When It Comes to Exposure: Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s an old joke that goes: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is always the same, practice, practice, practice.

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Pianists have to practice their scales every day and photographers need to practice capturing the correct exposure. Under tricky lighting conditions, sometimes the best solution is to shoot a series of images varying your exposures with each one from what would be considered underexposure to normal and then overexposure. The technique is called “bracketing” and most cameras these days have an automatic bracket option, so in continuous mode, you can shoot of three (or more) fast frames.

menuBracketing is a time honored photo technique in which multiple images of the same—difficult to expose properly—subject are made at different exposure levels. The idea is that one of them will be best and some others may be acceptable. When using most cameras Auto Bracket mode the first frame is exposed at what would be considered the “normal” exposure, the second is underexposed by a predetermined amount and the third is overexposed by the same amount. (although some cameras will give you the option of changing that order.) Typically the amount is in fractions of a stop—I always like 1.3rd stop—but in extreme examples, full stops can be used too.

Below is typically what a typical auto bracket menu item looks like and clicking the control (it varies from camera to camera so check your user’s guide) lets you set bracketing parameters. Some cameras even let you change the order in which the exposures are made from – 0 + for traditionalists and my personal favorite or + 0 – with variations on that theme.

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Here is a bracketed series of three exposures made in the classic order of underexposed, normal and overexposed. I typically make an exposure using whatever manual or automatic mode I think is correct for the situation and adjust exposure compensation accordingly but when in doubt do what photographers have done since the invention of 35mm film—bracket.

Because the LCD preview screen on most digital cameras can exaggerate an image’s contrast it’s easy to get what you think is a well-exposed image but it’s actually slightly underexposed. By practicing bracketing you will gradually learn how to evaluate the image on your LCD screen and be make the proper adjustments. As I mentioned in a previous post, this occurs during Phase 3 in your development, when a photographer is developing their technical skills at their maximum level.