Automatic Exposure: The Age of Aquarius?

by | May 5, 2020

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Whether you began your photographic journey shooting film or digital and agree that the use of light is one of the key elements that separates a good photograph from a snapshot, then it’s necessary to learn and understand how to make proper exposures.  Even with today’s sophisticated cameras, the ability to control exposure can make or break your image quality and content.

I’m always astounded at the number of people who don’t care about correct exposure, telling me “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop.” There’s only partial truth in this statement. Photoshop can become a crutch for sloppy camera work but be careful in the arena of proper exposure. Any digital image that’s too far over or underexposed cannot fully be completely saved with image manipulation software. Tip: The key words in the last statement is “too far over or underexposed” and while this is especially true for overexposure, some slightly underexposed images can be rescued and I show you how to do it in this post.

Accurate exposure is all about setting the lens aperture and shutter speed in proper relation to each other. You can set the exposure yourself or let the camera do it for you. For the manual method you can use the exposure meter that’s built into the camera or even a hand-held light meter as I do from time to time.

How I made this shot: I shot the gazebo in Parker’s O’Brien Park at night to take advantage of the light gathering characteristics of the Olympus 17mm f/1.2 PRO lens. Camera used was the spectacular Olympus E-M1X that was on loan from the company. The hand held Manual mode exposure was four seconds at f/8 and ISO 200.




There was a time, back in the early film days, when SLRs didn’t have built in light meters. My first SLR, a Minolta SR-1, had an separate, optional exposure meter that sat atop the camera and coupled with the shutter seed dial. In those days, photographers either used a separate hand-held exposure meter or guesswork based on the data sheet packaged with each roll of film that provided basic exposure guidelines for making photographs in bright sun, hazy sun, or cloudy days. Then there was The Sunny 16 Rule: To take a photograph in bright sunlight, the camera’s aperture was set at f/16 and you used the shutter speed that came closest to the ISO number. For instance, if you were using ISO 125 film, the exposure would be 1/125th of a second at f/16.

When in-camera metering was originally introduced it only worked in Manual mode for some cameras. At that time, there were no Automatic, Program, Aperture or Shutter preferred choices. Photographers still had to adjust the shutter speed and aperture themselves. All that has thankfully changed. Nowadays, for 90% of photographs you’ll make using any of your camera’s automatic metering modes, the systems in contemprary digital cameras do a fantastic job but it’s the last 10% that will kill you.

How I made this shot: I photographed Mary at night in downtown Parker, Colorado using a Canon EOS Rebel T4i with EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens (at 15mm.) Exposure was 1/10 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 5000.

Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s out-of-print but new copies are available for $21.88 or used copies for giveaway prices starting at $7.00 as I write this, as I write this. For some reason, the Kindle version is expensive.