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