How to Get the Best Exposure

Knowing how to get the best exposure in your photographs is an eternal battle which offers photographers, of all experiences, a combative opponent.

For beginners, achieving the perfect exposure requires an understanding of your cameras built-in light meter and which settings you need to make your photos evenly lit.

What Does a Good and Bad Exposure Look Like?

Until you know what a good exposure looks like it’ll be impossible to know how to achieve one.

The dynamic range of your photo, which is the ratio between the brightest and darkest measurable pixels, is key to getting the best exposure. Having a photo with lots of dynamic range, without pixels being too dark or too bright (known as clipping) is essential.

For example, if your skies are too bright and look like a solid block of white then you’re probably overexposed. Inversely, if you’re shooting in low light and can’t make out detail on a subject then you’re probably underexposed.

In both instances, on a histogram (on your camera, or in editing), you’ll see a tall peak to the extremes of the chart indicating these issues. The aim is to keep the peak to the centre of the histogram.

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How Do I Control My Exposure?

On most digital cameras you’ll notice a scale which indicates the current exposure value. Ideally you want this scale to remain at 0 (zero). If you notice it slip down to the minus, then your exposure will end up darker. And if it goes to the right, then you may notice it’s brighter than necessary.

By tweaking your aperture and shutter speed you can keep this exposure scale at 0 (zero).

But to initially aid your camera in reading the available light you need to choose 1 of 3 common settings. They all read the light in different areas of your frame.

If you are using a smartphone, tablet or compact camera you may not find all these options are available to you as your camera takes full control.

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Photography Tutorial - F Stops 17
Photography Tutorial - F Stops 16

What is Spot Metering?

Spot metering is a great way to get the best exposure if you like shooting a lot of macro photos. It works by taking a light meter reading from approximately 4% of your frame, but focused on the middle.

The light reflecting off your subject forms the reading for the exposure. In this instance you need to make sure the most important element of your shot is in the middle as other areas can appear under/overexposed accordingly.

Some cameras may allow you to choose specific areas of your shot to target the spot reading. This helps if your main subject can’t be composed in the dead centre.

Centre Weighted Metering

Centre weighted metering works in a very similar way to spot metering but has a catchment area of around 60% of the frame, again starting from the centre.

If your subject is bigger than a flower or small trinket then consider using centre weighted. It occupies more of the frame, but not all of it. Therefore larger, singular subjects (such as portraits) will work great for this type of metering.

It can also help in instances of backlighting where no light is falling on your subject’s surface that’s visible to the camera. Use centre weighted to get the best exposure for your subject, otherwise you can end up with a silhouetted outline.

Generally speaking, to get an even exposure with backlighting I’d recommend exposing for the background first. Then add in a flash or separate light to solely illuminate your subject. This will give you the best exposure for both aspects. But otherwise centre weighted metering (combined with a reflector) will be the next best alternative when you’ve got no second light.

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Average Metering / Matrix / Multi-Segment / Evaluative

Depending upon your camera this may also be called Matrix / Multi-Segment or Evaluative metering – but they all pretty much work in the same way. The camera breaks down your shot into 4 (or more) zones, generally quadrants. Each zone delivers its own light value, and the camera averages them all to provide the most even exposure possible.

Whilst it’s the most balanced form of exposure metering it’s not guaranteed to give you perfect results. For example, if your scene is very contrasting (shot under midday sun) then an average reading will brighten the shadows and darken the highlights to even out the exposure. This may cost you your strong contrast effect.

But it will have its uses when taking pictures of large groups to make sure the light is fairly even across all faces. Wedding photographers will find great use for average metering.

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Which Exposure Setting to Use and When

Recapping on what’s good and when here’s a quick take-away chart of what metering mode to use on what type of subject. Obviously, there are always exceptions to these guidelines in photography, but these are good starting points to know how to get the best exposure.

Spot / Partial
● Macro
● Small Objects
● For Heavy Contrast
● Small Pools of Light in a Low Key Style

Centre Weighted
● Portraits / Wildlife
● Still Life
● Product Shots
● Flowers

Average
● Large Groups
● Landscapes
● Shooting in Dull Weather
● Sunsets / Sunrises
● Night time / Astrophotography

How to Improve Exposure with Bracketing and HDR

How to get the best exposure isn’t a straightforward process. There are always times you’ll have to adapt. But there is one more way you can improve your chances of a greater dynamic range- and that’s by bracketing.

Bracketing is either an automated (or manual) process of taking multiple shots, at different stops of light (by changing the aperture, but generally it’s the shutter speed) of the same scene and blending them all together.

This allows you to capture details in the shadows and highlights which may be otherwise impossible in just one frame. Landscape photographers use bracketing a lot. You may also hear it called HDR (High Dynamic Range).

Check out your camera’s AEB (auto exposure bracketing) function or HDR options to give it a try. If you don’t have these tools, then simply shoot 3-5 shots of the same scene.

1 shot will be taken at the correct exposure. Second shot at one-stop (usually changing the shutter speed, but you can do it with aperture) brighter and a third at one stop darker than the original. You can merge all shots together using automated scripts in Photoshop, Lightroom or Affinity Photo for example.

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How to Get the Best Exposure: Final Words

In conclusion, exposure isn’t a scary subject the beginner photographers should shy away from and rely on auto. How to get the best exposure just takes awareness and a reaction.

If you take note of your camera’s readouts through the exposure scale or the histogram then you can make live changes to improve the exposure. It’s better than cursing yourself as you try to pull back detail from blown-out highlights in the editing suite.

If you’ve been working on how to get the best exposure recently then show off your efforts in the iPhotography gallery for other members to discover.

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