Is there really such a thing as the perfect exposure? Every photographer’s goal is to find this elusive nirvana, right? If you’re on a mission to achieve perfect exposure, and what that looks like – then these quick tips are just what you need.
What is exposure exactly?
Exposure has a bit of an ambiguous definition. It can be a noun that refers to taking the image as in, “I’m doing an exposure now.”. Or it can refer to the amount of time the shutter is open to allow light into the camera when you say “this is a long exposure”.
But in general, exposure means how much light is captured to create your image. It may also be referred to as the Exposure Value. Exposure value is a numerical value that quantifies the amount of light hitting the digital imaging sensor.
Read more here: Confused by Common Photography Terms? Don’t Worry, Help Is Here!
5 tips for perfect exposure
Let’s look at the five things you need to know in order to get a perfect exposure in-camera:
- Learn about the histogram and use it
- Turn on clipping warnings
- Use the correct shooting mode
- Use the appropriate metering mode
- Use exposure compensation as needed
Now we’ll take a closer look at each one of those things.
#1 Use the Histogram
The histogram holds a wealth of information about your exposure, so make time to learn how to use it and read it.
You can find a histogram on your camera’s playback screen. If it’s not showing, you may have to either cycle through different display options or activate it in the camera’s menu system.
NOTE: If you have a mirrorless camera then you can see the histogram before you take the photo too, both on the LCD screen and in the EVF (electronic viewfinder). This is a HUGE benefit to you – use it wisely!
As seen above, the histogram is a graph that represents the pixels in your image and where they fall on the scale from black to white. Black is on the left, white is on the right, and middle gray (aka medium gray or 18% gray) is in the center.
Read this article for more on the histogram and what it is telling you: Why is the snow gray in my winter photos?
#2 Turn on Your Clipping Warnings
Similar to the histogram, the clipping warning is notifying you of any areas of highlights that are blown out (overexposed with no detail). The clipping warnings is also known as the blinkies and is another display option on the playback screen of most cameras.
I recommend you turn on the clipping warning on your camera (aka “The Blinkies”) and pay attention to where it’s flashing. That means there will be no detail at all in those areas. If you want detail, then you need to dial down the exposure a bit either using Manual mode or Exposure Compensation, or you may need to choose a different metering mode.
Either way, if you want detail – you need to take some kind of action to resolve this issue.
On the other hand, you may deem that the areas that are blinking are not important, for example, the sun or bits of the background. In that case, proceed as is.
NOTE: It is important to note that this warning sign is just a notice for you to pay attention to the exposure. Then you need to make an artistic decision about how you want to capture the subject or scene. The ball is in your court – the camera has done its job.
#3 Use the Correct Shooting Mode
Some photographers and photography teachers may tell you that if you aren’t shooting in Manual Mode then you’re not a real photographer. To that I say MEH!
I am a much bigger fan of using the best choice for the subject and scene you are photographing. For example:
- For walking around photographing handheld – use Aperture Priority mode.
- For panning use Shutter Priority mode.
- For night photography and long exposures, use Manual Mode.
There is a right and wrong time for using Manual Mode. The short answer is – whenever your camera is mounted on a tripod.
Read this to see what I use 90% of the time and why: Camera Modes – Do Real Photographers Only Shoot in Manual Mode?
Let me give you a hint, the mode I use the most starts with an A!
The reason many beginners often get poor exposure is trying to shoot in Manual Mode when they don’t need to or they aren’t experienced enough to adjust it fast enough on the fly. So use the mode that works the best in the given scenario.
#4 Use the Appropriate Metering Mode
Metering mode is another camera setting that can be confusing if you don’t know what it is or how to use it. Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the amount of light in a scene.
But you get to choose how that meter works. Commonly there are three or four different metering modes on most cameras (note the names may differ from one camera brand to another):
- Matrix/multiple/evaluative – the camera reads the entire scene and tries to choose an exposure that is average across the entire frame. This is good for MOST scenes. I leave my meter on this mode most of the time.
- Center or center-weighted average – the camera puts more importance on what is in the middle of the frame. This option is good if you have a backlit subject.
- Spot metering – this mode uses only a very small part (1-3%) of the frame to measure the light, usually, the same spot where you are focused on the subject. So I DO NOT recommend this for you (unless you are an expert at and do something like bird photography) because it has a much higher degree of difficulty and can result in really erratic and inconsistent exposures.
#5 Use Exposure Compensation as Needed
When you are using one of your camera’s semi-automatic modes, then the exposure compensation is your best friend!
Here you need to pay attention to the things mentioned above – the histogram and clipping warnings – and use the exposure compensation on your camera to adjust as needed.
If the image is too dark you need PLUS compensation to lighten it. If it’s too light then you need to dial the compensation down (negative).
To sum this all up – getting the perfect exposure is of course subjective.
You, the photographer, need to decide what is important in the scene and set the composition and exposure to best highlight that.
Use these tips and tools to help you do this. If I missed anything that helps you find the right exposure, let me know in the comment area below.