Beyond Auto mode: understanding exposure

Ahhhh….The elusive quest for perfect exposure: who needs consistently great photos, anyway? Well, I do, and most Urbexers do too. You never know when the place you’re visiting will be gone. If it’s really decrepit, it’s probably a matter of time before the place is flattened to the ground. There might never be another chance to take home a particular set of images ! Exposure, along with focus is one of those elements that can’t be corrected in post production.

When you think about it though, exposure in photography is a piece of cake! You can either try to achieve the perfect exposure by totally guessing (results not guaranteed), or precisely controlling the aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity of the camera. Who cares, right ? You’ve got a “program mode” on your camera, don’t ya ? Well, you know what I think that “P” mode on your camera stands for? IMHO, the “P” stands for pussy.

So, after insulting the readership, let’s dive…

Today, as you’ve guessed, we’re looking for the perfect exposure, and so, we’re going all manual. We’ll fiddle about with aperture, speed and sensitivity.

As you probably know, those three variables determine the amount of light that reaches the sensor or film, and ultimately affect brightness, contrast, and quality of a final image. The following will hold true for both digital and traditional film.

Underexpose (left) and loose all the image’s info

The aperture refers to the size of the lens (diaphragm) opening through which light enters the camera. A larger aperture obviously allows more light to enter, resulting in a brighter exposure.

On the other hand, the shutter speed determines how long the camera’s shutter remains open. A slower shutter speed allows more light to enter the camera, resulting in a brighter exposure.

The ISO setting of the camera determines the sensitivity of the sensor to light. A higher ISO setting makes the sensor more sensitive, again resulting in a brighter exposure. Don’t get carried away though: the higher the iso setting, the more digital noise will appear.

Center-weighted exposed. Far aways window? Overblown.

The “correct” exposure (a.k.a the Holly Grail) is all about finding the right balance between these 3 variables, taking into consideration lighting, desired effect, and camera equipment.

So, how do you measure and find this so called “Perfect Exposure” ? Well, your camera has a meter for that…. You can also use a hand held meter, if you’re finiky…I have one, but I never use it anymore…

The way this meter works, is by measuring the intensity of light to determine the optimal settings for a properly exposed image.

“In camera”, there are typically three “types” of exposure meters:

  1. Center-weighted: measures the light in the center of the frame and assigns more importance to the central area. The camera assumes that the subject of interest is centered (AI apparently hates the rule of thirds) and then provides an average exposure.
  2. Matrix : uses a complex, propriatory algorithm (Nikon and Canon are notoriously different) to evaluate the light across the entire frame.It analyzes multiple areas and “guesstimates” factors such as brightness, contrast, color, and even distance, to calculate exposure in the different areas of the frame.
  3. Spot: measures the light in a small spot, usually around 1-5% of the frame, at a selected focus point. It provides a highly accurate exposure reading -for that specific spot- and that spot only. It allows Urbexers to meter for a specific subject. That’s what I use.

It’s important to note that meters are notoriously inaccurate in the dark. They will require adjustments in Urbex lighting conditions. You may/will need to use exposure compensation or manual exposure adjustments to fine-tune your image. So yes, exposure meters are helpful, but they are not fuckin’ infallible. In Urebex condition, I’d go as far as to qualify them as “dog shit”.

Spot Exposed on the forest behind.

We’ve just established that a well-exposed photo should accurately represents the subject’s tones and colors, with the right balance of brightness, contrast, and detail.

Wanna be sure ? If one photo can’t do the job, take several !!

Here is a trick; unlike films of yesterday, computing memory is cheap. What’s a chinese made SD card worth nowaday ? I, personnaly shoot in rapid burst of 5 (up to 7 or 9-if conditions are extrememe) pictures, braketing for exposure each time. Sure, I take 5 pictures of everything, but in a world where my camera’s memory card can hold 5000 high quality raw images, why care ? When I go out in an Urbex, my camera shutter sounds like a machine gun. C’mon !! One of these images HAS to be well exposed. Worse case scenario , none of them give me the perfect exposure. But then I “stack” them in Photoshop and voila. I feel a future article coming up. Sorry about that.

Finally, in my (not so) humble opinion, mastering exposure, can only come with understanding black and white. B&W photography is a total game-changer when it comes to exposure. But that’s a story for another time. Again.

So, make sure you get it spot on (pun intended), because overexposure will give you those “lovely blown-out highlights with zero detail”, while underexposure will gift you with “overly dark shadows that lack any semblance of attributes”.

Colour whithin a B&W frame

If you don’t master exposure, say goodbye to contrast and detail. That’s what you’ll be losing in your images! Forget focus…well, don’t.

I believe the real difference between a newbie and a competent photo practitioner is exposure.

On the other hand, don’t overlook the creative side of exposure settings! Rules are meant to be broken. If they weren’t, why would you be tresspassing anyway ?

Play around with exposure to enhance the tone and mood of images. Crank it up for a bright and cheerful look, dial it down for moody, brooding atmospheres…Fuck around with the dials…you might (sometimes) be happily surprised !

Sometimes, over use of improper exposure can make the scene.

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