Tips from the pros – Using your available light


One of the biggest ruiners of an otherwise perfectly-shot photograph or video clip is improper exposure. Even when using a modern, capable camera, a user still needs to be conscious of lighting. I’m not talking about the use of a cumbersome lighting kit or even an on-camera flash or video light. I’m talking about accounting for and utilizing the available light in the scene for creating a better-exposed photograph. Don’t be alarmed – this problem is easy to understand and resolve and overcoming it will instantly result in your ability to capture much better-looking images.

First a little background. Modern photo and video cameras use an auto-exposure meter built into the lens system that helps the user set proper exposure levels. Without getting too technical, an auto-exposure meter analyzes the amount of light coming into the lens and sets the camera’s aperture (lens opening) and shutter speed (light exposure time) to what it determines will provide a properly-exposed image. And this feature usually works quite well. Many users probably don’t even realize that this process is occurring every time they take a snapshot or record some video. Shooting images outside on a sunny day? The auto-exposure meter will close the aperture and shorten the shutter speed since an abundance of light is available. Taking photos or shooting video in a darkened room? The auto-exposure meter will open up the aperture and lengthen the shutter speed to allow in as much light as possible. If you’re using a still camera with an auto-flash, the auto-exposure meter can even instruct the camera to activate the flash and move the shutter speed back to a normal setting to keep images from getting blurry. Pretty cool!

Auto settings producing properly-exposed sky, but leaving face underexposed

The problem comes in when you have a lighting situation that confuses the auto-exposure meter. For instance, consider shooting someone with a beautiful sunset behind them. Most of the scene is likely going to be full of light since you’re pointing the camera directly into the sun. This causes the auto-exposure meter to close down the iris and shorten the shutter speed, leaving the small portion of the scene that’s not brightly lit – faces of the people in the shot – totally underexposed. Most of us, in scanning through our photo collection, can quickly come across such images where what we thought would be nicely lit is way too dark. Shooting people in front of a window with bright light pouring in often creates the same problem. And sometimes we see the opposite effect, too, where a portion of the scene we’re shooting ends up looking totally white (what we pros refer to as “blown out”) because the auto-exposre meter determined that more of the scene was dark and shadowy and opened up the aperture and lengthened the shutter speed to properly expose those dark areas.

Bright window light causing underexposure of subject

So, how to we compensate for these situations? Well, there are actually several things you can do. The first is to simply be aware of your current lighting conditions. If you’re shooting photos or video outside, the first thing you should always do is check where the sunlight is coming from. Then, position yourself with the sun behind you so the direct sunlight is lighting up the scene you want to shoot. Often, this is your best solution because it doesn’t require any extra equipment or force you to learn any new camera settings. And, contrary to what you might think, it usually doesn’t restrict your shot selection to the point where you can’t get the shot you want. If you’re shooting indoors, position the subject matter (or yourself) so that what you’re shooting is lit from an overhead light, a nearby lamp or a window. Just don’t place the subject in front of the window because then you’re back to the same problem of most of the scene being full of bright light like the sunset shot.

OK, so say you’re not able to reposition your subject matter or yourself to take advantage of the available light; say you really want to take a photo that couple standing directly in front of the sunset or that group of people in front of that window. What can you do? Well, there’s a few tricks for that, too. Most modern digital still cameras utilize a two-stage shutter button (the button you press to take the picture). If you press the button half way down, the camera locks in the proper exposure and focus settings for the scene in view. Pushing the button the rest of the way down takes the photo. Use this feature to your advantage by pointing the camera away from the bright scene a bit to cause the auto-exposure meter to adjust to a more desirable exposure setting and push the shutter button half way down to lock in those settings before moving your camera back to the desired framing and taking the picture. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it but quickly becomes second nature once you do it a few times. Just be aware of your focus as moving the camera away from your subject may cause the camera to set the focus too close or too far. Alternatively, reframe your shot by moving closer to or farther from your subject matter so that more or less of the underexposed or overexposed areas compose the image. This will usually force the auto-exposure meter to re-adjust the exposure of the image and might just be the little adjustment you needed.

Some cameras offer LCD screens that actively update the exposure view so you can easily see at what position to lock in your settings. Some camera screens don’t show an adjustment until you push the shutter button half way down so you might need to reposition and perform the “halfway push” a few times until you get the look you want. And remember, with digital, you have the freedom to shoot as many photos as necessary in order to get that great shot since you can just go back and delete the ones you don’t need without wasting precious film!

Camera angled to properly expose sky since foreground was not important

Finally, what about iPhones (and similar devices) or video cameras that don’t have a true shutter button that can lock in settings? Well, all hope is not lost. Altering the camera framing just a bit so that the auto-exposure meter makes an adjustment is a good technique to practice. A good example to demonstrate this might be when shooting a horizon shot. Placing the horizon line directly in the vertical middle of the frame will likely result in a very bright sky and a very dark earth. Maybe you want the sky to be properly exposed and don’t care much about the rocks and dirt in the foreground. In that case, tilt your camera up just a bit to create more bright sky area in the frame. The auto-exposure meter will adjust to bring down the overall light level which will better balance out the sky exposure and cause the earthen foreground to go dark. Alternatively, tilt your camera slightly down to fill the shot with more dark area so the auto-exposure meter will brighten the image if the ground is what’s important in the shot. With your video camera, learn to use the manual shutter speed and aperture (also called iris) settings to that you can have total control over the exposure of a scene.

Camera tilted down to limit the amount of sky so foreground is properly exposed

In the end, it’s all about positioning your subject matter, your shooting location and your camera angle to maximize the available light present in your shot so that your auto-exposure meter will set the proper exposure level for your subject to get you the image you’re looking for. With this knowledge, you’ll immediately begin to capture better images and be justified in calling those under- and over-exposers amateurs!

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