Understanding Exposure is More than Just Point and Shoot

I thought I would do a little photography 101 slash book review for this Saturday’s post. Only one more week before Auburn opens the 2011 football season so today is sort of the last “free” day before the fall goes into full swing, so to speak. The changes in photography over the last 10-15 years has been amazing to watch, and I’m glad I started shooting when film was the only option. Just about anyone can pick up a digital SLR today that is capable of taking photos that weren’t even possible a few years ago. Thankfully, it still takes more than just a finger pushing a button to take shots that look like more than just vacation photos. It’s quite possible to take great shots with a point-n-shoot and lousy shots with a professional camera (my nephew who is 12 takes amazing shots with his $150 Canon PowerShot SD1300).

One of the aspects of photography that attracted me to the art years and years ago was how easy it was to take a photo, and how hard it was to master the art. Just like anything worth doing, it takes a lot of time, study, experience, and a determination to get beyond the basics. One of the very basics of photography, and also one of the most difficult to master, is exposure. There are three basic elements to exposure in photography that make an image possible. These have never changed since the very first piece of film was exposed to light. For a “proper” exposure you need a combination of aperture (lens opening), shutter speed, and ISO value (film or sensitivity speed). Today’s cameras all have what is called a “P” or “program” mode that automatically calculates all three of these in an instant and creates what it thinks is the proper exposure. The only problem with that is the meter always exposes for a “middle grey”, or average, which attempts to take every lighting situation in the frame, average it out for medium, and that’s the “proper” exposure. That not necessarily bad, or wrong, and it’s probably how about 90% of all images shot are taken, but it also doesn’t always make the most exciting photograph either.

The two examples above I shot in the fading sun over the Atlantic, and both are considered to be improperly exposed according to the camera meter at the time. One is significantly “over exposed” (too light or bright) and one “under exposed” (too dark). I took several shots back to back and the “properly exposed” shot was quite boring. I love how both of these shots show a different mood and many different details. What often determines a “proper” exposure is what you are trying to create when you take the shot. What story are you trying to tell often determines what exposure best portrays your vision when you pull the trigger.

If you are interested in learning more about exposure and how light is used in creating an image I recommend the updated edition of Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera by Bryan Peterson. I have no affiliation with Peterson but I did read his first edition that came out many years ago and recently finished the updated version published last year. Peterson goes through an easy to understand explanation of how to best use exposure in your photography beyond just pulling the trigger. Anyone who is interested in improving their photography should start off with Peterson’s book and move out from there, it’s a great place to start.

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