Let The Camera Help With Exposure

Exposure can make or break your photo. Make sure you’re adjusting accordingly. Graphic by Chad Ecklof

Welcome to another edition of Let’s Talk Photography!

One of the greatest things about digital photography is the fact that the cameras are extremely smart when it comes to taking pictures. Especially when it comes to metering light and getting the exposure correct.

Of course, the camera sometimes makes the wrong decisions and you have to help it along by switching to a manual mode of shooting and setting your own aperture, shutter speed or ISO. Sometimes you have to go into the white balance settings and help the camera along with those, too.

There are times, though, when you think you have a great shot in the camera’s viewfinder and then you find out later that you were way over or under exposed and you’ve lost the chance to get that shot. This is where I’d like to introduce you to a couple features your camera may have that can help you get it right the first time.

When you are over-exposed then you are allowing too much light to enter the camera and it’s causing the scene to turn bright white in areas. This can happen when you are focusing your attention on the main subject of the photo and not paying attention to the surrounding scene. For example, let’s say you’re taking a portrait and you’re outside. The sky is bright with fluffy white clouds and you’ve got your subject framed to the right third of the image (ooh … I just reminded you of the rule of thirds and you didn’t even know it!). You’re focusing on the smile and the eyes of the person you’re shooting and you’re making adjustments to try to get the exposure on their face correct. You settle on what looks to be a beautiful shot and then you get home and load it into the computer and that’s when you find out you have lost all the definition in the clouds and the sky. It just looks like bright white blobs in a pale blue sky. What if you lower the exposure in your editing software? Nope, that doesn’t work. The problem is, by allowing all that light in, you’ve lost any detail that may have existed in the brighter areas. Therefore, there’s nothing to bring back or save because the camera simply didn’t record any information in that area other than white.

The same can happen with under-exposing a shot. You’re going for an edgy look with shadows around the face and maybe the background dark and blurry and you don’t realize you’ve not stopped down the exposure so far that the shadowy areas are only registering as pitch black to the camera. Once again, the detail is lost and you can’t bring it back. It’ll always just be a black spot in your image.

You want to have depth and detail in every part of your image and that’s why you strive to achieve the right exposure so you don’t have any areas that lose information in the process of capturing. It’s difficult to see these problems when you are relying on a digital viewfinder or the screen on the back of your camera. You may not have the brightness of your screens set correctly and you’ll lose some good shots as a result. That’s why you should try using a couple nifty features built into the camera.

The first is the histogram. You can turn this on by hitting the “Display” button on your camera and changing the display that is on your viewfinder or screen. The histogram is represented in a graph-like form and it shows you the range of exposure with your darkest light values on the left and the brightest light values on the right. Your goal is to have the graph so the highest points are just right of the middle of the histogram. If the highest peaks are to the left, then you know you’re not letting in enough light. If the graph is highest on the right, then you’ve got too much light coming in. For example, look at the photo of First Lutheran Church and observe the histograms above each exposure. On the left, I have the photo under-exposed and on the right, it’s over-exposed. By looking at the clouds in the image you can see what I was talking about by losing detail in the bright white nothingness that appears as a result. The same goes with the shadow areas.

Once you learn how to read your histogram, you’ll find that your photos will be much more crisp and colorful because you are capturing the correct range of light values in your shots and losing less detail.

Another built-in tool for some cameras is called “Zebra Assist” and it also helps show you where the blown out, or over-exposed areas of the image are hiding. With Zebra Assist turned on, you’re camera will place a pattern of diagonal black stripes over areas where there is no detail due to over-exposure. You’ll be seeing that same image of the church, but in the over-exposed frame you’d be seeing diagonal black stripes over the clouds. This helps you to quickly locate the areas of concern and make the correct adjustments to bring the detail back into your photo. This is especially nice when you’re shooting portraits and your lighting is very bright. Sometimes you end up with shiny spots on the face where the light is reflecting, and you’re left with images that need heavy retouching. Zebra Assist can help you dial down the lighting or the camera settings, so you don’t have to spend so much time editing afterward.

I hope these tools help you learn more about how your camera works and how to get better shots on the first (or second) try.

Until next week, happy shooting!

Is there a topic that you’d like to learn more about? Send feedback, share your photos, or offer topic suggestions to talkphotos@ecklof.com. If you’re looking for a place to connect with local photographers in Chautauqua County, search for the group “Shoot ‘n Share Chautauqua” on Facebook.