When our camera reads the light in a scene, its trying to give us an ‘average’ or middle grey exposure. The camera is doing its very best to give us a usable image by picking an exposure to capture both highlights and shadow values. While this is a helpful starting point, there are many different scenes that can trick our cameras into giving us a middle exposure that is certainly not what we would want for our images.
As technology has advanced, our cameras have provided us with more advanced metering modes to take the camera’s intelligence up a notch. For example, most cameras these days have a default metering system called “Evaluative” or “Matrix” depending on your camera. This mode will measure light throughout the entire frame, but put more emphasis for exposure on the areas whether autofocus points are being used. Furthermore, some cameras are programmed to compare your scene to thousands of other scenes to take its best guess at the desired exposure.
For more advanced photographers, many will utilize spot metering. Spot metering will measure only a tiny area (spot) of light at the center of the view finder. This is a great way to tell your camera exactly what is the most important area of your image to expose for. When the subject is not at the center of the frame, many will focus and recompose to lock in the exposure (and sometimes lock focus). Limited cameras actually link the spot metering and spot focus, and in general spot metering is tied to the center focus point.
Knowing and understanding these more advanced metering systems can help us out smart our cameras. I use both of these modes carefully depending on the type of shoot I am doing, and find myself often leaning toward spot metering with really tricky scenes.
Most photographers utilize either Aperture Priority (AV) with exposure compensation or Manual Mode to help set the desired exposure.
Manual mode gives you complete control over your exposure. You select the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed (also referred to as your ‘exposure triangle). In this case, you always outsmart your camera because you are the one calling all of the shots. In the days of digital photography it is much easier to utilize manual mode because you can always check your histogram and image in your camera to get you on track. In these instances your metering mode does not control your exposure.
Other photographers, however, opt for Aperture priority with exposure compensation. In fact, when shooting on location this is often my preferred way to shoot. When using aperture priority, I select my aperture and ISO, while my camera will provide the shutter speed. This helps me always to get in the ballpark of the correct exposure. To tweak my exposure, I use exposure compensation. Exposure compensation allows you to dial exposure + (increase exposure) or – (decrease exposure) based upon your needs in a scene. This is where I outsmart my camera. When in aperture priority, by increasing exposure (in my camera set to 1/3 of stop increments), I am actually slowing down my shutter speed. When I want to decrease my exposure, I am actually increasing my shutter speed.
Fundamentally I am still choosing exposure but allow my camera to help me get close. I prefer this exposure mode because it guarantees I get close in my exposure regardless of changing lighting conditions and scenes, and then gives me the power to tweak this exposure. For example, lets assume that I am shooting outdoors on a day where the clouds are rolling in and out of the scene. Or perhaps I will shoot in direct sunlight and then my subject will jump back into the shade. If I am shooting on manual and I forget to check my exposure after a change, I will completely miss the shots. If I do the same with aperture priority I will still be close enough to have a decently exposed shot and will never worry about being so far off that I ‘completely missed it’. I am not really losing control, because I still will select my exposure compensation in the end to tweak what I am looking for.
Being Smarter Than Your Camera
Your metering mode, your exposure modes, and your brain help you get the right exposure. Know that the ‘correct’ exposure may not always be the ‘right’ exposure for the scene. If you take an reading with a meter, supposedly able to give you the reading of light in the scene, it may not give you the exposure readings that would give you the effect you are looking for.
For example, I often photograph in heavily backlit situations. I shoot into the sunset, or backlit into a large window. Invariable my camera will give me a severely underexposed image. When the camera reads that strong backlit into the lens, it tells me to underexpose in order to capture both highlight and shadow area. Often when I am photographing backlit, however, I WANT to overexpose the background highlights and let the light wrap around my subject.
Early on in my photographic career I was told that you do not want any overexposed highlights or ‘hot spots’ because they lack detail and pull attention away from the eye. As I’ve advanced in my grasp of technique and creativity, I’ve found that heavy backlight with some overexposure helps to create a stunning glowing mood. Outsmart your camera, and break traditional rules of photography!
Now that we understand options for metering and exposure modes, let’s look at three examples where I have outsmarted my camera for beautiful results!
1. Sunset backlight portrait
I was shooting a backlit portrait during my creativeLIVE “Conquering Crappy Light“ because achieving correct exposure can often being difficult in a backlit situation. You have to outsmart your camera. With my camera on evaluative metering, I photographed my subject on aperture priority mode and was given a severely underexposed image. Because the scene contains bright highlights (the setting sun), and dark shadows (subject’s backlit face), the camera tries to give me an average exposure. Unfortunately, the subject’s face is much more important to have correct exposure.
Utilizing exposure compensation (+1 2/3) I was able to brighten up this image to achieve much more pleasing results. Finally, in Photoshop I added lens flare and warmed up the white balance to help give a dreamy and romantic feel to the image.
2. Backlight Bridal Set
I love to make images that ‘wow’… that are really unique and unexpected. I was teaching a bridal fashion workshop in my studio in NYC, and decided to create a white wedding fantasy. I had my creative team hang pieces of semi- transparent fabric from my background stands, directly in front of several large windows. We then took white balloons and hung them on the fabric, from the ceiling and on the floor. The white fantasy was created and I choose to backlight the scene to draw more attention to shape as the light wrapped around the forms. There was NO front light to the scene, only the light that was reflected off of the white walls to the left and right of my frame.
Because of this backlit situation, I knew I would have to do some tweaking to my exposure. By default, my camera gave me a muddy image when using Evaluative metering and aperture priority. I could go two directions for this image. If I underexposed, I could create a silhouette all about shape and the shadows would create drama.
If I overexposed the scene, I could create a glowing and high key effect. I decided to go with bright and glowing for this bridal image, and had to use exposure compensation and switched to spot metering to meter off of the subject’s dress and face.
3. Fashion Editorial: Maiden Dream
I was shooting a fashion editorial for a magazine in my studio, and lit the entire scene using the window light to the right of the background. I wanted a soft a dreamy look, and used a variety of crystals and elements in front of my lens to help achieve that airy feel. Later in the day the sun began to stream through the windows, and I moved my camera to have the subject extremely backlit. If I were shooting a portrait, I may have considered adding a reflector to help fill light on the face. Because the subject’s face was not the central focus, but instead the clothing and overall mood of the shoot, I opted for a darker subject and stronger blown out highlights.
I am sure the meter in my camera was going crazy… dark subject, extremely light background… what would be the right solution! For this editorial I tried a variety of exposures to see which fit the overall mood I was going for. I ended up using exposure compensation of +1 1/3 to achieve the look seen here.
By no means is this the ‘correct’ lighting and ‘correct exposure’ for these scene, but it is the right exposure and lighting for my vision of the shoot.
Outsmarting your camera and breaking the rules allows you to create unique results that fit your vision of your shoot.