How To: Improve Exposure in your Travel Photos

By: steve

January 12, 2011

We’ve all been there: you shoot that perfect picture, but when you look at the results they are either far too light, or far too dark. The problem is that you, or more correctly your camera, messed up the exposure. Without getting too technical, there are a number of things you can do to combat this kind of problem. The first is to understand just how the camera gets it wrong in the first place.


Camera limitations

Polar Bear - Svalbard, Norway. By Steve Davey

Polar Bear in the Snow, Svalbard, Norway. White subjects such as this will fool the camera into under-exposing. Set +2 stops exposure compensation to get your whites white.


Basically, no matter how much you spend on your camera it is essentially quite stupid. Except for a few top-of-the-range professional models, cameras have no idea of the colour of what you’re shooting and will just assume that every subject approximates to an average mid-tone. Most of the time things will balance themselves out and the exposure will be correct, but for more extreme subjects the camera will get confused. If you’re photographing a light subject – such as a polar bear in the snow –  the camera will ‘think’ that it’s an average subject, in very bright light, and give it less exposure making it come out too dark and under-exposed.

If you’re photographing a dark subject – such as a black gorilla in the shade – then the camera will assume that it is an average subject in low light and will give more exposure and the subject will be too light and over-exposed. Even relatively dark subjects like foliage and grass, can be dark enough to confuse the camera into over-exposing the picture.

If you have light sources in the picture, such as a fire or strong backlighting from the sun this can also confuse the camera, making the subject appear too dark.


What can you do about it?

Most people shoot in one of the automatic exposure modes, where the camera sets either the aperture, shutter speed or both. To change the exposure, you can use the exposure compensation feature, where you instruct the camera to give more or less exposure. If your picture is too light, dial in -1 stop or more. If it’s too dark, dial in +1 stop. If you’re photographing snow, you may well need to select + 2 or +3 stops. If you’re shooting dark foliage try -1.5 stops. The gorilla example might need -2 stops of exposure.



Mountain Gorilla, Republic of Congo. By Steve Davey

Mountain Gorilla in the jungle, Republic of Congo. Dark subjects and foliage can fool the camera into over-exposing. Set -2 stops of exposure compensation to allow for this.


The good news with digital photography is that you can review the image on the LCD screen to check the exposure and see if you need more or less compensation to get the correct balance.

Choosing the correct picture scene mode will also help to customise the exposure. For instance, a Snow mode will let the camera know that you’re photographing a white subject and will force the camera to automatically compensate the exposure.


Dead Vlei, Sosussvlei, Namibia. By Steve Davey

Dead Vlei, Sosussvlei, Namibia. To get the foreground to render white, you would need to adjust the exposure compensation.



When the contrast is too great

If you have a wide range of contrasts in your image, such as one person standing in the shade and another in bright sunlight, your camera will not be able to photograph them both, and one or even both will be too light or too dark.


If you can get your subjects to move into the same lighting condition, this will help to balance the exposure. For relatively small areas of shadow, close to the camera, you can use a technique called fill-in flash, where you force the flash to fire, lighting the dark bits of the picture. If you can’t move the subject or use flash, the best option is to recompose the picture so that either the shadow, or sunlight parts of the picture fill the frame.


Flamingos in the Camargue, France. By Steve Davey

Flamingos in the Camargue, France. Backlit subjects such as this will come out as silhouettes unless you use exposure compensation to lighten the image


All photos © Steve Davey. Header image: Kayakers in French Polynesia. A predominantly dark subject like this will confuse the camera into over-exposing.

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