No matter your experience level in photography, you’re bound to get the exposure wrong at some point.
For that matter, your camera will get the exposure wrong at some point, too!
The trick is understanding how to fix these problems, being that they are inevitable.
And though there’s hundreds of ways to get the exposure wrong, you only have to worry about a handful of ways to fix it.
Not So White Whites
Even entry-level DSLRs have decent metering systems to measure the light in the scene and help the camera get a good exposure.
However, when there’s a lot of white in the scene (i.e. the snowy landscape shown above), the camera will think the scene is brighter than it actually is. This usually results in white values that are gray as the camera tries to average the bright whites into an average gray.
The Solution: Use exposure compensation. In the video below, Matt Granger explains how to use exposure compensation:
By dialing in positive exposure compensation, you’re essentially telling your camera that it’s gotten the exposure wrong and you want it to be brighter.
The level of exposure compensation you need to use is contingent upon how much white is in the photo – if there’s a little white, one-stop of exposure compensation might be enough. However, if there’s a lot of white, you might need several stops of exposure compensation.
Backlit Subject is Underexposed
Backlighting occurs when the subject of your photo is illuminated from behind, like the image above.
If your goal is to create a silhouette, then there’s no problem here – mission accomplished!
However, if you want your subject to be properly exposed, you’ll need to help out your camera.
That’s because the camera will often underexpose the subject as it tries to balance out the the brightness of the background with the darkness of the foreground.
The Solution: Switch metering modes. Mike Browne explains the three primary metering modes :
By using center-weighted metering, the camera is instructed to pay closer attention to the middle of the image. If your subject is in the middle of the shot, this is the way to go.
If not, you can use spot metering, which reads the light values from an even smaller area of the image, usually a point that you can choose. This is advantageous if your subject is not in the center of the frame.
Either way, by using one of these metering modes as opposed to the default matrix setting that reads the light from the entire scene, you’re better equipped to get a subject that’s well-exposed, even when there is strong backlighting.
Dark Foreground or Bright Skies in Landscapes
The most common exposure problem for landscape photographers is, by far, having a foreground that’s too dark and skies that are too bright.
This is an extremely difficult situation for your camera to deal with on its own because the dynamic range – the range of values of light – is simply too much for it to handle.
Where our eyes naturally adjust to wide variations in light, the camera can only handle so much.
That means that it will either expose for the sky or expose for the foreground, but not both – which is why your landscapes might often suffer from dark foregrounds and bright skies.
The Solution: Use a graduated neutral density filter. Learn all about graduated neutral density filters and how to use them in the video below by Professional Photography Tips:
A graduated neutral density filter is dark on the top and light on the bottom, which allows it to darken the bright sky without impacting the already dark foreground.
By bringing down the brightness of the sky, a graduated neutral density filter makes the scene such that the camera can handle the dynamic range, and thus capture an image that’s well-exposed throughout.
Using the LCD
Perhaps the most common exposure problem of all occurs as a result of using your camera’s LCD to gauge the exposure of an image.
The problem with this approach is that the LCD is usually artificially bright so you can actually see it on bright days.
That means that the image you see on the LCD is brighter than the one you actually took, so you get the wrong impression about the brightness of the photo.
The Solution: Use the exposure indicator or the histogram.
A simple approach to this issue is to use the exposure indicator (shown above from -2 to +2) that’s visible at the bottom of the display when looking through your camera’s viewfinder.
In looking at the image above, you can see that the indicator is right in the middle of the range, which indicates a good exposure.
If it’s to the left, the image is too dark; if it’s to the right, the image is too light. In other words, you get a simple visual cue regarding the exposure level, and then you can take measures to correct it, like using exposure compensation.
Another option is to use your camera’s histogram to determine the exposure level.
The histogram is a visual representation of the image’s light values that range from dark to midtone to light.
If the histogram is skewed to the left, the image is too dark; if it’s skewed to the right, the image is too bright.
Again, you can use this information to correct the problem by using exposure compensation or by adjusting the exposure settings: aperture, shutter speed, or ISO.