Have you ever heard people saying that they like to shoot “one stop over?” Or “a half stop under”?
Photographers choose to shoot this way because they are better judges of proper exposure than their cameras. Cameras set exposure by trying to create a bell curve from the pixels in your photo. Most of the pixels, according to the camera, should be midtones, with a few highlights and shadows on either side.
This often doesn’t work, as we all know. What happens if you try to take a photo of bright white snow with your camera set to something other than Manual? The photo is going to have lots of icky gray snow, because the camera wants to make most of the pixels fall within the midtones rather than the highlights. And show should definitely be a highlight!
See the photos above? The same theory is at work. The backdrop was a (nearly) white table cloth. The camera wanted to make all those pixels gray. In doing this, the photo that was, according to the camera, properly exposed was actually underexposed.
As people get used to the exposures produced by their cameras at various meter settings, they learn to compensate for them. For advanced photographers, these compensations apply to all shots differently.
For example, I know that in general, I like my meter to read 1 stop overexposed, or a little more than that, on most of my photos. However, if I have a white or bright backdrop, I’ll look for a higher overexposure. And if I’m shooting on a dark background, my camera might tell me that I’m a bit underexposed. If the camera doesn’t think all those black pixels are underexposed, it’s going to make them gray. That is not what we want!
In addition to the colors and tones in a given photo, your metering mode is also going to play into your decision about how much to compensate. If you use spot metering, for instance, the background in your photo won’t matter much at all.
My Metering Choices
When setting exposure on an average photo (no extremely bright or dark backgrounds), I set the meter to one stop overexposed and do a few test shots and tweaks until the photo looks good to me. I’m looking for no blinkies over important or large areas of the photo, pleasing skin tones and few, if any, shadows so dark that they block all details.
In the photo below, even though the meter tells me the photo is exposed correctly, I don’t like the skin tones and the eyes are shadowed. Even the histogram says that this photo is underexposed!
In this next photo, the meter is saying that the photo is one stop overexposed. It’s looking better – the eyes are coming out of the shadows, but the skin tones are still a bit gray. I like the skin tones to be a bit to the right of where they are in the histogram.
Finally, I’m happier with this third shot. The camera thinks it’s way overexposed,but the skin and eyes look clear and bright. Details are visible in most of the shadows, and the midtones in the histogram and to the right of center. This is a histogram that requires very little editing – that’s a good thing.
How to Set Your Camera to Shoot Over or Under
Shooting in manual mode? It’s easy. Look at the meter inside your viewfinder. Adjust aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO until the line on the meter indicates that exposure its a stop higher than what the camera recommends.
What if you shoot in AV or TV (aperture or shutter speed modes)? You’ll need to use your exposure compensation function. If you set exposure compensation to +1, your camera will try to overexpose, in its opinion anyway, by 1 stop. Your camera chooses how to change exposure to make this happen.
This might sound like dense technical jargon, but it’s something that anyone can do. Anyone not shooting manual, that is. Find a still subject. Put the subject in two or 3 different lighting conditions (shadow, indirect sun, indoor, etc). Take a series of 4 photos at each location:
- 1 stop under
- balanced meter
- 1 stop over
- two stops over
Look back at all your photos to determine whether there is one metering reading that consistently looks best and start with your exposure set there from now on.
How’d you do? Post your photos on my Facebook page if you’d like them to be “graded”!