Proper Digital Photography Exposure: How To Get It Right

Nailing the best digital photography exposure is not as simple as it might look. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Nailing the best digital photography exposure is not as simple as it might look. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Do you know how to properly expose your images with your DSLR?  Do you simply put it on one of the automatic settings and let it go at that? How about the ‘+/-‘  exposure setting on your camera? Where should you set that?

The main point to remember with your digital camera is that unlike a film camera, your digital camera shoots positive images. When you do any research on proper exposure in photography and come across references to Ansel Adams and/or the Zone System of exposure, the most important thing to understand about all of that stuff is that they were shooting film back then: they were shooting negatives. Everything was in reverse!

Back in the day when editing negatives, you always knew that the lightest areas of the negative were the shadows, and you'd need detail there if you wanted to print detail there. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Back in the day when editing negatives, you always knew that the lightest areas of the negative were the shadows, and you'd need detail there if you wanted to print detail there. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

On a film negative, whether black and white or color, you only had about ½ stop of latitude on the underexposure side, before all detail was lost. And on that same negative, there would be about 2 stops of detail available on the overexposure side. This meant that with negative shooting, the mantra was: expose for the shadows, print for the highlights.

This meant that with negative shooting, the mantra was: expose for the shadows, print for the highlights.

You knew you could always print that slightly-hot part of the image, but if there was no detail in that shadow area, you couldn’t print some in.

Now with digital photography, things are reversed. It’s like shooting color transparencies (slides) in the old days: your best exposures tend to be 1/2 to 2/3 stop underxposed. These are the images with the rich, saturated colors! Sure, sure, I know, maybe you’re shooting RAW files. That doesn’t change this fact: you’ll start from a better point if you slightly underexpose that digital file.  [Editor’s Note: Read comments below for an explanation for the strikethrough]

Below are two exposures of the identical scene. The first is taken at what my matrix-metered DSLR thinks if the ‘best’ exposure. The second image is taken slightly underexposed, according to the metering system on the camera. Which image would you rather have as your starting point? The only processing I did was to set an identical level in Photoshop for both images. Although they are similar, the highlights in the slightly underexposed version have more detail than in the ‘straight’ exposure. This is where you’ll pick up significant quality with this technique.

Cats

Top image is the 'straight' matrix-metered exposure. Bottom image is 2/3 underexposed. Note the additional highlight detail retained in the second image. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

If you shoot on Manual mode, then this is simply something you’ll do while setting up your exposure. If you are using any of the Automatic exposure modes on your camera, you can try using the exposure compensation feature to make a global exposure change. A half-stop underexposed would be a good starting point.

Make the adjustment here if you're using any of the auto exposure settings. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Make the adjustment here if you're using any of the auto exposure settings. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Once you understand this basic fact about digital exposure, you improve the consistency of your results. Happy shooting!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Some other things you might want to check out on this subject:

Expose for Highlights or Shadows (Epic Edits)

Learning Exposure Basics (Beyond Megapixels)

How to Use a Light Meter (Camera Dojo)


Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

18 Comments on "Proper Digital Photography Exposure: How To Get It Right"

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  1. I object. For people who use raw, the general advice to underexpose is flawed because you’re sacrificing signal to noise ratio. The only important rule for correct digital exposure is to not burn out the highlights (as it is the fact in the upper left corner of your example shot). You can *always* get the richer, more saturated colors back in post processing *and* preserve more shadow detail that way.
    http://blog.alex-kunz.de/2009/11/underexpose.html

  2. I’m not sure we’re really disagreeing…the amount I’m talking about ‘underexposing’ is probably what you’re considering a correct exposure for highlights…

  3. bob cornelis says:

    I have to agree with Alexander about this – I’m not sure I understand your response to him in the context of your posting, but maybe I’m confused by what you are saying.

    My comment only relates to shooting in camera raw.

    Digital camera sensors capture light in a linear fashion – what this means is that half of the photons captured are in the highest stop of exposure, half as many as that in the next stop, etc. This is why so much information can be recovered cleanly from the highlights and mapped down to lower tonal ranges. The right solution is to keep the highlights as close to blown out as possible without going across that line and then mapping then down in tonal range as needed. This is tricky because the histogram on your camera shows the tonal distribution of the jpeg version of your shot which typically has an S-curve applied to it already, meaning that your raw file may not have its highlights blown even though the histogram looks that way.

    Erring toward underexposure leaves you open to unwanted noise if you have to map too much information up in the tonal range.

    Bruce Fraser has a good writeup about this in his books on Camera Raw.

  4. Alex and Bob: thanks for the thoughtful comments, guys. I’m always ready to be humbled by the knowledge of my readers! The mistake I made in the original post was including these two sentences: “Sure, sure, I know, maybe you’re shooting RAW files. That doesn’t change this fact: you’ll start from a better point if you slightly underexpose that digital file.” Due to the nature of my work, I spend most of my time shooting highest-quality jpeg files, and as you know if you’ve been reading the blog, I always search for simple, repeatable solutions to workflow issues….so in my regular workflow, the statement holds true.
    RAW is an awesome development for digital shooters and I use it whenever it’s feasible. (Personal work, frequently; newspaper work, infrequently, due to the sheer size of the files involved.) But I don’t pretend to be an expert on RAW files workflow. Should have left that out!
    Anyway, hat’s off to you guys…nice to know someone’s paying attention!
    Andrew

  5. Back in the film days when i was studying in school we had a procedure to determine what the optimum exposure for each of our cameras was. I don’t even remember the details of how we did it. But what I do remember was we pretty much all determined our light meters were 1/3 to 1 stop underexposing our images and would adjust our iso settings to the correct amount overexposing for the film sensitivity.

    All I gotta say is thank goodness for RAW.

  6. I was only using the + – for a while,and then testing error overexposed and slightly underexposed.

    I had good results but I’ll try your exposure method

  7. Melissa says:

    I am starting to discover some other great features we can do with dslr. This is another insight that can be best applied with my photos. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. nice post! This is another insight that can be best applied with my photos. Thank you so much for sharing this post!keep it up!

  9. Ann says:

    As a budding photographer I found your article very helpful. As someone who has mainly used point and shoot cameras I have a lot to learn. Lots of little technical details that make the difference between an average photo and a great one. Thanks for the tips.

  10. Mick says:

    I used to be a good photographer in the old days! I had a Canon T70 SLR with manual focus. I then moved to a point and shoot digital camera but I’m thinking of getting a DSLR. However, like Ann said above, I have a lot to learn about the technical features of today’s DSLR cameras. Great post and thanks.

  11. dave says:

    I do a lot of shots using available light and many of my subjects (goths) are in dark outfits. Always happy for tips to get exposure right which is wuite difficult in twilight photoshooting.

    thanks
    dave

  12. Bob Diamond says:

    I have been an avid photographer, mainly using my Point&Shoot. I have been wanting to upgrade to a DSLR for better quality photographs.

    However, I am always confused with technical camera jargon such as this post. I am trying really hard to understand but sadly, I think I am not inclined to be a “manual” photographer. I think I have to contend myself with just a Point&Shoot. LOL

    BUT, I am not losing hope! Would you guys suggest that I attend a basic photography seminar? It might be the key to unlock my (mis)understand of camera jargon.

    Bob
    Bob Diamond Real Estate Program

  13. Kenny @ Maxercise says:

    These are great tips. I don’t use my camera enough but I certainly want to get better at taking pictures.

  14. Jenna says:

    Oh how helpful, Andrew! And you’ve got some pretty interesting trivia here too about film photography. I have always been interested in good ol’ fashioned film. It just seems more challenging, don’t you think?

  15. Graham McAndrew says:

    “I used to be a good photographer in the old days! I had a Canon T70 SLR with manual focus.”

    Ha, you were posh. I remeber hankering after (not actually ever getting the chance to buy) a Zenit E, if anyone remembers them. I think there was also a Zenit B, which was the cheaper and equally elusive model.

    These things were Russian and built like tanks but I wanted one more than anything else in the world.

    Very happy days!!

    Graham McAndrew
    CEO
    Uk-Med

  16. Robert says:

    My father still hasn’t jumped into the bandwagon of digital cameras. He still prefers using his good old Pentax film camera. And I love his photos still!

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