Part Two – Managing Your Exposure
This is the second article in a series of three discussing how to make well-exposed photographs. The first article covers subject choice, some common misconceptions about exposure and the photographer’s intention.
Having identified your subject, managing your exposure then matters most. These things will influence how your photograph is exposed:
- Point of view
- Lens choice
- Reading the light
- Exposure settings
You’ll notice that I’ve placed ‘Exposure settings’ at the bottom of this list. This is because it’s the most obvious aspect of managing your exposure. I want you to consider how the other items on the list affect your exposure setting choices.
Point of view
Where you choose to take your photo from can significantly affect your exposure. Is the light behind you? Behind your subject? To one side?
By changing your position you can manage what you see in the background and how it impacts the amount of light entering your lens.
In this photo, the reflection off the water makes up a large portion of the background. Had I not been careful with my exposure my subject may have been underexposed. In this photo, I compensated for the bright background by adding some fill flash.
Changing my point of view so I no longer included the lake in the background meant I could expose my subject well. The reflected light off the water surface no longer affected my exposure. In this photo, I did not need to use my flash as there was no strong backlight to compensate for.
Composition is partly governed by your choice of lens. Using a telephoto lens will include less background. In doing this, you can restrict light sources and bright areas of your composition more easily. With a wider lens, you are more likely to include more sky or other bright areas which can have some effect on your exposure.
Had I used a wider lens for my photo of these rice fields I would have included the setting sun in my composition. This would definitely have a strong impact on my exposure and the whole look and feel of my photo.
I could have eliminated the effect of the sun altogether by using a lens focal length that was slightly longer. I could have also tilted my camera down slightly, but the foreground was unattractive, and I like the sunburst.
The time you choose to make your photograph can also influence your exposure. It may mean waiting until the sun is in a different place in the sky for a landscape photo. Or you may have to calculate when to press your shutter release to avoid bright headlights of a passing car. This was the case when I photographed the image below.
The timing for blue hour photos is particularly important. You must wait for the ambient light to balance with any other light source you have in your frame. This amount of time will vary depending on your proximity to the equator.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we have about ten minutes each evening to capture a rich blue sky with the electric lights included in the composition.
Reading the light
To be able to set your exposure you must use an exposure meter or let your camera make the calculations and settings for you.
Leaving this choice completely up to your camera is rarely best as your camera does not know what you are photographing. Your photos will potentially lack creativity.
Your camera has amazing artificial intelligence built into it, but it cannot see the way you see and discern what your main subject is. By leaving your camera settings so the meter is set to take an averaged reading and is on any auto or semi-auto mode, your camera is in control. You can use exposure compensation or set your camera manually to take control of your exposure.
One of the easiest ways to read the light is by using live view and looking at your monitor. Some cameras do not have this capability, so you need to consult your manual and do some testing to discover if you can use this method.
Checking your exposure with live view works when you have your camera set to manual mode. It’s easy to watch the light values on your monitor changes as you alter your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Using this method in conjunction with your histogram is recommended so you can check if there’s any clipping happening.
Using your exposure meter set so it takes a reading from the entire frame and then calculates an average exposure is okay when the light and tone is even.
When there’s any amount of contrast in the scene it’s good to take a spot meter reading directly from your subject. This will provide you with the specific information about the light reflecting off the most important part of your composition.
For this photograph, I took a spot meter reading from the Buddhist nun, as I wanted her exposed well. Had I left my meter on the averaging mode it would have included the bright light outside and the dark interior into its calculations. This would most likely indicate a setting which would have rendered my main subject underexposed.
Once you have made your exposure reading and ascertained how the light is affecting your composition, you need to set your exposure.
You may decide your subject will be well exposed by setting your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so the meter reads zero. You may prefer to have it read overexposed or underexposed, depending on the tone value of your subject and your creative expression.
When your subject is very dark or very light, you may want to alter your exposure settings to compensate. When you take a spot meter reading the camera is calibrated to see the thing as being middle gray. This means a black or a white subject will both appear gray in your photo if your meter is reading zero.
You must decide the tone you want your main subject to be. Do you want a clearly exposed subject? Will it look better if it appears brighter than it really is? Do you want a silhouette?
For this photo of pink orchid flowers, I chose to overexpose from the reading my spot meter was giving me. I did this to produce a softer feeling in the image.
Had I been making the photograph to document the flower and its color accurately, I would not have overexposed it. My intent was not to make a technically accurate representation of the flower.
If technical accuracy is what I wanted I would have changed my point of view to avoid the backlighting. I would have set my exposure so the color and tone rendered correctly to how the flower looked to my eyes.
Try it out and see for yourself
Find a white or black subject to photograph. Make a spot meter reading and set your exposure so that the meter is at zero. Take a photo.
Now, for a black subject, change your setting so the spot metering indicates it is two stops underexposed. For a white subject make your settings so it’s two stops overexposed.
Which photograph is most appealing? The ‘correctly’ exposed photo, or the under or overexposed photo?
Experimentation is always good when lighting and subject material are challenging. If you’re not 100% certain you have a perfect exposure, (I never am,) make a series of photos whenever you can.
Tweak your aperture and/or shutter speed settings between each exposure. Don’t make huge shifts in these settings, but just enough so you have a few options to look at when it comes to post-process them.
I’d love you to leave your comments below letting me know if this article has helped you understand exposure better.
The next article in this series will cover post-processing techniques which will enhance your exposure choices.