on, you simply hold down the shutter until your camera takes 3 exposures and voilà. This is even faster if you set your shutter drive mode to continuous high speed.

AEB will work on Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes and on some cameras it will even work in Manual mode.

I usually use AEB on Aperture Priority mode because I like to have control over my depth of field for landscape photography. On this setting the camera will take the photo at three different shutter speeds to give you the three different exposures. It is important to use this setting if you think you might want to combine the exposures in post-processing.

Exposure bracketing example

In this scene, the white sky caused the camera’s light meter to choose a darker exposure than was necessary. I decided that the +1 exposure was the best option.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada by Anne McKinnell

After processing the +1 exposure, this is the final version of the Vancouver City Skyline image.

If you use AEB on Shutter Priority mode, the camera will take the photo at three different apertures to give you the three different exposures. This is the best option to choose if you need to freeze motion at a fast shutter speed and depth of field is less of a concern.

Using AEB is the best method to use when things are happening quickly and you don’t want to spend any time looking at your LCD (known as “chimping”) after you make an image. When things are happening fast, chimping can cause you to miss a shot.

2. Exposure Compensation

Chimping is not necessarily a bad thing and unless there is a possibility of missing a shot, reviewing your images after you take them is a good practice to double check the exposure, focus and composition.

To use exposure compensation, just take the shot and then evaluate the image using the histogram. It is important to use the histogram for this and not just the picture as it appears on the back of your camera. The LCD is not all that accurate when it comes to exposure. Remember that if you shoot in RAW, what you are seeing on the back of your camera is a compressed version of the image and not an accurate representation of the RAW file. Also, your LCD’s brightness can be adjusted, so if you turn the brightness down when you are photographing at night all your images will appear darker during the day.

Using the histogram is easy. The blacks are on the left, the whites are on the right, all the mid-tones are in between. All you really need to know is that a spike on either edge of the graph is bad.

Under exposed image.

Under exposed image.

Good exposure.

Good exposure.

Over exposed image.

Over exposed image.

If there is a spike on the left edge, it means part of your image is completely black. You may want to use your exposure compensation to adjust the exposure to the right to make it brighter. But remember that having part of your image completely black, especially for a night shot, is okay.

If there is a spike on the right edge, it means part of your image is completely white and contains no data. Never let any substantial part of your image go completely white. Because it contains no data at all, it will always remain a white spot no matter what you try to do in post-processing. It’s better to keep the graph off the right edge. You only need to worry about this if the spike is right on the very edge of the histogram – if it spikes before the edge it is not a problem.

Once you evaluate your image using the histogram, you can use your exposure compensation to make the image darker or lighter without having to worry about changing the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO. If you just want it a little darker, turn the exposure compensation down a little. Or turn it up a little if your image is too dark. You’ll have to check your camera manual again to see how to do this. On my camera, I hold the shutter half way down and move the wheel on the back of my camera to change the exposure compensation.

Exposure with no compensation

Exposure with -1 compensation

This is the quickest method to use when you have time to chimp. While bracketing will ensure one of the three exposures is useable, this method is more precise and deliberate.

3. Exposure Lock

Exposure lock is my favourite method to use when I have lots of time. It actually doesn’t require that much time to do, especially when you get in the habit.

If you have a subject that isn’t moving, such as a landscape scene, and you have time to be purposeful about what you are doing, this is the ultimate method for getting the perfect exposure.

I like to use exposure lock in combination with the “spot metering” exposure mode so that the camera will only take into account the light level at the exact spot in the frame that I tell it to. I decide what part of the image is most important for the exposure. For example, if I am making a silhouette image at twilight, I will point the camera at the sky and use the exposure lock button to exposure for the sky, then I recompose the image, focus, and take the shot.

Battery Point Lighthouse, Crescent City, California, by Anne McKinnell

To make this image of Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, California, I pointed my camera at the bright red band of clouds in the sky, used my exposure lock, and then recomposed the image and pressed the shutter.

Check your camera manual to see how to use exposure lock. On my camera, I press a button with a * on the back of my camera.

Exposure Lock Button

Depending on the type of subject you are photographing and whether things in your scene are changing quickly or slowly, one of these methods will ensure you always get a good exposure.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • Anne McKinnell September 28, 2013 08:59 am

    @Steve I used photoshop elements and put the 3 brackets on seperate layers and then used layer masks to mask out 2/3rd of each photo so I was left with the example that showed the result of 3 exposures on one image.

    @Richard Thank you very much for those excellent tips. I hate it when my camera turns the auto bracketting off automatically and the suggestion about using AEB at night is excellent.

    @Julie absolutely! I often take multiple exposures when photographing the moon: one exposure for the general scene and another that is -3 for the moon and then combine them in post processing. Otherwise, the moon is always way too bright.

    @marius This article is about helping people get a good even exposure when that is what they are after. Once you understand how to get that good exposure, there is nothing stopping you from over exposing or under exposing for a high or low key effect. Once you understand how all this works you are in complete control and you will able to make the exposure be whatever you want it to be as an artist.

  • marius2die4 September 26, 2013 01:15 am

    How do you appreciate a low or high key picture?
    I guess The Prefect Exposure is a bitt over exaggerate.

  • julie Borkowski September 25, 2013 06:04 am

    Would this be helpful when trying to shoot photos of a full moon? I have not been able to get anything but a great landscape but a bright orb that looks more like the sun than a cool glowing moon.

  • Richard P. Crowe September 21, 2013 08:56 am

    Two things worth mentioning regarding AEB:

    1. The default choice for AEB on Canon DSLR cameras is for the AEB to cancel when the camera is shut down for any reason. I always go into the menu and replace that default and select keeping the AEB active until I deselect it. When I choose any camera parameter, I want that parameter active until I deselect it...

    2. AEB can be effectively used for night photography if combined with a -1 stop exposure compensation. This will give you a three shot burst with one shot at the meter reading, one shot at -1 stop below the meter reading and one shot at -2 stops below the meter reading. Since the bane of night exposure is normally "over" not "under" exposure, this system will provide a very good basis for most city scape night shots.

  • Steve September 21, 2013 08:32 am

    What did you use to make the three exposure image under Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)?

  • vikram September 20, 2013 07:56 pm

    g8 tips. thanks

  • John B. September 20, 2013 07:49 am

    I love the auto exposure bracketing and then using HDR in post processing. I never thought of using the continuous shooting mode, though. I just tried it and it's great. Thanks.

  • Carole Corner September 20, 2013 03:55 am

    Easy to understand article especially on histograms
    Thanks for reminding me of spot metering!

  • Anne McKinnell September 20, 2013 01:49 am

    Thank you everyone for your excellent comments and insights!

    @blake it's the "keep exposure even" part that can pose the difficulty!

    @bhavin I would use the spot meter and meter on the skin tone. Using exposure lock is very fast! Once you set the exposure, if the lighting is not changing, you can always switch to manual mode and dial in the exposure so you don't have to worry about it for the rest of the shoot.

    @kevin That would certainly work if you want to carry around an extra gadet and have the time to walk over and use the meter, walk back and dial the settings into your camera. Depending on the type of photography you do, that may well be the best answer. But if things are changing quickly it might not be practical.

    @nathan If that works for you, that is great! It might be confusing for people who didn't learn the zone system back in the day.

  • Cheryl Garrity September 20, 2013 01:48 am

    I like the last method you described. That way you can meter quickly off anything you choose. I shoot with a Nikon, but the method you described works if you set the AE-L/AF-L to AE-E. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging September 17, 2013 07:36 am

    I have found that focus lock to be very handy and I don't accidentally take a photo while I'm still setting up the camera to take the photo. Those are some great tips. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nathan Franke September 17, 2013 04:11 am

    Just shoot in Manual and use the Zone system. I want my clouds to be Zone VIII, so I meter on the clouds, dial the exposure so it's under the +3 (the meter thinks the clouds are gray, and therefore gives me the info to put them in Zone V. By overexposing by 3 stops, I get the right zone VIII exposure for the clouds). I never have to think about navigating menus to set exposure compensation.

  • RoseAnne September 17, 2013 02:15 am

    Thank you! I have used AEB and the histogram to adjust the exposure compensation, but I did not know how to lock the exposure setting, Since reading this post, I've been playing with the exposure lock for the past hour; this will be incredibly helpful!

  • Kevin Ames September 16, 2013 06:05 pm

    Hmm. Perfect exposure? Since in camera meters return settings that make what they see 12.5% gray, unless they are metering a 12.5% gray target the exposure will be off. Why not bypass auto everything, set the camera on manual then use an incident meter to measure the light falling on the subject? That's the easiest way to get close to the "perfect" exposure.

  • Mridula September 16, 2013 06:01 pm

    Great ideas and thank you for telling me where the exposure lock is.


  • Bhavin September 16, 2013 02:08 pm

    What method is best preferred for wedding or any scene where the subjects are people. You want to best expose the skin tones so what method is most efficient for that? I tried exposure lock, but it may not be quick enough?

  • Blake September 16, 2013 02:03 pm

    You forgot the easiest method of all: shoot RAW, set to auto white balance and keep exposure even, and just adjust in post production.

  • Mark Woolridge September 16, 2013 11:36 am

    Great ideas. Each are handy to use pending the situation.

  • klaklash September 16, 2013 11:08 am

    Always enjoyed your articles. I chimp and check the histogram now and again, but I know I've left behind some solid shots by not keeping in mind some of the rest of these ideas. Thanks for the tips.