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3 Steps for Perfect Exposure for Every Photo
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3 Steps for Perfect Exposure for Every Photo

Learning how to get the strongest technical photo straight out of camera will be one of the biggest keys to being able to achieve your creative and artistic visions. Technical skills in photography aren’t everything. What is that saying about rules being made to be broken? But, it helps if you learn the rules before you break them.

This is the best explained post I've seen on exposure! Perfect for beginners! Read - "3 Steps for Perfect Exposure for Every Photo"

Read more: Zone System: The Basics

There are a few steps to getting perfect exposure for every photo when you click the shutter button. You need to know how the exposure triangle works and how each of the three areas impact the photo. Two other important skills are learning how to read your in camera meter and learning to read the histogram. Let’s break those steps down.

  • No.
    01
    Exposure

    In order to get correct exposure when you are shooting in manual mode, you will need to learn how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together.  When you change one of these three things it impacts how much light the camera will allow in to make the photo.  Once you understand what each part does, you can use them to help you make the best creative choices to allow you to achieve your creative vision.

    Aperture will impact the depth of focus for the photo.  If you choose to shoot wide open, like f/1.8, then you will be letting a lot of light in and will have a shallow depth of focus (less of the photo beyond your subject will be in focus).  If you choose to shoot closed down, like f/11, then you will be letting significantly less light in and you will have a wider depth of focus (more of the photo will be in focus).  

    Shutter speed will allow you to freeze motion (or could create a blurry photo if the shutter speed is too low).  The lower the shutter speed (like 1/50) the more light you will be letting in for exposing the photo.  The higher the shutter speed (like 1/4000) the less light you will be letting in.  You will need a lower shutter speed in low light conditions and a higher shutter speed in bright sunny conditions.  

    And finally, ISO is the third part of the exposure triangle that allows you to let in more light for exposure.  When you increase your ISO you let in more light.  This is often the last part of the triangle that I will adjust.  If I have set my aperture at f/2.8 and my shutter speed at 1/100 (and do not want to go lower) but my image will be underexposed, then I will increase my ISO.  The more you increase your ISO, the more digital noise you will see in your image so there are benefits to keeping it as low as you can.  

    The most important part of this is to use the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO together to get correct exposure.  If one part of the triangle is off then your photo will be under exposed (too dark) or over exposed (too bright).

    exposure triangle

  • No.
    02
    camera meter

    When you are shooting in manual mode one of tools you can use to help set correct exposure is the camera meter in your camera (you can see it when you look through the viewfinder).  Cameras have an internal light meter that reads and analyzes the scene to determine whether your photo will be properly exposed based on the settings you choose.

    You can use the meter reading to determine if you need to make any changes to the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO to get proper exposure before you click the shutter. As you make adjustments to your settings, you will see the line on the camera meter move closer or farther away from the center of the meter (which is zero).

    This is what the camera meter looks like when you look through the viewfinder.  The line below the meter will move to the right & left as you change your setting to indicate whether you are over or under exposing the photo. This doesn’t mean that you always want the meter to be exactly at zero. Sometimes you will need to expose a little to the right or left to get correct exposure. This will depend on the light where you are shooting, the metering mode you are using (spot, evaluative, partial) as well as your artistic vision for the photo.

  • No.
    03
    read the histogram

    The histogram is a graphic representation of the tones in the image from darkest shadows on the left side to brightest highlights on the right side. It is a great tool to use when you want to check to see if your exposure is on target. The histogram can show you how balanced the light in the photo is as well as when you are clipping your shadows or highlights.

    You will be able to see that your image is going to be over or under exposed if you do not have information going all the way to the right or the left on the histogram.  You do not need to have an evenly distributed histogram in order to have correct exposure as you can see in the examples below.  Sometimes the histogram will have more information towards the right or left side depending on the circumstances.  But you do want to make sure that you are not leaving gaps on either end without any information.  That kind of histogram is showing you that your exposure is off.

    You can see the histogram on the LCD screen after you take a photo then use it to immediately adjust your exposure. And you can also see the histogram in Adobe Lightroom after you upload your photos to the computer for post processing.

    Here is an example of the histogram for a balanced photo (the box in the upper right corner) from Adobe Lightroom.  You can see that the pixels are evenly distributed from dark to light across the histogram.

    Here is an example of the histogram for a darker photo.  You can see that the pixels are stacked farther towards the left indicating more shadows with a jump on the right showing the brightness from the sky.

    Here is an example of the histogram for a brighter photo.  You can see that the pixels are stacked farther towards the right indicating more highlights because of all the snow.

    Tip: Turn on the highlight warning on your camera so that when you check the histogram after taking a photo you can see from the blinking areas if you have clipped any highlights (this can happen when you have over exposed your image or it can happen sometimes on areas that aren’t important to your scene like maybe a sky on an overcast day even when your subject is properly exposed).

As you can see learning the exposure triangle, reading your in camera meter, and utilizing the histogram will all help you to get correct exposure straight out of camera.  And the closer you get exposure when you are shooting the easier post processing will be.  What are some tips you have for shooting in manual mode and ensuring you get correct exposure?

Learn more about exposure and manual mode:

Before and After Editing: Underexposure Video

How to Shoot in Manual Mode-The Basics

How to Shoot in Manual Mode-The Basics