It sucks when, after a day or week taking photographs, you come home, look at your shots, and realize you’ve messed up the exposure. You might be able to fix things with a bit of work in Photoshop, but it’s not a situation you want to be in. Here’s how to get the right exposure every time, on location.
The easiest way to always hit a target is to make the target nice and big. Why shoot at a small bullseye when you can aim at a barn door? Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG basically does that for your camera.
RAW images contain all the data your camera can capture rather than just a small segment that gets saved as a JPEG. My camera’s RAW files are about 25 MB while the JPEGs are, at best, 5 MB. That’s a hell of a lot more data to work with.
By shooting in RAW, your camera can capture the full dynamic range of a scene—or at least come as close to it as it can—so you’re much less likely to blow out your highlights or crush your shadows. RAW images have to be “developed” using software like Lightroom or Photoshop before you can post them online or print them, but the small amount of work is worth all the extra data with which you have to work. You can see in the image above just how much I was able to brighten the photo without things looking weird.
Understand Your Camera’s Light Meter
Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the amount of light being reflected from whatever is in front of it. This light meter works on one simple assumption: that everything, at least light wise, averages out to a middle grey. This is how your camera thinks the world looks:
This is a surprisingly safe assumption and works out well a good chunk of the time. However, you shouldn’t rely on it with blind faith. Instead, you need to consider how your camera’s light meter is going to interpret what you’re shooting. Is it a really bright day? Then it will probably underexpose the image. On the other hand, if you’re shooting in the blue hour just before sunrise, it will try to overexpose everything.
For more on your camera’s light meter and how to use it, check out our full guide.
Take Control of Your Camera
Hitting the shutter button and hoping is not a reliable strategy for taking good photos. You need to be making decisions about—or at least guiding your camera on—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
You don’t have to control everything manually to be in command of your camera. I recommend that, in most situations, you use aperture priority mode. You can then use a combination of aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO to control how the image looks. As long as your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low, you won’t have to worry.
Check the Histogram
The best way to review your photos on location is using the histogram; it will give you a good idea of how your exposure looks even if you can’t easily review the whole image on the small screen.
Review your images and activate the histogram (if you’re not sure how, check your camera’s manual). Generally, you want to see a balanced histogram with no shadow or highlight clipping, although a histogram that’s slightly overexposed can be a good thing.
Another option is to turn on the “blinkies”, so your camera will show you when you’re overexposing your images without you having to check the histogram.
Shoot Some Safety Shots
Sometimes, because of difficult or changing lighting conditions, it’s a real struggle to nail the exposure of the shot reliably. The best thing to do in these situations is to shoot some safety shots. I recommend taking one photo one stop overexposed and one photo one stop underexposed. This way, you’re covering your bases. The worst case is that instead of the photo you thought you were going to use, you have to use one of the safety shots to get the best final image.
Reliably getting the exposure right on location, or at least to close to right as is possible, is an important skill to develop as a photographer. Like with most things to do with photography, it’s just a matter of thinking a little and taking control of your camera.