The Art Of Creative Exposure
If I say exposure, how do you respond? I know I can hear the groans already. Yes, exposure has a reputation for being a dark art and seemingly impossible to perfect. But it's really not, at least not when you get to grips with the simple basics of how it works and match that to what you're trying to achieve. The first thing to realize about exposure is there really is no such thing as a correct exposure. Exposure is relative. Take a silhouette, for example. In a silhouette, the subject is depicted as nothing but featureless shadow. Technically, the images grossly under exposed. And what about this image here? The area around the hippopotamus is just next chance of burned out highlights. It's massively overexposed. So technically, neither exposure is correct. And yet, in both cases, compositionally exposure is authentic to the visual narrative. I was working, too. In this lesson, we're going to look at the application of exposure as it relates to the visual narrative, and this falls int...
o two areas. Technically, it's about setting an exposure that captures the highest amount of good quality data in camera, which you can then fine tune the processing stage compositionally exposure is a tool that you can use to emphasis or hide visual elements within the scene and create an image that tells the story you want to tell, and that's where I'm going to start. I'm back at Portland Bill Lighthouse Now, at this time of year, the sun rises over there, out to sea, and it's going to drop beneath the horizon somewhere over there Now, given the conditions today, it should be a pretty neat sunset in terms of exposure. There are two ways I can capture this scene. I could opt for an average exposure that reveals detail in all the areas. The rocky foreground, the cliff face, the lighthouse itself, in the buildings and, of course, the sky. There's a lot of visual data here, all of it competing for your attention. And with so much going on in the frame, the sky is just one of many stories. Basically, it reverts to being a backdrop to what's going on in front of it. But my story is the sunset front and center, so I need to change my composition to match the narrative. And to do that all I have to do is change my exposure to a setting that renders everything except the sky in silhouette. My original exposure was based on an average meter reading what you'd get from your camera's default metering mode. Effectively, the meter looked at the brightest and darkest parts of the scene and set an exposure value somewhere in the middle. For my silhouette. I'm going to tell the camera to look only at the sky, which is the brightest part, and ignore all of these shady areas in the foreground, which will render them in silhouette. And here's my new image. Now the lighthouse is no longer the story. It simply adds context of the story, in compositional parlance, is adding to my narrative without competing for your attention. Now it's important to remember. In neither of these images is the exposure right nor wrong, nor good nor bad. Technical quality is equal in both photographs. Instead, the contrasting exposures have simply changed the narrative. The objects in the scene, the framing camera position, focal length. They are all pretty much the same. But by changing the exposure, I've drawn a different story. That's the compositional side to exposure. Now let's move on to technicalities Once you've decided on your narrative, it's important you set the right exposure in camera to maximize the quality of the image file, which are going to work on later in post. Now I know that there's this belief that exposure no longer matters because errors can be fixed later in the computer. Not only is that an excuse for lazy photography, it's not always correct. There are some exposure errors that can't be fixed in computer and even when they can, often there is a cost in reduced quality and pixel integrity. So I encourage you to always aim to get it right in camera to keep computer manipulation and potential downgrades and image quality down to a minimum. A while ago, I worked on a project that was very personal to me, which was inspired by my interest in Japanese senior art and involved photographing Japanese red crowned cranes, an endangered bird found on the island of Hokkaido. Yeah, creative aim was to photograph the cranes in a style reminiscent of the black on white brushwork of senior, as well as being particularly mindful of the environment and the lighting conditions correctly. Exposing each image was critical to the success of the project, and it was no mean feat. Essentially, my aim was to record the white, snow covered ground as light tone without texture and the white feathers of the birds as light tone with texture. Now these terms are taken from something called the Zone System, which was devised around 80 years ago by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer as a way for photographers to precisely define the relationship between the visualized image and the final printed output. In simple terms, based on the cameras in built, light, meter light tone without texture is four stops brighter than the camera's meter. Reading light tone with texture is three stops brighter than the camera's meter reading for my images of the cranes to capture the very best in camera exposure, I could, I added, plus three stops of exposure compensation and then fine tune the exposure later on in Post Adams and Archer Zone System. Despite being 80 year old, technology designed for sheet film cameras is just as relevant in modern day digital photography. The premise that the correct exposure is not defined simply by the amount of light falling on the subject but instead by the artistic endeavor of the photographer is what helps turn a record shot into a personal interpretation of the moment, which can then be turned into a high quality print. The default metering mode on most digital cameras is multi segment metering, which is a very fancy averaging system when you're photographing light creatively, such as capturing silhouettes, for example, I would recommend switching to spot metering mode, which is usually managed by a physical camera switch or in the camera menu. You'll find a detailed explanation of spot metering in part one of this series mastering your digital camera.