Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea often refers to wisdom from a fortune cookie that helped to form his entrepreneurial style: “Your eyes believe what they see. Your ears believe others.”
I think of this whenever digital photographers start spouting dogma regarding exposure, and I wonder whether they’ve been spending too much time on the Internet and not enough time taking pictures.
Since the advent of digital photography, I’ve heard the following positions on “correct” exposure declared with passionate conviction:
- You must expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.
- You must expose to ensure shadow detail and take your chances with the highlights.
- You must expose for the subject, letting shadows and highlights fall where they may.
- You must average highlights and shadows to accommodate the widest range of tones.
May I suggest a slightly more pragmatic approach? When I was young(er), my friends and I lusted for expensive Hasselblad cameras. One could attach a Polaroid back to the Hasselblad, providing instant feedback on one’s lighting, composition, etc. Today, the least expensive digital pocket camera features something like the “Polaroid back” that was unaffordable to us kids in the 1970s. Now we can judge our exposure decisions instantly – and correct our exposures just as quickly.
So here’s my advice on “correct” exposure: take a picture, look at your screen. Then adjust the exposure and keep taking pictures and making adjustments until the image looks how you want it to look. If you know how to use your camera’s histogram, do so, but even the histogram cannot tell you whether the picture looks how you want it to look. Don’t worry: You’ll get faster at this over time.
Set aside other people’s rules of exposure and adjust the camera to create the image you want to see. Believe your own eyes, not what you’ve heard from others. Yes, the screen can fool you, but over time you’ll learn how to read the screen and how to adjust your exposure quickly and easily. Not sure how? Read the manual. Still don’t get it? Ask your questions in the comments section and we’ll address them in future entries.
Many scenes exceed the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor. In the photo above, if I had exposed for the highlights, the man would have disappeared altogether. If I had exposed for more shadow detail, the torches would have blown out completely, leaving nothing but a white blob in the upper left corner. For THIS particular scene, I had to split the difference. You can still see that the flames are flames, even though the highlights are blown, and you can still see the man carrying them. Over the next few days, I’ll go over how I shoot theater and dance so you can see how I deal with low light, high contrast, moving subjects, and other tricky photographic challenges.