In order to understand how photography exposure works and what is the effect it has on photographs you need to get your head around few more things. The first one would be to learn to look at the world and see the way your camera sees it.
To understand photography Exposure, we need to understand dynamic range first
Camera and people see light differently. The design of a camera is very similar to the human eye, but they don’t see the same. For instance we aren’t as good as camera noticing the color of the light, but our eyes have better dynamic range than a camera.
The human eye at this moment of time is as twice more advanced than the modern camera. People are able to see things in the deep shadows and in the highlights at the same time, cameras can’t.
The human eye has the ability to perceive approximately 20-24 stops of light, whereas modern cameras are limited to 12-15 stops. Therefore, while using a camera it’s always a matter of compromise, we will have to decide towards which light values we are going to do our image exposure.
“A ‘stop’ is simply a division of light tonality, with each stop representing a doubling of the level of brightness. For convenience, this range has been divided from 0 to 24.
With a camera we are limited in our light capturing options: We can focus on a brighter, middle or on a darker range of the image.
We can extend that range in editing, or by using methods like HDR, but the latter can be challenging when photographing handheld and is mostly used in photography where you stabilize the camera with a tripod.
splitting the scene to different light values
To gain better control of the light in our scene, it’s advisable to observe it and try to categorize it into different light values. To simplify this, let’s categorize it into three light categories. We don’t really need 24 stops to understand how exposure works, we can use simply (Brights, Mid-tones and Darks).
- Brights – These are the brightest parts of the image, such as the sky or bare bulbs.
- Mid-tones – The name is self-explanatory; they encompass neither the darkest nor the brightest parts of the scene.
- Darks – These are the darker parts of the image.
Wide Dynamic Range
Wide dynamic range occurs when you have all three lighting categories – very bright, mid tones and very dark parts in a single image.
In such cases, we need to prioritize our exposure. Are we going to expose for the brighter parts of the image or the darker ones?
As you can see in the image, I have chosen to expose for the middle of the dynamic range (exposing for the midtones). This caused all the bright parts of the image to become white and the darker points to become black. I could see the sky at that moment, but the camera was not able to capture them.
- Prioritization makes it harder to work with a wide dynamic range.
- Images with a wide dynamic range tend to have more contrast.
Narrow Dynamic range
A narrow dynamic range occurs when you have only two light categories – mid-tones and shadows, or highlights and mid-tones.
You don’t have the same broad spread of tonality across the image as in a wide range; all the light values are more or less in the same range
As you can see in the image, I have chosen to expose the image for the midtones again. However, this time, because there aren’t any bright parts in the scene, we can see the details of the image clearly. I did compromise a little bit on the darkest parts, but that is not an issue and doesn’t significantly affect the image
- While working with a narrow dynamic range, most of the details can be seen in both the dark and bright parts of the image.
- A narrow dynamic range contributes to lower contrast.
Implementing dynamic range in our photography ?
In most cases (not always), we aim to narrow the dynamic range of the scene. That leaves us with only 2 light values to deal with and that makes exposure choices easier.
This can be achieved by recomposing the image in such a way that the brightest or darkest parts are simply out of the frame. You can also do this by cropping the image at home, but I strongly recommend trying to do it in-camera and on location. This way, you will learn to notice these things while shooting.
Let’s compare the two images.
The one on the left has a very wide dynamic range; therefore, you can’t properly expose all the areas. On the right one, I changed my shooting angle, narrowed the dynamic range in such way that it excluded the very bright parts of the sky, and now the exposure is much more pleasing.
Dynamic Range problem solving tips
- Narrow down the dynamic range of the scene.
- If you have all 3 levels of light try to narrow to two.
- You can do that by excluding out of your frame the brightest or the darkest park.
- Use your exposure to control how your frame will look like.
“the Right” exposure – what is correct image exposure?
While Wikipedia Exposure article tends to complicate things and a beginner can get confused, I will do my best to explain what photography exposure is in the simplest way possible.
- Exposure, in simple terms, refers to how bright or dark your image appears. If your image is too dark, in photography language, it will be called underexposed, and if it is too bright, it will be called overexposed.
- Correctly exposed images will be neither too dark nor too bright; they will fall somewhere in between the two.
- “The right” exposure is the one you choose to use, not necessarily the “correct” one. Sometimes, we prefer things to be brighter, while other times, we prefer them to be darker.”
So, the next time you come across a comment about a photograph being overexposed or underexposed, try to overlook the technical aspect. Instead, consider whether the photograph is exposed correctly according to its intended idea. Does it convey the message effectively? Will adjusting the exposure affect the photograph impact?
Underexposed photographs example
The photographs below can be technically underexposed or overexposed. but that is the creative idea behind these photos. If they were technically correct, the visual message would be completely different.
Overexposed photographs example
Correctly exposed photographs example
Subject to background relationships
When exposing your photographs, you need to keep in mind that your subject and your background might have different exposure values.
This is the most common exposure mistake that photographers make! A photographer might get excited about the subject he is photographing and wouldn’t notice that his background gets too bright or overexposed.
You need to remember that your background and your subject are part of the same frame; therefore, when planning the exposure for one, you need to check how it affects the other one. The general recommendation is to expose for the subject, but sometimes we break that rule.
The images bellow are example that you can plan your photography exposure for the subject or the background.
common photography exposure mistakes and how to avoid them
- Not reading the scene properly – Always look at the scene and evaluate the type of light you are dealing with.
- Not considering the background – I’ve mentioned it, but I’ll emphasize it again; always assess the lighting on both the photography subject and what’s behind it.
- Shooting with the mindset of ‘I will fix it in post’ – This mindset has a few downsides:
- You will never truly learn to work with light properly.
- Aggressively editing exposure can negatively affect image quality.
- You may end up with unexpected results and miss out on potentially good shots.
- Shooting for technically correct exposure settings – Often, it’s okay to overexpose or underexpose if it aligns with your photographic idea. Don’t limit yourself to purely technical settings.
- Not narrowing the dynamic range to include all three (Brights, Mid-tones, and Darks) in your image – In most cases, the dynamic range should be narrowed by recomposing your image.
- Over or underexposing – Just revisit this article to understand when to apply each technique.
photography Exposure tips
- Camera light metering systems can become confused when they are exposed to direct light hitting the lens, resulting in incorrect readings. To rectify this, you may need to brighten your exposure.
- Camera light metering systems may also become confused when a large dark object dominates the majority of your frame, providing inaccurate readings. In such cases, you’ll need to adjust your exposure to darken it.
- Typically, you’ll aim to have your subject appear brighter or, at the very least, equally illuminated compared to the background. This progression from bright to dark creates higher contrast and helps your subject stand out.
- When photographing subjects and backgrounds with the same tonality, you often end up with lower-contrast, flatter photos. If that’s not your intent, consider altering the lighting for either the background or the subject.
- When capturing a dark subject against a brighter background, your options are limited. You can either use a flash to even out the light values or simply expose for the subject, which will result in a brighter background but prioritizes the subject.
Remember that light and exposure are only one part of the composition, for more photography tips check my education page.
I hope you found this photography exposure article useful, welcome to add your exposure tips in the comments.