How To Get Good Exposures With Your DSLR

by William Lulow

Many photographers today simply rely on their DSLRs to give them good exposures. They set their cameras to measure overall exposure or to pick out parts of the subject from which they take their readings.

In my last article, I spoke about using light meters (which is rarely done these days) to get more accurate readings. However, even accurate meters can’t decide for you how the subject should look. Only you can do that. So, I use an INCIDENT meter to get a good approximation of the light that’s falling on the subject. Then I tweak it a bit by deciding whether I want the subject lighter, darker, certain colors to be rendered deeper in hue, the sky to be darkened or any other part of the subject to be emphasized.

The same can be done using the camera’s built-in metering system. I don’t always use the incident meter, but I always decide how I want the subject to look. So, if I’m using the camera’s meter, I use it as a starting point. Then, based on what I want the subject to look like, I adjust exposure, possible filtration and exposure accordingly. Every once in a while, my camera’s automatic settings get the job done. Usually, I have to adjust the exposure settings a bit. I only use the bracket system when I’m really in doubt as to what I want the image to look like. Many camera manuals tell you that bracketing exposures is the way to ensure you’ll get a proper one. I don’t like to waste a lot of disc space on bracketed exposures. They have to be edited later in production. I prefer to have images that are all correctly exposed. There is a lot that Photoshop can help you with on the production end, but it’s always better to get it right with the camera in the first place.

So, here is my regimen: I look at a scene (subject) and decide BEFORE I SHOOT, how I want it to be rendered. I will take an incident reading of the scene and set my camera to one of the choices of aperture and shutter speed (depending on what I’m shooting) with the camera on MANUAL. I will then look at the LCD image. If I think the exposure shows everything I want to show, I’ll leave it. If I’m using the camera’s meter, I will put the camera to AUTOMATIC  to get a reading of the scene. Then, I will switch to MANUAL using the same or similar settings and tweak the exposure making sure I get the saturation I’m looking for, or depth of field or stopped action.

All the settings I use are based on what my creative thought processes are telling me about the scene. I always try to think first before I shoot. I’m interested in getting the exposure correct in the camera and not having to adjust it later in Photoshop.

LakeMichigan+ChicagoSkyline_0179Here’s a scene that required some thought. I wanted to render the sailboat’s colorful sail’s tone as well as the texture of the water. This required that my exposure be about 1/2 a stop down from what the camera’s meter was giving me. So, I decided that I could sacrifice the detail in the buildings in order to make a more dramatic-looking shot that included more details in the clouds as well. As I am shooting, I am deciding what I want to show and how I want the details rendered.