Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pathways #2: Get better exposures straight out of your camera


The first post in my Pathways series forms the essence of what this blog is all about...discovering photography, learning about it, enjoying it, and improving your own photography.  This second post is about an easy way to get technically better looking photos straight out of your camera.  Try it, you'll like it!  :-)

You can read books, magazines, take photography classes/workshops, etc, to help you improve your photography skills.  This is all great, but the key thing to remember is that you shouldn't do these activities in a passive manner.   You have to be active.  You need to pull concepts out of these activities that resonate with you, try them, expand on them, and put them in your "photography bag of tricks" to improve your skills and realize your photographic vision. 

You also need to come up with your own ideas about how to improve.  You can't learn photography just from books, classes, magazines, and the internet.  Ask yourself what you can try that's new.  What's something that hasn't been seen before?  What's something that you haven't tried before?  Be open to new ideas and try things, and that's how you'll improve.

Today's topic:

The topic for today is one of the things that had a major impact on the technical aspect of my photography when I finally worked on it a few years ago.  I'm speaking about getting a much better handle on "proper" exposure.  I put "proper" in quotes because proper exposure for a given image is somewhat subjective.  But most people can look at a photo and inherently get a feel for whether it's underexposed, overexposed, or "just right".

This was an important topic for me because after looking at some of my older photos, I began to see how much better they could have been straight out of the camera if the exposure was a little more "right".  A little more "punchy".  Conducting some experiments in Photoshop I quickly saw that another +1/3 or +1/2 stop of exposure here, or -1/3 stop of exposure there would significantly increase the "rightness" of my photos.

Seeing the results of my experiments above, I was easily motivated to more actively examine the exposures I was choosing for my photos so that I could more accurately express a scene the way I wanted to instead of the way the camera wanted to when shooting in full Auto mode.

Before going down this path I read a few books to get some concepts down about "proper" exposure.  One of them was Jeff Wignall's book "Exposure".  Another was Michael Freeman's book "Perfect Exposure".  I used these two books to learn more about the best times to take manual control of metering and exposure (instead of letting the camera auto-expose), and how to use metering/exposure to help enhance the subject of my photos and my creative vision.

Things very quickly opened up for me...

Once the concept of taking control of exposure for technical and creative reasons was hammered into my head, I now do it much more often than not.  The two keys to being able to do this successfully are:
  1. Developing a firm understanding of how your camera's metering system works and...
  2. How the metering system responds to different lighting situations.
Once you understand that, the door is open to taking control of your camera in any lighting situation to ensure that you get better results.  Here's the deal...

When you point your camera at a mostly bright scene, it's typically going to underexpose it.  If you point it at a mostly dark scene, it's typically going to overexpose it.  This is probably not what you want and both of these situations will make your photos less effective because in the former situation the colors will be dull, the image will feel lifeless, and it will be too dark.  It won't feel right.   In the latter situation your shadow areas will be too bright, your subject will probably be ruined, etc.  Both situations will reduce the apparent sharpness of your photos as well.

So, how do you compensate for these things and prevent them?  You have to understand your camera's metering modes, what you're aiming your camera at, and how your camera will respond.  Most importantly though, you need to have a vision in your head of what you want the outcome of the photo to be.

I'll assume for the purpose of this post that people who are interested in this topic will be shooting with advanced compact cameras or digital SLR's (DSLR) that have various metering modes, exposure compensation options, etc.

Try this experiment:

Go find a very bright scene to photograph.  Maybe something like your car on your driveway in bright sunlight.  Maybe your house on a bright sunny day.  Maybe a bright lamp in your house.  Put your camera in automatic mode and take a picture of it.  Now, open that photo in Photoshop and use the Exposure adjustment to add +1/3 stop of exposure to it.  Look better?  Most likely it does.  Reset and try adding +1/2 stop of exposure to the base picture?  Is +1/2 too much?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe you need even more depending on how bright the scene was.  Only you can say for sure based on what you like.....

The goal of this experiment is to demonstrate my point in the paragraph above about understanding what you're pointing your camera at and how it will respond.  With a very bright scene, your camera will likely underexpose it to try to average out the brightness.  You'll be left with a bland looking photo that doesn't look quite right.

Let's use an example photo of mine.  First is the photo straight out of my camera of a bright scene of some boats in Florida that was shot in automatic mode with evaluative metering.  Second is the same exact photo after I opened it in Photoshop and did nothing else to it except add +3/4 stop of exposure to it using the Exposure command.  You can see that the first photo is too dark, it's lifeless, and the colors are bland.  The second photo looks "right", it's punchier, and the colors are bright and accurate.

Original photo, underexposed due to the brightness of the scene

Original photo with +3/4 stop of Exposure added in Photoshop.  Much better!
Had I been thinking about it at the time, I would have realized that I was shooting a very bright scene and my camera would be tricked into underexposing it to average out the brightness.  I then simply would have taken one second to dial in +1/2 or +3/4 stop of exposure and taken the shot.  The out-of-camera picture would have been just right with this one simple adjustment.

If you understand this type of lighting situation and you know how your camera will respond to it, you can simply dial in +1/3 or +1/2 stop of exposure at the time you're taking the photo and you'll probably get better exposed photos straight out of the camera that will be more pleasing to the eye.  Don't use your camera in Auto mode when you know that you're shooting a tricky lighting situation.  Take control yourself to achieve better results.

The same exact scenario applies for very dark scenes.  Shoot one in Auto mode and then use Photoshop to put in -1/3 or -1/2 stop of exposure to see which shot you like better.  My guess is that one of the two adjusted images probably looks better than the one that came out of the camera.

Interesting, right?

By getting a better understanding of the lighting in a scene and what my cameras will do with it, I now know when I need to use exposure compensation for a particular shot.  Doing this has led to much more consistent and "likeable" photos straight out of my camera with no post-processing, and the less time that I need to spend on the computer editing photos the better.

This article does not address overexposing or underexposing for creative purposes....that's a whole separate topic.  What I'm trying to address here is simply getting better and more technically consistent photos out of your camera when you're facing tricky light.

All of the above was written with the primary thought that your camera was set to use evaluative or matrix metering, but most advanced cameras also have center-weighted, partial, and spot metering modes as well.  I'm not going to summarize what they are because it's beyond the scope of this post and your camera manual will explain them for you.  There are also these two quick articles that I found that cover the topics efficiently:
  1. Digital Photography School - "Metering Modes Explained"
  2. Digital Photography School - "Introduction to Metering Modes"
Understanding what these various metering modes do and when to use them, and then combining that knowledge with what I wrote above about exposure compensation, you can see that you should be able to achieve even more precise and specific results straight out of the camera for what you're trying to shoot.

Try some experiments to see how these topics come together for you.  Hopefully you'll get more effective and properly exposed images without the need for editing on the computer.

Let me know if you have any feedback on this post...Thanks for reading!


  1. john, good straight forward article. your example photo is useful and although its what i would expect it served to drive home your point very well. i don't play much with exposure compensation but your post makes me feel guilty for not trying it, so i will! :-)

  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for this article. It's a good idea to experiment with the stops in Photoshop. I'm still in the beginning stages of learning photography, so trying to absorb as much as I can at the mo. I usually start a photo in auto, then try different settings in camera, then compare them all to see which one looks best, but Photoshop is another option worth exploring.

  3. Hi Alison...I'm glad it was helpful!

    One of the biggest things by far that helped my photography was learning how to get technically better pictures (e.g., exposure, sharpness, contrast, etc) straight out of the camera instead of spending the time to edit in Photoshop after the fact. Once I had the technical aspects more under control and was getting more of what I wanted on my initial shoots, I felt free to turn my attention to the harder topic of improving my composition skills, etc. To me, getting the technical aspects right and learning to use all of the features of all my cameras was most important first step to continuing my learning journey.

    If you're just getting into photography, check out some of the great books that I've listed in the margin of this site. They were tremendously helpful to me over the years, and I've read a few of them more than once. I plan to write a feature post on my favorite photography books in the near future.

    Enjoy the hobby! John.....

  4. I always come back to this page when I start to have problems with my exposures. I forget to compensate for the brightness of the day. Thanks.


  5. Did you take the photos in Castaway cay?