A Lesson About Exposure

Understanding how exposure works in a camera is one of the hardest things for new photographers to understand. Their eyes see a beautiful scene in front of them and they want to capture it. The problem is, our eyes don’t work the same way a camera does…our eyes are much more powerful.

I’m sure you have all seen one…a photo of a beautiful sky and people so dark you can hardly see them. Check out this beauty from 2003. Montana is known for its big, beautiful skies, but this isn’t quite what I had in mind for a sweet photo.

You see, your camera has a problem. It cannot expose properly for BOTH the sky (which is big and super bright) and the people (who are dark compared to the sky). A camera must decide (or you decide for it).

This is the premise for silhouette photos. By exposing for a beautiful sky, your people turn into black shapes.

Which would you rather have? A beautiful sky or beautiful people? You camera can’t capture both at the same time.

I know that this is hard for people to grasp. Your eyes can see BOTH a beautiful sky AND beautiful people. But your camera just isn’t that smart. If you don’t choose for your camera, your camera will choose for you. And it doesn’t always make the best choice.

As I try to explain this to people, though, I can tell they are still confused. Let me try to help with a few photos from my walk.

As I was talking my walk this morning, I had my phone with me and I was taking some photos. One of the things I love about my MotoX is that I have some exposure control. It’s nothing like my dSLR, but even having a little bit of power makes me happy. And I was shooting, I realized my photos could help further explain how a camera “sees” light.

In these screen shots, you can the exposure issue playing out. The green circle shows where I told the camera to expose. I can move it around to any portion of the photo and the camera will expose THAT area properly.

In this first photo, I exposed for the early morning sky. The sun was coming up and it was still fairly dark outside.

In this next photo, taken just seconds later, I moved my exposure control to expose for the street. Look what happens.

And in this third shot, I exposed partway in between.

And then I turned around.

Here, exposed for the sky.

Next, I exposed for the road.

And that’s why taking control of your exposure is so important.

When I first got my dSLR, back in 2006, I was convinced it was broken. I had saved my pennies and bought and expensive camera and I couldn’t understand why my photos weren’t beautiful like the photographers I stalked. I spent hours reading forums about underexposed photos, convinced I got a dud.

And then, two years later, I finally learned about how a camera works and what it means to expose properly. After much trepidation, I made the jump. I decided to take control of my camera by learning to shoot in manual mode. I wanted to be the one to decide what needed to be properly exposed. I no longer wanted my camera to decide for me.

Until our cameras catch up with our eyes, exposure control needs to be in our power.