exposure metering

exposure metering & observing the available light

As a photographer you’ll often hear instruction to just “look at the available light”. Great. But this advice is also often given without clear examples of what we’re actually supposed to be looking at. So let’s explore that a little bit using a sequence of images of our model, Aleona, photographed during a recent individual photography workshop.

This is also keeping with the loose theme over the past few weeks, that for a photographer “using the available light” is not a random thing or just a meaningless catch-phrase.

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photography exposure metering – expose for your subject

In preparation for my upcoming review of the Fuji X-100 camera, I met up with Anelisa to see how this little camera performed during an actual photo shoot. The image above was one of the photographs we ended up with. Now, there is something specific about it that I wanted to explain in a separate article, instead of it being glossed over deeper inside a camera review.

The composition is simple – I do like my compositions fairly central, it seems. Similarly, the lighting is simplicity itself – all available light. There were two main sources of light – the light inside the shopping mall entrance; and some very strong back-lighting flooding the place.

While the technique here hinged on specific exposure for the available light, there are a few crucial ideas here that I’d like to underline:

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off-camera TTL flash

May 20, 2011

off-camera TTL flash

This image of Amy, one of our models at the Treehaven workshops, came up for discussion with the group of attendees. As a straight-forward on location portrait using off-camera flash, it is ideal for an overview again of how easy the ambient & flash exposure metering is.

The basic approach with this portrait was to expose for the ambient light in the background, making sure our subject is somewhat under-exposed … and then to add off-camera flash with a softbox. The first question that came up was – how did I meter for the ambient light?

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which metering mode to use -
Matrix / Evaluative, or Center-weighted, or Spot-metering?

I noticed that search engine query come up in my web-stats – ‘which metering mode for outdoor photos’. So it might be a good idea to answer it specifically. Which metering mode should you use for outdoor photography?  Or for that matter any kind of photography?

Exposure metering technique is a topic too complex to cover completely in a single blog post. Besides, the definitive introductory book on this is readily available: Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera. If you struggle with exposure metering, then I strongly suggest his book.

That said, let’s have a look anyway at this conundrum – which exposure mode to use …

My approach is quite simple: Since I’m using manual exposure mode nearly exclusively, no matter which route I take to get to a specific shutter speed / aperture / ISO combination … I would be getting the exact same exposure regardless of which metering mode was used.

In this way, the metering technique is the essential factor, not the metering mode …

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adding bounce flash to ambient light

Using images from a past workshop, I want to explain a simple concept with flash photography on location. In workshops and seminars I quite often describe the flash as ‘riding on top of’ the available light exposure. It’s just another way of describing the usual technique of under-exposing the ambient light somewhat, and then using flash to give correct exposure. We can thereby control the final look of the image by controlling the direction of light from our flash.

By using flash like this, we can use the flash to ‘clean up’ the light in the photograph.

This photograph of Crystal, our model at this workshop, was taken during the early evening. We were working outside, using some of the found surfaces to bounce flash off.  The trick here is to find that combination of bounceable surface, a good background, and then to position your model so that the additional light from the flash adds to the final image. What I like about this specific image is how the sign (and the reflection of the sign) outside the hotel creates a halo around Crystal.

Here is the image without flash, and also a pull-back image to see what surface I bounced the flash off ..

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‘Hyper-Manual’ mode for Nikon and Canon

(subtitled: the episode where I finally learn now to use the Auto modes elegantly)

In my discussion of what would be the best camera in the world, I mentioned (at length) the clear advantage that Pentax cameras have because of their Hyper-Program and Hyper-Manual modes. I explain these two modes in more detail in that linked article, but in essence, the modes work as such:

Hyper-Program – is a program exposure mode, but by dialing the shutter speed dial it becomes Shutter Priority / Tv. By dialing the aperture dial, you instantly have Aperture Priority / Av. Very simple implementation. And very elegant.

Hyper-Manual – is manual exposure mode like we’re used to. But you can hit the Exposure Lock button, and then when you change the aperture, the shutter speed setting follows. If you change the shutter speed then, the aperture follows. Absolutely wonderful for when you have correct exposure. You can now get a different working aperture or shutter speed, and still have the same exposure value. Less twisting of dials.

Since I don’t shoot much outside of Manual exposure mode, I don’t have experience with finessing the automatic modes. Then Eric Schwab wrote in to tell me how he implements Aperture Priority with his Nikon cameras, to get something akin to Hyper-Manual mode with his Nikon cameras. I checked on my Canon 5D, and it works the same way.

I’m sure it might take a short while for finger-memory to kick in, but I can easily see how this could be a standard way of shooting.

This might not be news to most photographers who regularly use Aperture Priority / Av, but I’d like to put the information out here anyway …

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photographic composition – finding and framing your best shot

Strolling through Green Park in London, I saw these rows of winter-barren trees. The way the snow clung to the trees and branches from the morning’s snow storm, white against dark brown, gave a posterized effect already – the crazy patterns of the branches starkly etched against the white snow.

I took several photographs, finally liking this photo above the most of all. Aside from resizing, it is straight out of camera … my iPhone 4. And therein was a lesson for me that I mulled over the rest of the day, while further exploring the urban landscapes of London …

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flash photography tutorial – balancing flash and ambient light

An email I received recently from someone explained how she is struggling with flash. The basic building blocks of photography are all there and understood, but it somehow doesn’t gel when she uses flash. She explains how she understands exposure metering, but “the minute I attach my flash, nothing makes sense.” Having read my book and scoured this blog, she admits that at the point where she uses her flash and needs to set aperture and shutter speed, she is completely lost.

I’m sure this is something many many photographers struggle with – just feeling baffled by where to start. So while this stuff at some level is easy once you understand it, flash photography also seems to be one of those subjects where you have to immediately grasp a whole bunch of things for it all to fall into place the first time.

So I’ve been mulling this over in my mind for a few weeks now. I thought of how to break this down in a different manner that would help with that “aha!” moment shining through. I have written a few other articles on how to balance flash with available light, which are all linked in this off camera flash photography page. But it might be that I need to find another approach in my explanation of balancing flash with ambient light.  Break things down in a different way. And in breaking things down, we can see where we get stuck.  And break that down again. Finally we might get an “oh!?” moment of clarity.  And for other regular readers, this might just be a useful reinforcement of the concepts.

Now, at the very start of this,we have to realize there are two exposures taking place – flash and ambient light. This is the key. Then we have figure out how we’re going to combine them.  The ‘how’ then includes exposure metering, but also includes direction of light.  For this article, we’re just going to look at balancing flash with ambient light. We’re going to use a few simple portraits of our model, Camille, as illustration here for an understanding of how to add flash to ambient light. We’re purposely going to keep it simple to have things fall into place first.

Let’s see where this leads to …

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exposure metering – bride & the bride’s dress

From a technical point of view, photographing a bride in her dress can be a challenge … depending on the lighting.  If everything is under your control as the photographer, and you’re lighting the formal portraits with off-camera manual flash, then it is essentially a study of the zone system.

The simplest way for me then to get accurate exposure, is to use the histogram.  I place my brightest relevant tone at the edge of the histogram.  All the other tones will fall into place.  (It is clearly explained in that linked article, and in my book on flash photography techniques.)  In using flash like that as your dominant light source, you simply expose correctly for your subject – the bride in her white dress.

Now, when working with ambient light (perhaps with a touch of fill-flash), things are slightly different .. but not really.  You still always (or nearly always**), need to expose correctly for the bride’s white dress, making it the brightest tone that you want to capture detail in. For this article, we’re going to look at exposure metering for available light. The same thought-process can be applied to flash or other additional lighting, but just for simplicity of explanation, let’s just stay with available light here.

So, looking at this portrait above of Jill, a gorgeous bride whose wedding I recently photographed …

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wedding photography in hard bright sunlight

Hard sunlight overhead is some of the most difficult light that you can find yourself shooting in. When you aren’t able to position your subjects, then your options are limited – fill-flash or working with the RAW file in post-processing.

However, when you’re able to move your subjects, but don’t have the opportunity for off-camera lighting, then your best two options are:
- have your subjects turn their backs to the sun,
- use the light from the sun so that there are no harsh cross-shadows.

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