7 Steps To Getting The Best In-Camera Exposure

China, Rick Sammon
If you ever shot 35mm slide film, you know that it was essential to get a good exposure in-camera. Slide film was not forgiving, as opposed to negative film, which was forgiving, that is, your exposure could be “off” by a stop or two over or under the correct exposure and you could still make a good print.

Slide film shooters had to spend time thinking about how to get the best possible in-camera image, usually exposing for the highlights. That thinking process resulted in taking fewer pictures and a higher percentage of “keepers.”

Today, with RAW files, which are more forgiving than JPEG files, combined with the power of Photoshop and Lightroom, many photographer don’t worry so much about getting it right in-camera. They shoot a ton of pictures with the “I can fit it later in post” philosophy in mind. The result: lots of outtakes, totally missing some shots, and lots of processing time.

Yes, Lightroom is awesome! Photoshop is amazing. Plug-ins are powerful!  Yes, you still need the best in-camera exposure to get the most out of image-processing programs. What’s more, the better the in-camera image, the less work you need to do sitting on your butt at your computer—and the more time you can spend outdoors making pictures.

Sure, I use all the digital-imaging technology that’s available, but getting it right in-camera is first and foremost, which is the first thing I tell the participants on my photo workshops.

In this article, I will offer some advice for getting the best in-camera image. To illustrate my points, I will share some images from a recent China photo workshop I led with my good friend Ken Koskela.

Here goes!

1. See The Light – Contrast And Direction

The first step in getting a good in-camera exposure is seeing the light—the contrast range in the scene and the direction of light—and then making exposure adjustments according.

The opening landscape image was taken under flat (overcast) lighting conditions. Those conditions can be pleasing for landscapes, and getting a good exposure is easy because there is very little contrast in the scene. Basically, you can shoot on any of your camera’s automatic exposure modes (I use aperture priority), and you do not need any EV +/- exposure compensation, especially if you shoot RAW files.

China, Rick Sammon

The higher the contrast range in a scene, the more you need to think about exposure compensation. In this scene, the water in the pools on the rice terraces is much brighter than the surrounding grass wall, therefore creating a high-contrast scene. In this situation, to prevent the water from being overexposed, you would need to use exposure compensation, reducing the exposure by perhaps an ƒ-stop or more.

China, Rick Sammon

Backlight produces beautiful silhouettes, as illustrated by this predawn photograph of two cormorant fishermen. For a stronger silhouette, try underexposing the scene by a ½ of an ƒ-stop, for starters.

China, Rick Sammon

Sidelight is very pleasing for portraits, because it adds a sense of depth and dimension to the portrait. This subject is beautifully illuminated by light that is coming through a large window. Because the surrounding area was much darker than the subject, I set my camera to spot metering for a good exposure of the subject.

2. Use Your Light Meter – Check Your Histogram And Highlight Alert

Do you have a light meter? Sure, you do! It’s the histogram and highlight alert built into your camera. I always use my “light meter” to check my exposures.

China, Rick Sammon

I checked my highlight alert after I took my first picture in this high-contrast situation. I had “blinkies” over the man’s face, which indicated that his face was overexposed. That was a quick fix. I simply set my exposure compensation to EV –2/3, which eliminated the blinkies.

China, Rick Sammon

In this situation, the first shot I took had “blinkies” over the man’s face and the flame. The histogram showed a spike on the right, which also indicates overexposed areas in a scene. Again, I use exposure compensation to rescue the light entering my camera for a good exposure.

3. Set Your Focus – Use Focus Points Selectively

Just because you have an autofocus camera does not mean that the camera knows where you want to focus.

China, Rick Sammon

When you compose a photograph, I recommend setting the focus point, via in-camera controls or the camera’s touch screen, on the main subject. That is what I did here for this portrait of a subject illuminated by window light. I set the focus directly on my subject’s face.

4. Keep It Clean – Shoot At The Lowest Possible ISO

When it comes to ISO, my advice to my workshop students is to always shoot at the lowest possible ISO for the cleanest possible shot.

China, Rick Sammon

Sometimes the lowest possible ISO may be 3200, as was the case when I took this handheld photograph in predawn light. I needed that high ISO to get a steady shot (before I set up my tripod) because I wanted to shoot quickly to capture the scene.

China, Rick Sammon

This photograph was taken about a half-hour after I took the previous photograph. The scene now was much brighter. For this photograph my ISO was set at 100.

So the tip about ISO is this: As the light level increases, decrease your ISO setting.

5. Go For Good Color – Set The White Balance

Color is important is a scene. Sometimes we want accurate color, and sometimes we want our own color.

Setting the white balance to the existing lighting conditions can help you get accurate in-camera color in a scene. So can using devices like X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.

China, Rick Sammon

As a travel photographer, I usually like warm colors in my photographs, which I achieve by boosting the reds and yellows in Photoshop and Lightroom. If you shoot RAW files, you can easily set the white balance in Lightroom and Photoshop.

6. Consider Depth Of Field – Use Your Aperture To Control DOF

Depth of field is important in all your photographs, and I recommend checking it with the depth-of-field preview button on your camera (if you have one). Taking a shot, viewing it on your camera’s LCD monitor and zooming into different areas of a scene is also a good method for checking depth of field.

In landscape photography, I usually want the maximum depth of field, so the scene looks like it looks to my eyes: Everything in the scene in focus. To achieve that goal I use a wide-angle lens, set a small aperture, and focus one-third into the scene.

China, Rick Sammon

In portraiture, I often like the subject to stand out in the scene, so I use a medium aperture and shoot close to the subject, so the subject is sharp and the background is a bit soft.

7. Stop Or Blur Subject Movement – Use Your Shutter Speed To Control Movement

We control subject movement with our shutter speed setting. The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed we need to stop the action. To stop the motion of this cormorant fisherman throwing his net, I set a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.

China, Rick Sammon

I know some of you have questions about what shutter speed, what aperture, what ISO, and so on is best to use in certain situations. The answer for each setting and situation is the same: It depends. It depends on the light level, what lens you are using, how close you are to the subject and, most important, the mood and feeling you want to create in your image.

Enjoy conveying your creative vision—and making the very best in-camera images.

Rick Sammon is the author of 37 book and 14 online classes, and is a longtime friend of Digital Photo. Visit with Rick at ricksammon.com

Leave a Comment