What is a proper exposure?

We often hear the “talking heads” refer to achieving proper exposure, but what the hell is proper exposure?  Are they talking about a balanced exposure where the meter reads that the image is neither under or overexposed?  Are they talking about the exposure as the photographer intended to achieve specific or an intentional look?  When I talk about proper exposure I am referring to the latter, an exposure that achieved a specific look and feel.  This is often a challenge for many photographers both new and experienced.

So many times I see people relying on the camera to make a decision on exposure, often leaving the camera in automatic mode.  The results are often not what we as photographers really want to achieve.  I have had a few self-proclaimed experts tell me that I am wrong in teaching new photographers to jump into learning manual mode, citing that it is too hard and results in failure which, in turn, results in a new photographer to give up.  To this, I have to say, bullshit!  [otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered” background_color_class=”otw-black-background” color_class=”otw-silver-text”](Note:  I will sometimes use colorful language not because I don’t have a good command of language but because this is often my style which is going to be down to earth and honest.  I won’t get totally profane and I don’t like the use of some curse words).  [/otw_shortcode_quote] If we are not prepared to fail then we will never succeed.  There will be failures throughout are photographic journeys just as there are in life.  In addition, learning manual isn’t that difficult.  Today’s modern DSLR cameras, as well as many other styles, have built-in light meters that display whether or not an image is under or over-exposed.  It is a matter of learning to read the meter and make adjustments.

The first step I typically teach students is to get out of automatic modes and shoot manual.  Once you learn manual making going to other settings such as aperture or shutter priority is a cakewalk because you understand how to read the meter built into your camera.  Learning manual will also allow you to adjust exposure to what YOU want to be proper exposure.

Let’s look at an example:

The camera and Photoshop indicate this photograph is underexposed while this one is not underexposed.

My intent was to create a sense of drama and mystery.  To me, the first photograph is more dramatic and mysterious while the second is not.  So proper exposure is what I intend the final image to look like.

The key is to get our images as close to the final product as we can before taking it to our darkroom.

In my next article, I will go into more detail on achieving proper exposure and learning to shoot in manual mode.



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