How to Get a “Good” Exposure in Your Photographs

By Zach McCabe in Art Tutorials > Photography Tips

You finally got the kids to smile, but those summer colors looked brighter while you were on vacation—didn’t they?

You schlepped your new camera, lens and tripod out into the country to shoot some pictures of fresh, early morning snow—so how come the the hills are so gray in this photograph?

You manage to grab a hilarious shot of the guys in their tuxes—but why is the picture so bleached out and flat?

The answer to ALL of those questions is that the exposure was off!

All of the above situations, and many others, are a little bit tricky for the camera. The good news is that you are far smarter than your camera, I promise. And that wonderfully complicated, feature-rich (maybe even intimidating) DSLR cameras actually make it quite simple to correct a bad exposure and get a better picture.

In the next few articles we’ll look at how the camera calculates exposure, and how you can adjust camera settings to get better photos. We’ll even go into enough detail so that you have some understanding of how things work, and why they work that way.

But first, we have to start out with the basics:

1. What makes a good exposure “good”?

Exposure is the most basic ingredient of any photo. As the name might imply, exposure is just the term used for allowing light to contact the sensor or film inside your camera.

Going from a muddy, lackluster photograph to one that’s properly exposed isn’t usually too complicated. After all, inventors and engineers have been tinkering with this stuff for quite a while now. The photographer’s job is just to make sure the exposure is such that when somebody looks at the picture they say, “Wow, that’s a great shot!”

The simplest way to define a “good” exposure is this:

It’s whatever combination of camera controls allows you to get the photo you want. . . WHILE staying within the technical limits of your camera’s sensor/film.

Light as we see it covers a range from very bright to very dim. Sometimes the light is so bright or so dim that you and I can’t see at all. Usually though we can see fine and we don’t even think about it. Digital sensors are much more limited in the range of light they can “see,” and even the films with very wide exposure latitudes are more limited than the human eye.

This means that there’s a huge range of light in most scenes, some of which is much brighter or dimmer than your camera will be able to pick up. So practically speaking, a good exposure is the exposure that manages to record the information you want—while everything else that’s NOT important to you, is simply to bright or too dark to be included.

2. How do you work towards a “good” exposure?

First things first, you need to choose what’s important to you in each photo, because parts of the scene are always going to be lost to overexposure or underexposure.

In actuality, making this choice will usually be so obvious that you’ve already been making it without realizing it.

For example, let’s say you’re at your sister’s wedding and you decide to take a few photos of her and her new husband standing outside the church.

What do you want in the picture? The smiling faces of your sister and her husband, for sure. Also, the lovely and intricate dress your sister is wearing is important. It’d be nice to be able to have historic church in the photo, too. That’s it!

The lighting conditions for all of the nearby, but irrelevant, details don’t matter and you’ve tuned them out before you even knew you’d thought about it.

Unless the lighting is exceptionally harsh you can expect that these three subjects will all be mostly within the range that your camera can capture. You can measure the exposure off your sister’s wedding dress, compensate for the light meter’s weakness for white dresses and take the photo.

The range of light between the dress and the bride and groom’s faces is small enough that you’ll certainly be able to accurately capture all that information.

Now, depending on the light hitting the church, and the color of the façade, that too will likely be partially within the range of your camera’s sensor. Some details, if they are in any shadow or are a dark color, will be lost. But, that’s okay because you mostly want to see the smiles and ornate dress!

That’s all for today, but next time I’ll talk about when you might need to override your camera’s automatic settings to get a better exposure, and exactly how to do that. Stay tuned!


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