How To Photography: Taking Control of Brightness

At its most fundamental level, photography is light: the capturing of light, either ambient or reflected off a subject, object or scene. Too many beginner (and even experienced) photographers conclude, therefore, that bright light is a photographer’s friend. That would be wrong, however. The brightest light creates the deepest shadows, which is why those vacation photos on the beach or the ski slopes don’t show people’s eyes or create dark shadows on the background that are distractions.

Bright light is neither your camera’s friend, especially when you rely on its automatic exposure capability. In fact, as wondrous as digital photography technology is, it is usually confused when confronted with a scene or subject bathed in bright light.

A little technical background is required here. The manufacturer of your camera had to chose average settings for the auto exposure mode in your camera. That average is known as 18% gray, or a reading by a light meter that the scene or subject is reflecting 18% of the light. The problem is that the actual image you are shooting may not have average brightness; it may have a reading more than 18% (or less): a beach with strong light reflecting off the sand or a bright, snowy day during winter when the light is reflecting off the snow or ice. What generally happens is that your camera applies the average setting and your image is underexposed, or looks too dark.

Canon Rebel T4i | Nikon D7100 | Nikon D800 | Canon 5D Mark III | Nikon D5200 | Sony A99

The limitation of your camera’s auto mode is a great opportunity to learn about a control on your camera you may not know is there, or you may have seen it, but simply disregarded it. It’s called exposure value (EV) compensation; and as the name suggests, it allows you to compensate for the auto mode’s confusion when shooting images in bright light (or low light). Since it’s unlikely you’ve ever read your camera’s manual thoroughly, you may be surprised to learn that it will show you where the EV control is on your camera and how to use it. What a concept!

Once you do find it, you’ll notice that it provides you with a number of choices that are designated as +1, +2, -1 and -2. Many cameras will allow you to select these values in 1/3-increments. DSLR cameras tend to have a wider range of EV settings. As part of learning how to use EV compensation, you’ll want to do some experimentation. A bright morning on the beach may require only a +1 compensation to provide the correct amount of light for a balanced photo. High noon at the beach with highly reflective sand may require +2. You may even want to find a very bright scene and shoot a series of images at each of the EV settings, so you can compare them side-by-side on your computer. It’s a great learning tool. As you understand what lighting conditions require the right amount of EV compensation, it will become second nature to use it to your benefit.

Another learning opportunity that will help you with brightness control is reading your camera’s histogram. Again, start with your camera manual, which will teach you most of what you need to know. A histogram is simply a graphical representation of how your camera is reading the light. The preset, average exposure setting mentioned above, or gray, is in the center of the graph, with darker to the left and lighter to the right. When your camera’s auto mode reads the bright light on a beach and produces an underexposed photo, most of the histogram data will be in the center of the scale. When you increase the EV compensation to +1 or +2, the histogram’s data spike will now be to the right, or in the lighter area. Taking some control of the exposure with EV compensation has allowed you to override the camera’s automatic reading and provide the right amount of light for the photo.

Photography is a learning experience that even the greatest photographers in the world are doing everyday. Neither they nor you can understand everything about your camera during a short period of time, so learn one new feature or function per week. Make exposure value compensation this week’s self-taught tutorial and you’re sure to bring home much better vacation pictures from those bright beach, ski slope, watersports or amusement park environments.

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