Achieving Correct Exposure - Part One

Barriers, Pantheon, Paris, France


The problem with most DSLR cameras is that they are poorly designed. I find them to be not particularly ergonomic and overloaded with overly complex menu structures. Put simply they're hard to understand which, by extension, makes them hard to use outside of their more automated modes. By using your camera in a fully automatic exposure mode you're effectively dumbing it down to the extent that it's become little more than a point and shoot camera. Only it's a lot bigger and heavier than a point and shoot camera. Unless you come to terms with exposure and how to use your camera you've really done your money.

Rather than being a passport into worlds and lives other than you own, your camera becomes a physical barrier preventing you experiencing and communing with the world around you in a meaningful way. Understanding and being able to control exposure is, perhaps, the most fundamental concept of photography that eludes most people.

This is the first of a series of articles that will lead you to a greater awareness of exposure and help put you in control of your own photography. Your camera will then function, as it should, as a tool by which you can record and interpret the world around you according to your own creative vision and world view.

I've Seen My Share Of Cameras

I entered the photography industry through a job in a camera store in February 1979. I first started running short courses in photography in 1984 prior to moving from my hometown, Hamilton, to the big smoke (Melbourne) to commence nine formal years of study in photography in 1986. To support my studies I went back to working in camera stores. In early January 1990, I began working at Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd and started teaching again, part time, a few years later. After leaving Kodak at the end of 1997 I entered the education industry full time in mid 1998 and, for the next 12 years, worked at various tertiary level institutions, with full and part-time students, as well as continuing to run a variety of short courses.

The only reason I provide all that background is by way of saying that I've become familiar with many, many cameras over the years. I've also dealt with many photographic situations as a photographer, sales person, technical specialist (Kodak) and educator. That experience, which started with film-based cameras and has continued into our contemporary digital age, underpins the opinions in this article.  

Changing Workflow

The first digital cameras I used were a Canon 20D and the initial version of the Canon 1D. They were borrowed cameras and, to be frank, I wasn't all that impressed with them. As I was doing a lot of wide angle photography I just wasn't prepared to accept the compromises associated with an APS-C sized sensor. The original Canon 1Ds camera, while full frame, was around AUD$13,000 at the time. And that was a price I was both unable and unprepared to pay. Nevertheless, I wanted a full frame camera so I had to bide my time until the release of the original Canon 5D in 2005.

The following year Adobe Lightroom was released to the public and my workflow, for all but the older film-based images from my archive, became totally digital.

Immediate Feedback

Or course there were numerous benefits associated with digital cameras, but the ability to receive immediate feedback, via the camera's LCD screen, didn't float my boat as much as you might expect. After years of film based photography I was, finally, at the stage where I hardly ever produced a poor exposure and, therefore, didn't really need the visual feedback from the camera. I'm not saying I don't appreciate it. I do! I'm just saying it wasn't as important for me as it was for many other photographers.

The reason I had exposure, for most of the scenes and subjects I commonly photographed, under control was not because of the camera I used; and most certainly not because I was in the habit of routinely making three or more images, at different exposures (i.e., exposure bracketing), of everything I photographed. It was for other reasons, which will become obvious later in the song. 

Heartbreak: Your Way To Success

I'd class myself as a slow learner. The main reason I have a solid understanding of exposure is because of all the mistakes I've made, most of them many times. I remember well the disappointment and frustration at having messed up, time and time again, and I remember the day (it was a lovely summer's day, and I was stuck in the darkroom) that an important insight came to me, like a thief in the night, that helped me understand why, under certain conditions, my exposures always failed to produce the right results.

I was beginning to build the first blocks in a sophisticated understanding of photography's blessed trinity (e.g., light, contrast and exposure) and the difference between how we perceive the world around us compared to how our camera records it.

The More Things Change

That lesson caused me to change the way I made certain photographs which, in turn, meant fewer intolerably long darkroom sessions trying to make acceptable prints from poorly exposed negatives and transparencies. It's perhaps the memories of those struggles that make me frown when I hear contemporary sayings such as "fix it in photoshop". That term, in particular, takes me straight to cringe city.

Back in the day I'd say most enthusiasts would probably only achieve optimal exposure on around 9 out of the 36 exposures on the average roll of transparency (i.e., slide) film that passed through their camera. As my own photography progressed I came to the belief that a good photographer routinely achieved a success rate closer to 33 frames per film. Fairly unsophisticated, as I was referring primarily to exposure without considering composition, subject matter and the like.

Exposure Latitude

For most folks such musings were largely academic. The average consumer, using print film, was largely unaware of the accuracy, or lack thereof, of most of their exposures. That's because print film possessed the ability to produce an acceptable result from negatives that received between 25 and 800 percent of the light required to make an optimal exposure. This characteristic, associated with print film, is referred to as exposure latitude. It enabled Kodak, Fuji and Agfa to save potentially billions of images, and associated memories, from the trash can. A feat for which we should all be grateful.

Beware! Grandpa's Slide Show

Transparency (i.e., slide) film was a different matter entirely. With a significantly smaller exposure latitude you really had to know what you were doing otherwise you'd be giving the old "well you can't really see it here, but this is Nana in front of the Sphinx" spiel. (Editing pops, editing!)

The Photographer Evolves

I feel there's a fairly simple reason why more discriminating photographers were able to move up to the dizzying heights of the 33 out of 36 club.  Not wanting to repeat our mistakes, we learned what not to photograph. It's only natural. In the beginning we likely all assume that our camera's will record the world in much the same way as we see it. Soon enough we realize that's simply not the case.

But with understanding comes responsibility. Once we learn under what conditions not to trust our camera's light meter we become responsible for taking the action required to override the meter so as to achieve a higher percentage of keepers.

Back in the day most folks would use print film, partly because of the product's built in exposure latitude. But, at the end of the day, learning to know what could and could not be photographed was essential to achieving a higher rate of successful images. 

Again, in addition to theoretical knowledge, it's the disappointment and frustration of messing up so many images that is your best teacher. And those of us who have come from the days of film based darkroom photography have learned our trade very much through the school of hard knocks.  

In my case that knowledge was built upon through years of tertiary based study, much of it provided by the very best tutor's I could avail myself of, and lots of practical photography. These days I pride myself with being able to provide a good portion of that knowledge, by which I mean what's relevant to the needs of the learner with whom I'm working, over one or two one-on-one photography sessions. Over time these folks will be able to look at their own work, with an ever more critical and less subjective eye. As a result the quality of their photos will improve dramatically.

I'II continue this series on exposure tomorrow with a post that discusses the traditional methods by which correct exposure was achieved.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru