Getting exposed

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The advance to digital has not been totally good. There is a tendency these days to think that the camera can do all the thinking for you and all you have to do is find your subject and pop the shutter. Hey presto! The world’s best photograph is yours. Unfortunately, the blurb sheet that came with your camera will also give this impression, no matter how incorrect it is! However, let me make things better for you.

You see, every camera, irrespective of how clever, how advanced its electronics or its auto-programmed multi-phasic metering, is still, in the end, just a piece of equipment that lets light fall on light sensitive diodes. It is a fancy black shoe box with a lens and pre-recorded electronic algorithms.

There are always times when the camera’s algorithms will get it all wrong. This is because it is a machine, so it can’t think. Even more, it cannot mind-read so it has absolutely no idea what is the most important subject in the clutter of objects in the shot you are taking. It is worthwhile, if you have an SLR, taking more frames with what you think to be the correct exposure, rather than just relying on the camera’s inbuilt electronic gizmos.

It works like this – taking a shot of your favorite girlfriend on the beach, for example (or your wife if the girlfriend is indisposed) – the camera takes a reading from the blue sky, the blue sea, the yellow sand, the red beach umbrella and finally from your subject’s face. It puts the whole lot together, adds them up and divides by the number of readings and gets the average and applies that figure to the f stop and shutter speed. Even blind Freddie can see that if the background is exceptionally bright, the camera will be influenced by this and come up with the wrong exposure for the subject’s face – the reason for taking the shot in the first place. Remember, it cannot read your mind, no matter how many pixels your camera claims to have.

In these types of situations (and in Thailand with the bright sun, these situations often occur) the trick is to take the meter reading from the subject and forget the rest of the items in the shot. In our example of the girl on the beach, walk in close and take the exposure reading directly from her face. With some cameras you can “lock” that exposure in – you should look for the AE-L facility, or just twiddle your dials manually till you get the correct aperture and shutter speed. Now go back and compose the shot, leaving the same aperture and shutter speed settings. Do not be alarmed that the camera will try and tell you that the exposure levels are wrong. It is “averaging” everything out, remember. You know the settings are correct for your subject – you checked it yourself!

For an interesting experiment this weekend, try taking the shot above. Set the camera on Auto or Program or whatever your model and make call it. Take the shots. Now go and do it the “manual” way and see what differences you get. Setting things up the way YOU want will produce a better exposed photograph (for the important subject) than just relying on the camera manufacturer’s ideas on what you should have.

With the increasing complexity of modern cameras there is a tendency not to properly read through the instruction manuals. How many of you can honestly say you’ve read yours all the way through? Recently? Perhaps as another interesting experiment, you should firstly FIND the book, and secondly, spend some time reading it and understanding the camera’s functions (and limitations). I have two instruction books. One stays in the camera bag, while the other stays in my drawer in the office.