Are you frustrated by landscape images that look too bright or too dark? In our guide on how to expose for landscape photography we answer all of the common questions photographers have about exposure and metering. You’ll learn the basics of in-camera metering and which metering mode to use (and when).
Doesn’t my camera’s built-in exposure meter just work everything out for me, so I get exposure right?
Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three building blocks of exposure, and the exposure ‘meter’ inside your camera brings them all together.
The meter simply measures the amount of light that’s reflected from the scene that you’re photographing.
This is known as a ‘reflective’ light reading, which the camera then uses to produce a balanced exposure.
It can do this automatically, selecting the combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO itself, or enable you to take control of these settings.
This reflective light reading, then – do I need to worry about that?
Yes, because there’s plenty of room for error when it comes to metering. Most camera meters work on the assumption that everything you point your lens at should be exposed as if it was 18% midtone grey.
This is because it is generally considered that most scenes will reflect 18% of the light that falls on them. There are many that do, such as a green summer meadow under a blue sky.
But in reality the world is not full of midtones. There are shadowy forests, bright white snowscapes and washed-out skies to contend with.
This is what leads to exposure problems, with pictures ending up looking too dark or too bright.
So, the camera’s light meter doesn’t know what subject it’s pointing at?
That’s about the sum of it. You could be photographing a swan in a snowy field or trees in a coniferous forest, it ultimately makes no difference to the basic light meter.
It still wants to try and average out the scene to get close to that magic 18% midtone grey exposure.
Take the example of the swan in the snow. This scene reflects a lot of light through the lens – it’s a white subject on a white background, after all.
But the meter doesn’t see it this way. It assumes that it’s looking at a midtone scene being illuminated by very bright light.
Consequently, it wants to reduce the exposure in order to bring this ‘brightly lit midtone’ closer to 18% grey.
This, however, leads to under-exposure, with the snow appearing grey in the final picture. It’s a similar story with a scene made up of predominantly dark tones, such as our example of a coniferous forest.
A scene such as this doesn’t reflect much light, and the meter translates this as being a midtone subject that’s illuminated by a low intensity of light.
As a result, it will increase the exposure to bring the level of the scene up to 18% grey, often resulting in over-exposed, pale-looking trees.
So what’s the best way of dealing with these exposure errors?
This is where your camera’s Exposure Compensation feature comes in. By pressing the button marked ‘+/-’ and rotating your camera’s control dial left or right, you can correct the meter’s interpretation of the scene.
Your camera’s exposure level scale, measured in stops, is visible in the viewfinder and on the LCD screen(s).
The marker in the middle of the scale represents the ‘correct’ exposure, according to the exposure meter. As you rotate the dial, you’ll see an indicator mark move up and down the scale.
When it moves towards the ‘+’ end of the scale, you’re making the image brighter; turn the dial in the other direction and the marker moves towards the ‘-’ end of the scale, making the picture darker.
Looking through an optical viewfinder (as found in most DSLRs), you won’t see this change happening to the image as you do this, but you will if you use Live View or an electronic viewfinder (EVF).
How much compensation you need to apply depends on various factors, such as the tone of the subject, the lighting and the type of metering mode being used (see above).
What are metering modes?
The majority of digital SLRs offer three basic metering modes: Pattern, Centre-weighted and Spot (these modes may have different names on different cameras).
These all take their readings across different proportions of the scene and bias the camera’s exposure accordingly.
For precise measurement, Spot metering is the mode of choice. As the name suggests, it takes its exposure reading from a very small area of the frame (typically in the dead-centre, although many cameras allow Spot metering to be linked to an active autofocus point).
Centre-weighted is a type of metering inherited from old film cameras. Although it takes a reading across the entire frame, it assumes that the subject will be towards the centre of the picture and so concentrates its exposure metering there.
The clever Pattern or Multi-zone metering systems in today’s SLRs (such as Evaluative metering for Canon and Matrix metering for Nikon) take individual readings of the light intensity from multiple segments across the entire frame, and then all these readings are analysed by the camera before it sets an exposure.
As part of this process (which all happens when you half-press the shutter-release button), elements such as the active autofocus point, the subject’s size and distance, the colour of the scene and any backlighting are taken into account.
How much compensation do I apply?
One of the problems with Multi-zone metering modes is that you don’t know how much adjustment (if any) the camera has already applied before reaching its suggested exposure.
Faced with that swan in a snowy field, an advanced metering pattern may have already taken into account that it was looking at a white scene and increased the exposure in order to keep the image bright.
If you don’t know this, then proceed to dial in positive Exposure Compensation (because you know that the camera’s exposure meter wants to render white snow as 18% midtone grey), you might end up with a picture that’s over-exposed.
However, the camera may not have increased the exposure enough in the first place, and if you don’t add any positive compensation you’ll still end up with snow that’s closer to grey than white!
You’ll soon develop a familiarity with how your camera’s Multi-zone metering system reacts to different scenes and lighting conditions and be able to predict when it’s going to get it wrong.
So how do I expose for a scene that’s made up of midtones, bright highlights and deep, dark shadows?
There are various approaches to this problem, but one thing’s for sure: over-exposed highlights that are bright white and completely free of detail are distracting and ugly.
Since a surprising amount of detail can still be pulled from dark shadows when the image is processed, it’s therefore preferable to ‘expose for the highlights’.
That is, to ensure that the exposure histogram isn’t ‘clipped’ towards the right-hand side of the graph.
Trust us, ‘blocked-up’ shadows are much easier on the eye than harsh highlights…
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