What’s the right exposure?

By Paul DiSalvo

I thought I’d show an example of why to not always trust what your camera says is the “right” exposure. The series of photos in this article were taken within about 10 minutes of each other. During that time, the “light” did not change but how I set my camera did.

1) Here’s the starting point. Camera says this is the “correct” exposure. There’s good detail in a wide range of tones. No shadows are blocked up, no highlights blown out.

Success, right? Yes on the exposure but no on excitement.

2) So let’s make the clouds a little more dramatic by underexposing 2 stops. Sky is better and background is much less noticeable but my subject is way too dark.

3) Next up, add in a little fill flash to bring the subject back to where we need them to be. My ambient exposure is the same as the last frame and still is 2 stops underexposed from the first shot. Again, available light has not changed since the first frame.

The photo is starting to get interesting but I was hoping for more drama in the sky.

Since skies are supposed to be blue, a quick change of the White Balance dial (changing it to Tungsten WB) and ‘viola’, we have a blue sky. Trouble is, everything else will have a bluish cast too.

I’m good with almost everything having a blue cast but not my subject. So back to the speedlight and all I have to do is add one of the amber gels to the front of my flash and my subject is back to a “normal” white balance.

Just to hedge by bet, I’m going to add a grid to my flash. This will keep the light in a narrow beam so as not to wash out the blue cast in anything but my subject. In fact, I’m OK with only part of the subject being in the light and the rest falling off in the blues.

Paul's exposure tutorial

Here’s the final shot.

So once again, the ambient light did NOT change at all from first to last shot. All that was changed were camera settings to get the look I wanted, not what the camera thought was correct.

So let’s recap… Rules say correct exposure, correct white balance for a good picture. But break the rules and get something unique. Once you know what your meter wants, you can easily learn to get what you want with a few quick adjustments.