When to Trick Your Camera to get a Good Exposure

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I bought the Sony A7 camera recently and have been taking it out quite a bit to get a feel for it.

My wife is starting a fashion blog so I thought I would take her out for a fashion shoot at the beach. I was shooting a high-contrast scene and realized. . .

The camera doesn’t always know what’s best

Your camera always has the best intentions, but it doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes the sensor will think you want to expose a scene one way when you actually want it to expose it another.

I’ll show you an example. I put the camera on aperture priority and shot this:

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To most people, this image would be considered underexposed because the model is dark. This happens because the scene has a lot of contrast. In other words, there is a lot of bright pixels (the sky) and a lot of dark pixels (the rocks, ground, and model).

Why doesn’t the camera always get the exposure correct?

The camera sensor is trying to create an average of dark pixels to light pixels. The histogram shows the dark pixels on the left of the graph and the bright pixels on the right.

A “properly exposed” photo means the balance between the blacks and whites is mostly even. The graph isn’t pushed into the left wall which would be very underexposed, or pushed into the right wall which would be very overexposed. The problem is that to expose properly for the model we need more bright pixels, we need to increase the exposure. Sometimes you will need to trick the camera to get a good exposure.

Using exposure compensation

Sometimes you just need a little bit more or a little bit less. In this case I had the ISO and the aperture exactly where I wanted them. I had my camera set up so the front dial controls the exposure compensation.

In this case, exposure compensation is set up to slightly change the shutter speed to either increase or decrease the exposure. I twisted the exposure compensation dial until the image looked good which was a shutter speed of 1/200.

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This looks much better. The model is properly exposed now but the sky is now overexposed. Because the sky is now white, you can see the histogram is pushed to the far right.

This typically means the image is overexposed but in this case it’s simply because the sky has a lot of white pixels in it that register on the right of the histogram. Let’s see it in another example:

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I just used the exposure compensation to bump up the exposure again so the model was properly exposed and the sky was overexposed in the image on the right.

This happens a lot when subjects are backlit

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When you shoot with the sun behind your subject, the camera will sometimes struggle to decide whether to properly expose the background or the subject. The camera is trying to figure out which one you want exposed.

If you are shooting for a silhouette you can underexpose the subject to create a dark outline of their figure. If you want to properly expose the subject you will overexpose the background in high contrast light.

Decisions, decisions

Ultimately it’s up to you how you would like the image to look. I like the high-key look of some of these images. The final touch once you have the light and exposure the way you like it is to edit the image.

Here is one of my favorite photos straight out of camera:

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I used one of the 1-Click Hacking Photography Lightroom presets in the Old School Color set called “Warm Film” and came up with this final image:

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Overall it was a good shoot on the beach with my wife, I had fun running more tests on the Sony A7, and created some great images in the making!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mike Newton teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography. He is a full-time advertising photographer in San Diego California. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or his personal photography site.

  • elohiym

    What I do is hunt the scene. I will do a video tutorial. The metering system on your camera is actually very accurate. But what you need to do is slow down. If you slowly move your center focus point on the model and then slowly move it off onto either dark or light areas you will see the transition on your live view display (LCD) as the metering system adjusts to the new values. If you move fast, the transition is fast. If you move slowly so will the transition and if you move ever so slightly, BAM, you can lock the exposure when it’s just right. Then you can simply recompose for focus and press the shutter. Basically find the edges of your focal point or some other similarly lit object in the scene. By moving back and forth along the edge you can find the right exposure. For a portrait in a backlit scene, you could have used a reflector or a flash but that’s for another post lol. Lastly, lovely shots. 🙂

  • @elohiym:disqus very good suggestions! I hadn’t thought of using a brighter edge of the subject to lock exposure.

    Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of slowing down when shooting if you are on a deadline or the sun is coming down. I wanted to show people how to manually meter in case they didn’t have a reflector or additional light source. I hope it was helpful, and thank you for commenting!

  • Kev Cool

    It’s a lovely shot. There’s really no right or wrong approach however. Unless there’s something like HDR involved (and that’s a mixed bag for portraits), either the scene will be properly exposed or the subject will be. As @elohiym points out, the way to mitigate this is with some kind of fill like a reflector or a strobe. Without fill, it’s a matter of personal preference which approach to take.

  • You are absolutely right @kev_cool:disqus. One of the things I love about photography is the ability to take different approaches and still end up with your preferred result.

  • Dan Merkel

    Interesting, but wouldn’t it be easier just to narrow the area of the sensor that is taking the reading of the scene instead of using the entire image? When I’m in a “weir” lighting situation, I simply set the camera to expose for the very center of the image, take my reading then recompose if necessary.

  • PhotoRestoration

    Mike, this may be a personal preference thing but that gorgeous dark saturation that comes from the slightly under exposed shot is great no? Why not do the classic combine to exposures from the camera. most take a bracket of exposures these days. Alternatively get with the subtle fill in flash, lift the foreground shadows a bit but still get those Whisky tones in the back ground.

  • Hi Dan, yes you can do that but once you get into spot metering you need to understand tones and where to expose for them. If you have a lady in a light outfit like this you will still have to use +1 or more to give her correct exposure because the camera will try and make grey.

  • Roger Lambert

    When you have a back-lit subject, it’s time to think about using your flash, unless you want to blow out your skies all the time.

  • Tim Lowe

    I dunno. I have a camera with no built-in meter. I carry a Sekonic meter with both incident and reflective capabilities. I never have to trick the camera. 😉

  • Hi Roger, thank you for the comment. Knowing the majority of readers on DPS are in the beginner stage, I wanted to write a simple post on how to manually meter in tricky situations for people who don’t have a flash (or didn’t bring one.)

    You bring up a good point though, perhaps I should write a post on how to balance flash in backlit situations. I think an ever more fun post would be how to overpower the sun with high-power strobes but I’m not sure if DPS readers would value it if they don’t have studio strobes and battery packs to bring on location.

  • I like your approach! You can’t get more accurate than with a Sekonic meter!

  • It’s definitely a trade off. I see what you mean with the deeper tones and I think it just depends on each shoot. I haven’t really used much bracketing unless I’m setting up an HDR shot in a really contrasty lighting situation but its a good idea that I need to try out.

    I didn’t use a fill flash because I wanted to show people how to meter manually to get the image they want. In this case I was going for a slightly high-key series. It seems that fill-flash is a popular thing in the comments so I might write a follow up post on using fill.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Tim Lowe

    When you shoot a Hasselblad and carry a Sekonic meter, you understand what Ansel meant when he said, “I don’t understand bracketing. Either you know the exposure or you don’t.”

  • biabangard

    Thanks Mike,
    When you can turn the exposure compensation dial easily to adjust the exposure, why you should move your camera back and forth to adjust the exposure then lock the exposure then recompose?
    I don’t get the point?

  • KC

    Great points. You do have to know what and how your camera is metering. Is it set for center weighted, spot, or multi-area? How does each setting affect a scene? It does depend on the camera. Next, visualize a gray card. Is the subject lighter or darker than that? That’s what your meter is going to try to replicate. It’s going to think black or white should be 18% gray.

    I want to leave it at theory because this is very conditional. I don’t want examples to come across as “rules”. It can also lead to other factors like latitude/dynamic range, Raw versus JPEG, and that just takes it into technical and camera specific areas. Let me keep this practical, if not fun.

    This is where “live view” or electronic viewfinders/screens really can be handy. They’re showing what will be recorded with the current settings applied. Go plus or minus one and the screen adjusts accordingly. It’s a decent representation of what’s going to be captured. Put another way, the workflow is” preview then capture, not capture then review.

    Other “tricks”: switch to black and white. By dropping out the color you can get a clearer idea of the range of brightness. Or throw the scene wildly out of focus, and take a meter reading, and bias from there. Load a light meter app that has an incident mode onto your phone and compare the readings to your camera. (Incident meters read the overall lighting of a subject/scene, not the light reflected from a subject/scene).

    It makes you wonder how this all worked in “sunny 16” days – but it did.

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