Take Your First Correct Exposure

So, the truth is we live in a highly automated world where if you ever need something done for you usually there is an app for that, like your taxes or organizing your contact lists. What about calculating your grocery costs or optimizing your weight loss plan? You get the picture. What about big sensor digital cameras like DSLRs? There is an app for that too.

When I first started playing with a DSLR, I was usually in an automatic mode like floating head mode (portrait) or pretty flower mode( closeup). Even then I had a sort of feel for the images, I understood that if I wanted to create the dreamy blur affect that I needed to get up close and snap a picture using pretty flower mode, or if I wanted to get everything in focus, go to pretty mountain mode. I was content with this for a while until I started shooting indoors, or trying to recreate an image that implied motion, like a car whipping through the frame to create a motion blur affect. Sometimes I would try to take a picture of a fast moving target and the motion blur effect would appear where I didn’t want it and I really didn’t get the whole thing. Things were happening but my camera was thinking for me, something must be wrong right?

The hard truth is, things happen for a reason, and luckily photography is an exact science at this point. As the tech grows, the more bells and whistles will be added, and the more resolution they’ll stick in the sensors, but the foundations will never change, I think I can shed some light on the very basics of that here.

A close up of a telephone

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The funny thing about manual mode and the exposure triangle is that it was pretty much the default configuration for even the oldest single lens reflex film cameras , that’s all the way back to 1800s. That’s another great thing about learning manual mode, you basically have free reign to be creative with any camera, including film. I suppose that depends on the model. Haven’t tried one of these yet.

Camera, Historic, Old Camera, Photo, Lens, Flowers

Your First “Correct” Exposure

A screenshot of a cell phone

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The secret of manual mode(and photography in general) is in the three elements in that graphic, it’s all very distracting, but these are the ingredients of an exposure – the F-stop dictates how much light enters the aperture inside the lens, the shutter speed dictates how much light the sensor will receive through the time of the exposure, and the ISO increases and decreases your camera’s sensitivity to light by introducing video gain to the digital sensor. No one really knows what ISO stands for, back at the factory it was International Standards Org, and that’s what I think when I look at that abbreviation. In the film days, this was just the ISO number of the film you used. ISO 400 for indoors, and ISO 100 for sunny day shooting, and you can purchase more and more different ISO number films depending on the camera your were using.

I’m not going to discuss stops yet; the point of this article is getting you shooting in a non automatic mode and for you to understand how to build your own photographs, so we don’t need to totally wrap our heads around stops just yet. A good thing to remember starting out though, that lenses are built to be stopped down to universal f numbers such as f1.8, f2.8, f5.6, etc. The numbers in between are  third stop increments, this is an important concept to understand if you’d like to introduce flash photography to your game.

Now that we know the ingredients, lets get introduced to our mixing bowl, the through the lens metering system, or just simply, metering. Mine looks like this:

The meter is probably the most important device in the camera other than the sensor in my opinion. In an automatic mode like closeup or portrait mode, the computer inside your camera will make a calculation based off whatever the parameters are for the mode, like a wide-open f-stop number to create out of focus blur, or high shutter speed to capture action. The computer will then set the shutter speed and ISO, so that the cursor is placed directly in the centre at zero. When the cursor is centred, it means the meter is reading a “correct exposure” and when you take the photograph, the sensor will store optimal image data in the photo if you shot it in RAW. The technology and terminology of metering is a whole other topic so I’ll release a deep dive in a later post, there is quite a bit to cover there, so for now, go into the metering mode settings in the information display and make sure that the multi-zone metering setting is selected. For Canon cameras it’s called Evaluative, for Nikon, matrix metering. Not familiar with Sony yet, but most modern DSLRS have this set to default from the factory, so if you have a second-hand body, there’s a chance that it will be set to another one on manual.

 Manual mode remembers the last setting that you used, so that’s a good thing if you have a particular style that you like to employ it in, I for one use it a lot for studio work so I can have evaluative metering on with a custom profile that keeps the color profile flat for when I go back to the editing table.

Now that we have the ingredients from the exposure triangle, and the meter to mix them up, let’s start playing with the concept.

When I get to a scene,  I’ll intuitively set my aperture to F4 which is my favourite f-stop for a style like the sample photo down below. So, imagine you get to the scene and this is the photo you’d like to take. The meter reads as such with the following settings input to the information display.(photo is stock and not mine).

A picture containing ground, person, outdoor, object

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Let’s pretend we’ve just taken a photo with the above configuration and meter reading.

A picture containing person, outdoor, tree, ground

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So that’s an overexposure and why metering is so important. So how do we bring it to an exposure that is closer to what our eye sees? Think of the meter like a seesaw. If there’s too much weight on one end, you need to distribute that weight to the other to balance the system. Visualize the exposure triangle and have a look at your options for distributing that weight. You have three roads you can travel, and each choice gets you to a different result.

Changing ISO

With ISO, it is good practice to keep it at the lowest possible setting for the scene. Whenever you increase the ISO a stop, the more noise gets introduced to the image because of video gain, however, sometimes you will need to make that trade off of image noise so you can get the shot. A little noise won’t kill ya’, that’s what Photoshop is for. Indoor sports is a prime example of this. ISO becomes your saving grace because a fast shutter speed is needed so your subject doesn’t move through the capture causing motion blur. In the case of the girl with the bubbles up top though, that won’t be necessary since we’re out in broad daylight and we must control the brightness, not create it. The base ISO of 100 was selected here because it would be the typical setting if we were out in the real world in broad daylight. Some more advanced DSLRs have settings of ISO 50 and some all the way down to ISO 20. I’ll be touching on ISO in a later post, so stay tuned.

We can also close the aperture, or “stop down”,  which would easily control the brightness of the scene here by going from f4 to f8, then our problem would be solved in terms of the exposure. However, by stopping down the aperture you increase what is called depth of field on the subject, which drastically changes the look of the image. I like to think of depth of field as “the distance that is in sharp focus that rests between the out of focus stuff at the plane of focus”. Mumbo jumbo right? Let’s take an example like landscape photography, where you’d like to get as much as you can in focus without sacrificing the perception of depth, here we would stop down to a high f-stop, such as f11, or f16, that way we get as much of the scene in focus, so the viewer can enjoy all the elements in the frame. Depth of field also changes depending on distance between you and the subject, the closer you are to the plane of focus, the shorter the depth of field. Notice also, that the distance between the front of the plane of focus, is different from the back.

I think the solution to the equation lies in the shutter speed then, because along with eliminating the positive exposure we get the added bonus of buffering motion blur a bit more, 1/250 is a good speed if you want to freeze a moment with a mostly static person, like in portraiture.

Here I’m going to add shutter speed, because along with eliminating the positive exposure we get the added bonus of buffering motion blur a bit more, 1/250 is a good speed if you want to freeze the moment with someone moving at walking speed, because unless you’re photographing an intense sports scene, people are generally not moving quickly enough to move through the capture and cause motion blur. So, because I quite like how sharp F4 makes the image look, I’ll increase the shutter speed until the meter is zeroed.

Before

After

Now let’s pretend to take that photo again.

A picture containing person, outdoor, ground, tree

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 That’s better 😊

I hope you learned a lot from this, it was a lot of fun to go back through the fundamentals, and I can only hope that this helps people really take their photo game up a notch. I know that when I finally took my first correct exposure, it was a huge boost to my confidence behind the camera and that’s something that doesn’t leave you.

(blog sign off trial #2)

Be kind, rewind.

Matt

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