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Tricky Exposure Situations

1 - Light Readings

When you press the shutter release halfway down, the light meter turns on.

The light meter measures the light.

It takes a light reading.

You see this as a display of the shutter speed and lens opening.

2 - Light Meters Are Stupid

There are several situations in which light meters are confused.

To get the best exposure setting in these situations, your camera may measure the light in many parts of the scene.

Then, all of these light readings are compared with exposure situations stored in the camera's computer.

This is called matrix metering (Nikon) or evaluative metering (Canon).

If there's a match between the scene before your camera, and a scene stored in your camera, the camera will know how to set the lens opening and shutter speed.

Unfortunately, the automation doesn't always work well.

Photographers still need to know what to do in the tricky exposure situations described below.

The first two tricky exposure situations involve contrasty light.

3 - Contrasty Light

Sunny days are best for photographers—but create dark shadows in photographs.

Remember, what you see is not what you get in photography.

Any shadows that are in a scene will be much darker on a photograph.

4 - Backlight

Benefits

Backlight is light that's coming from behind the subject.

Backlight makes the subject stand out from the background.

This is due to edge lighting and the tonal difference between the darker subject and the brighter background.

Problem

Even today, camera light meters tend to measure the light in the bright area.

The subject will often be a silhouette in the photograph.

Solutions

There are two solutions.

Solution #1 - Add Light

If the subject is within about fifteen feet of the camera, use flash to fill the shadow.

DSLR

On a digital SLR, change the exposure mode to P, A or Av, or to S or Tv.

Then, press the button that makes the flash pop up.

Point-and-shoot Camera

With a point-and-shoot camera, change the flash icon to the lightning bolt.

The lightning bolt icon should be all by itself—no line through it—and no letter A next it.

Solution #2 -

Measure the Light on the Subject

Measure the light off of the subject, rather than the background.

Use autoexposure lock (AEL button on Nikons, asterisk button on Canons) to lock in the exposure.

1) Fill the frame with the subject.

2) Press the shutter release halfway-done to turn on the light meter.

3) Press and hold the autoexposure lock button.

4) Move back, and take the photograph, while still holding down the autoexposure lock button.

You may have to use manual focus if your camera locks in the focus of the subject when you're close to him or her.

Flare

With backlighting, the light source is in front of the camera.

Therefore, , some of the light may enter the lens creating flare.

Flare appears as haze, and as white or lightly colored circles and polygonal shapes.

Use a lens hood, or shade the lens with your hand.

Flare can be useful for adding mood to some photographs.

Go to Flare.

5 - Sidelighting & Hats

Benefits

The shadows created by sidelighting show texture and volume.

Problems

But, the shadows may be too dark on the photograph.

Hats block the sun, making the subject's eyes too dark

Solutions

There are two solutions.

Solution #1 - Add Light

If the subject is within about fifteen feet of the camera, use flash to fill the shadows.

DSLR

On a digital SLR, change the exposure mode to P, A or Av, or to S or Tv.

Then, press the button that makes the flash pop up.

Point-and-shoot Camera

With a point-and-shoot camera, change the flash icon to the lightning bolt.

The lightning bolt icon should be all by itself—no line through it—no letter A next it.

More

Go to Fill Flash.

Solution #2 - Move the Subject

If you can, move the subject into the shade, or near an existing reflector.

Shade

If the sidelighting isn't adding anything to the photograph, consider moving the subject into the shade.

The light in the shade is cyan (blue/green), though.

So, change the white balance to the cloudy icon (good) or the shade icon (better).

Existing Reflector

Photographers who have an assistant, either paid or a partner or friend, often use reflectors to brighten shadows.

Most of us can't make use of these devices.

But we can look around a scene for light that's reflecting off of a wall.

For example, light bouncing off of a white clapboard house or a red brick wall may be great light for a portrait.

The third trick exposure situation is not encountered as often as the above two problems.

6 - Snow in the Sun

Problem

Snow, and other white or almost white surfaces, in the sun, confuse light meters.

Black subjects, in the sun, also confuse light meters.

Light meters think everything is medium colored or gray.

So, when you photograph something that's not, the exposure will be as if the subject was medium colored or gray.

Snow, in the sun, will look gray instead of sparkling.

Solution

Measure the light off of something that's also in the sun, but is more medium colored or gray.

For example, grass or worn pavement are medium colored.

Use autoexposure lock (AEL button on Nikons, asterisk button on Canons) to lock in the exposure.

1) Fill the frame with the medium colored subject.

2) Press the shutter release halfway-done to turn on the light meter.

3) Press and hold the autoexposure lock button.

4) Move back, and take the photograph, while still holding down the autoexposure lock button.

You may have to use manual focus if your camera locks in the focus of the medium colored subject.

More

Go to Light Meters Are Stupid.

7 - Not Sure? Bracket!

If you're unsure of an exposure, take several photographs at different settings.

For example, sunsets can be good at more than one exposure.

You can't do this with S or Tv, or with A or Av.

Use the exposure compensation feature to take different exposures.

Look for the +/- icon.

Usually, you press and hold the button, and use a knurled knob or rocker switch to change the exposure.

0.0 is normal.

Be sure to put the exposure compensation back to 0.0.

A +/- icon will appear on the LCD screen to remind you to do so.

Many cameras have automatic bracketing, as well.

More

Go to Bracketing.

Go to Exposure Compensation.

8 - Creative Underexposure

You can make colors more saturated (vivid) by underexposing the scene by one stop, or thereabouts.

Set the exposure compensation to -1.0.

BBe sure to put the exposure compensation back to 0.0.

A +/- icon will appear on the LCD screen to remind you to do so.

9 - Center-weighted Light Readings

Many photographers turn off matrix metering (Nikon) or evaluative metering (Canon).

When using the above metering methods your camera's light meter measures many areas in the scene.

These many light readings are then compared to samples of typical exposure situations stored in the camera computer.

If there's a match between the scene and a sample, the camera knows how to set the best exposure.

Try out matrix or evaluative metering.

For example, these metering methods should "know" when you're photographing a person with a bright sunset in the background.

The exposure setting should be for the person, not the sunset.

If the results are not reliable in the above situation, and other tricky exposure situations, consider switching to center-weighted metering.

When you use center-weighted metering, the light meter sees the light only in the central area of the frame.

You know what is being measured.

Spot metering measures a very small area in the center of the frame.