I have never liked the term ‘correct exposure.’ I don’t believe there’s often a single right way to expose your photos. There’s always room for artistic interpretation depending on:
- Exposure setting choices
- Composition choices
All these will have some influence on the way a photograph will appear. One of the most important aspects of achieving a pleasing exposure is your intent. This cannot be measured by an exposure meter.
Choose how you expose your photos
How you expose your photos is a key choice when working with your camera. Most photos you take will display variation in tone from the brightest point to the darkest. You won’t often photograph subjects that are the same tone throughout.
The quality of light and how it reflects off the surfaces in your composition will help determine the exposure value for each tone. Sometimes the range of tones in a composition means your camera will not be able to render them all with visible detail.
When the level of contrast is beyond what your camera’s sensor can capture in a single exposure, you have to choose how to expose your photos. What is the most important part of the composition you want to expose correctly? Often this will be the middle tones. Other times it will be either the highlights or the darkest parts of your composition.
Particularly with high contrast lighting, you must choose how you want to expose your photograph. This is where the intent you have for how the photo will look comes into play. Do you want a bright, energetic image, or a more somber and moody one? What look will best suit your subject?
With a more monotone subject, the tonal range will not be large, especially when what you are photographing is not highly reflective. It was very easy to make a nice, even exposure of this dusty little dog lying in the dirt. This was because of the limited tonal range, low-contrast light, and overall beige color.
Think like a film photographer
The dynamic range of film is far narrower than that of modern camera sensors. Our digital cameras are far more capable of recording a broader tonal range in a single image than any film. When you take photos with film, you need to be more precise about how you expose your photos. This is more vital in high contrast situations.
Because the tonal range of film is much narrower, you’re more likely to lose detail in the shadows and/or highlights than when you work with a digital camera. Imagining that you are using film can help you be more aware of what part of your composition you want to expose well.
For example, when I photographed this novice monk (above), he was in a dark space with light coming through a window. The contrast was significant. I knew that if I let my camera decide the exposure, it would mean the light area of the boy’s face would be overexposed. This is because most of the composition was in shadow.
I used my spot meter to take an exposure reading from the light reflecting off the monk’s face and set my exposure accordingly. In my original file, there is some detail visible in the shadows. I have boosted the contrast during post-processing to eliminate it.
The bell-shaped histogram myth
The notion that a correctly exposed image will produce a bell-shaped histogram is nonsense. You can’t rely on a histogram to provide useful information about exposure.
Histograms are a graphical representation of the tones present in a photo. When the photo is mostly middle tones, you’ll see the histogram as a bell shape: high in the middle section and low toward the left and the right.
The tonal range of the scene you are photographing has an influence on what the histogram will look like. This is why you cannot gauge exposure by looking at the histogram. Some people may find it helpful, but it’s not good practice to rely on it to help you choose your exposure settings. Don’t aim to make your histogram a bell shape.
For example, portraits made against a black background will never display a bell-shaped histogram. The graph will always spike on the left because there are more dark tones in the image than midtones or light tones. Depending on what a person is wearing, such a histogram may be very flat.
For the image above, the grandma’s face is where I wanted the correct exposure. It would not be possible, even if I wanted it, to set my exposure so that detail in both the background and the headscarf was visible.
Expose your photos with intent
Know what you want before you press the shutter release.
Often, you have chosen your subject. You’ve composed carefully. Then you take a photo with no real regard for the lighting or your exposure setting.
Letting the camera take care of the exposure using averaged metering and an automatic setting is the way many people take pictures. The results of such exposures are relatively predictable. This is because of how cameras are designed and calibrated. To obtain the best exposure each time you take a photograph, you must match it to your intent.
How do you want the light on your subject to look? What is the mood you want your photo to convey? Are you capable of achieving this with the current lighting? These things must be considered before you press the shutter release.
Be in control of your exposure settings. Read your meter as a guide. Rather than ensuring that your meter is reading zero for every photo, adjust your settings to where you can capture the photo that matches your intent.
I do not believe there is a right or wrong exposure choice for any photo. You can take into account all the technical aspects, but while this approach may produce technically correct images, they will often lack expression and feeling of any kind.
Not being intentional when you expose your photos often produces bland results.