The Meat & Potatoes of Photography: Proper Exposure

by | Jan 19, 2021

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

In response to suggestions from some new readers of this blog, over the next few weeks we’re going back to the basics with a occasional Tuesday posts about some subjects that tend to challenge new photographers, especially those moving up from cell phones to an DSLR or mirrorless camera.

When teaching workshops, the number one question that I get from students and one that usually permeates the entire event is their quest for the perfect exposure. Back in the 1970’s I used to tell my Basic Photography students at Howard Community College that the perfect exposure was the one that they liked. And I still believe that today.

I strongly believe there is no one right way to accomplish all off your photographic goals. Some Internet gurus may disagree and argue that only their approach is the one, true perfect road to correct exposure or whatever… I disagree. There is no “my way or the highway” in photography; You get to choose the methods that works for you. Even a road less traveled is OK if it produces the results you want. If it doesn’t produce the desired results then its time to look at some alternative techniques and then fine-tune them to your favored subject matter and preferred way of working.

How I made this shot: Streaky car lights produced by long exposures are always fun to shoot but I’ve never tried getting a sharp image while hand holding a camera. A tripod was always a necessity until I shot this with an Olympus E-M1X that has world class IBIS. This view of a street scene in downtown Orlando shot with Oly’s 12-100mm f/4 IS Pro lens (at 21mm) had a hand held exposure of four seconds at f/11 and ISO 200

Unfortunately, the road to correct exposure is littered with buzzwords. Sometimes you’ll see the term exposure value (EV) used and it denotes all of combinations of camera shutter speed and aperture that produce the same exposure. This term originated in Germany during the 1950s and persists to this day with purists who are more comfortable with it than the more vernacular “stop.”

For example, when shooting in Manual mode, if you have a  light meter reading of 1/500 sec at f/11 and ISO 200 and want to use a slower shutter speed you’ll have to adjust the aperture (make it smaller) so that the same (equivalent) amount of light will hit the sensor. Or you could select aperture (Av) or shutter priority mode (Sv), and your camera calculates the equivalent exposure for you, eliminating the  guesswork. Then there’s exposure compensation, one of my favorite camera controls, available to tweak exposure settings to get the exact look you want.

So what’s the perfect exposure? It’s the one you like. Go make a few tests, shoot a bracket and find out for yourself. Two of the most important things you can do to improve the exposure of your photographs is to make these kinds of test shoots and be sure to practice. And one of the biggest advantages of using digital capture is that it won’t even cost you a whole lot of money to find out hot to obtain that ultimate image.

Tip: Roll your mouse over the above image to see the exposure setting and drop by our sister blog, for other posts on exposure and car photography.

Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photograph that’s available from Amazon for $21.79 and used copies starting at around five bucks, as I write this. The Kindle price, for some reason is really high, not Barry or I.