Exposure – Exposed!

The most common question I am asked by beginning photographers is – what are the correct exposure settings for (insert any given scene)?

Let’s address the term “correct exposure,” by definition it is when you dial in a combination of settings that results in a “perfectly exposed” image. These settings are aperture, shutter speed and ISO (most commonly referred to as the Exposure Triangle).

For technical purposes – to capture a “perfectly exposed” image refers to an image where highlights are not OVER exposed (you may hear the terms blown out or too hot) or UNDER exposed (areas that should be brighter or lighter are lost in the shadows of an image).

Let’s get philosophical for a minute.

In my humble opinion “perfection” is hard to attain. On top of that, who defines the standard for it? Photography is art and as such is very subjective. My idea of a perfectly exposed image may not be your’s. The point being, that I steer away from terms such as “correct” and “perfect” when discussing exposure.  It is all about capturing a “balanced” image according to your creative vision.

Light, aperture, sensitivity and time are the factors that determine how a camera captures images.  Exposure is simply the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor based on the aperture (f-stop),  sensitivity (ISO) and time (shutter speed) the photographer selects.  To put it another way, the brightness or darkness of an image results from more or less light reaching the sensor.

The goal of the photographer is to find the right balance between these factors to get the best possible image for the mood you are attempting to convey or the emotion you are trying to evoke.

In my workshops and tours I encourage participants to take off the training wheels and shoot in manual mode. When I mention the goal of finding balance in their exposures there is always at least one who will ask “isn’t that what the auto modes do?”

My answer, “yes, your camera’s Auto or Program modes were developed to create balanced exposures, but they don’t always get it right.”

Like the workshop participants you may be asking – Why?

Not to be sarcastic, the camera’s meter reads the light – not your mind.

It is programmed to sense the available light and capture an image where the balance between the blacks and whites is mostly even. An example of when this becomes a problem is that your subject may be backlit or in the shade and they appear too dark in the image, or there may not have been enough light for the camera to choose the right shutter speed and your moving subject is blurred.

The scene’s available light controls the balance. Aperture controls the depth of the image, sensitivity controls sharpness, as well as grain and time controls motion. The camera can only do so much – it is up to the photographer to determine the depth, grain or motion that will provide the balance they are expecting in the image.

Some key things to remember are that lower ISO’s equal less grain,  fast shutter speeds freeze motion while slow shutter speeds accentuate it (motion blur); and wide apertures (f-stops) create a shallow depth of field while narrow apertures create a greater depth of field. (Also, don’t forget that f-stops are inverse so f/2.8 or smaller numbers are wide apertures and f/16 or larger are narrow apertures.)

The combinations to achieve a balanced exposure are infinite.  My next few posts will review the basics of the Exposure Triangle and provide tips for determining effective combinations when shooting landscapes, portraits, sports or wildlife.

In the meantime, remember LAST (Light, Aperture, Sensitivity, Time) makes for LASTing images – cheers!




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  1. Cash Keith says:

    Great article Mel. Like the LAST workflow recommendation.

    • showshoot says:

      Thanks Cash! If you have any suggestions for future articles or would like to contribute please let me know.

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