Too dark, too light, or just right?
Presented by Glenn Springer, TIF, RHCC

This article is about exposing your pictures better
Warning: after this, you're going to need more disk storage space
because you'll be throwing away fewer pictures!

Sometines the meter in the camera tells you one thing, you have to do something else. Int the top picture, the meter wanted to expose the image so that the average brightness was medium grey. In the bottom picture, I ignored the meter and the brightness of the ice, and exposed for the two ducks.

Sometimes you can just do what the camera tells you and the exposure will be right.


People waste and throw away pictures for many reasons, but the most frequent reasons are either it was out of focus or it was too dark or too light. This article looks at exposure.


Here I set the meter to "spot", and just measured the light on Rosa's face.

In this image, I wanted it to be a little bit darker than the camera said, so I could capture the colours in the sky and make the light on the buoy stand out. This is at the Michipicoten River mouth on Lake Superior, shot at dawn.

Your camera has a meter in it that measures the light in the image you’re shooting. You can set it to look at the whole scene, mostly the middle of the scene, or a specific spot. Your goal is to correctly expose the subject of your picture, whether that’s a portrait, a landscape, a sunset sky, a flower… the meter is there to help you make that decision.

The word “correctly” is the important one here. Who decides what is the correct exposure? You do, with the help of the meter. Generally speaking, “correctly” means not completely white or black with no details, but then again, you could be shooting a silhouette and want it solid black! Your camera doesn’t know: you have to decide.

Bruce Barnbaum, in his iconic book “The Art of Photography”*, points out that you don’t really have a “light meter” in your camera, you have a “grey meter”. It is designed to tell you (or tell the camera if you’re on Automatic) what exposure is needed in order to make whatever the meter is looking at, a medium grey. Impress your photography friends by using the expression “18% grey”.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing.



* You can get this book from Amazon. Get the full-sized one, the quality of the images is amazing!

This is what the meter told me to do. Ryan was standing with the sun coming in the window fully on him.Direct sunlight is almost always a bad, bad thing. Avoid it when you can! Have the subject stand in the shade.

I asked him to take a couple of steps back so he was lit by the light from the window, but not in the direct sun. Still the picture is overexposed because the meter is trying to take the average. It doesn't know that I want that wall to be almost black.

Suppose you’re shooting an average scene — nothing too dark or too bright — and your meter is set to look at the whole scene (averaging, or matrix… whatever your camera maker calls it). Making the average amount of light in the whole image is probably close to correct. Or if you’re shooting a person: skin tones are often close to “18% grey”. But what if the sun is behind that person? What if she’s on a beach or on the water at high noon on a sunny day? What if you’re trying to get a photo of your black Newfoundland Retriever in the middle of a field of snow?

The first thing you might want to try is to switch what your meter is measuring. Normally it’s looking at the whole scene, but 90% of the cameras out there will meter on a smaller area (Look for “center-weighted” or “spot metering”. It’s in the manual that came with your camera. look it up! Now go get your camera and try it). Now what you’re going to do is measure the light on your main subject, not on the whole scene. You, or your camera, can safely make that 18% grey and you have a much better chance at coming up with a good exposure! Ignore the brightness of the background. Your subject is what’s important.


This is the final image. I used exposure compensation and turned the exposure down by two full stops. All I cared about was the light on his face, not what the background would look like. This is my grandson Ryan, at his graduation last week. The picture has been retouched, but not the exposure: that remains as I took it!

Again, this winter shot needed to be brightened up. Snow is WHITE not GREY but the camera doesn't know that. Even so, you can't make it too white, it'll lose all the detail and look artificial. There are two ways to do this: expose for the people, or expose for the whole image but use exposure compensation.

Looks cold, doesn't it? On 12-Mile Lake last winter, it was windy and 30 below!


A few days later, it was a bit warmer. But late in the afternoon, the sky gets dark early and now it's OK to have grey snow. I was exposing for the rider and the glow from the headlight of the snowmobile. I have to admit that I had to experiment to get this one right, but digital is free! The two sledders made about 20 passes while I tried different exposures.

What if your subject isn’t in the middle of the picture? What if you want to meter on him and recompose the picture?

Again, read your manual. Many cameras will lock the exposure to what you measured if you hold the shutter release halfway down, even if you recompose. Others have a dedicated button for that. Or measure it and switch to Manual mode, then you set it yourself.

If you have a simple point-and-shoot camera, you may not be able to directly control some of these things. But you probably have a way of adjusting how bright the picture is by using “exposure compensation. Look for a button marked “+/-“. If your subject is too dark, go in the “+” direction.

Sometimes the meter is really close. Here the mixture of sunlight and shadows resulted in the perfect average. I did lighten up his face a little bit in Lightroom™. Some scenes have just too much contrast in them, or the range between the dark and the light areas is just too high (that's called "High Dynamic Range" or "HDR", and that's an advanced topic for another day!).


Great action shot at the Minden Wildwater Preserve during the Canadian Team Trials this month. Only problem is... you can't see their faces. Bright sunlight, combined with foamy white water is a huge challenge.

I tried spot metering and adjusting the exposure compensation, and it was not enough. Bright sunlight is very difficult. In the end, I had to resort to some post-processing adjustments in Photoshop™ and Lightroom™.


A combination of three things determines the exposure in your pictures. How big is the hole the light is coming through (the aperture), how long is it open (the shutter speed), and how sensitive is the sensor (or film) that the light hits. You can control none, one, two or even all three of these things depending on your camera and how you set it up.

Today’s cameras are pretty smart. And so were the engineers in Japan or Germany or wherever your camera was born. They probably put in “Scene” modes where the camera presets some of the controls for common situations — shooting at the beach, shooting closeups, portraits, backlighting, etc. It’s a quick solution but oddly, the more advanced the camera, the more control you have. After all, you’re taking the picture, not some designer in a foreign land. I always recommend learning how to take control of your camera and taking the time to think before you push that shutter release. But this is digital! It doesn’t cost anything to experiment.

Try this: find a challenging subject — backlighting, a really light or dark subject, a beautiful sunset — and take several different shots using exposure compensation. If you have a more advanced camera, try locking the exposure (AE-Lock, or shoot in Manual) and again vary the exposure over several shots. Then choose the best one, and try to remember what you did to get there!


Forget the meter at night. Your guess will probably be better than its, assuming it's working at all. Shoot lots.In case this helps anyone, this shot is 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 3200.

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