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8 Common Exposure Problems & How To Fix Them


Jo Plumridge

This article is an extract from Issue 28 of Photography Masterclass Magazine
Close up shot of mode dial on camera
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As most photographers know, getting exposure settings right and learning how to correctly expose photographs takes time and effort. But even when you’ve learned the key techniques, there are still situations that can catch out even an experienced photographer. In this article, we’ll look at some of these common exposure problems and how to fix them.

1. Whites That Aren’t White

Picture of field with snow

White can be a problem colour for cameras, causing confusion for your camera. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, cameras have some issues actually seeing white in the first place. And secondly, but more importantly, to correct the issue, camera metering systems work by looking for averages in a scene.

The metering system looks for areas of bright and dark so that they can average these out as a mid-tone. So, if you fill the frame with white or light subjects, the camera will still try to create a mid-tone, and your photograph will end up looking grey. Fixing this issue is via exposure settings, however, pretty simple. All you need to do is manually dial in positive exposure compensation to set your exposure above the value suggested. Remember that the amount of +EV needed will depend on the amount of white in the photograph.

2. Knocking the Dials

Not so much of a problem as a common accident, one of the easiest ways to get incorrect exposures is to accidentally knock the mode dial or aperture/shutter speed dials. Knocking any one of these buttons is obviously going to have an effect on the exposure of your image, so you need to take care that it doesn’t happen.

Modern DSLRs now come with a mode dial that requires the push down of a button to change it, which solves that particular problem. And when it comes to the aperture/shutter speed dials, you can ‘lock’ the exposure into place once you’ve set it. To do this, look for the function labelled AE-L (Auto Exposure Lock). This will lock your exposure settings into place.

3. Leaving Your Camera on Spot Metering

Spot metering is an extremely useful tool, allowing you to meter for the central 5% of your image. But, because it only measures the brightness of a tiny area, that will be all that’s set as the mid-tone of grey. So, if you leave the camera on spot metering by accident when shooting a landscape, for example, you can end up with incorrect exposures. If the spot metering falls over a darker part of the image, your image will be overexposed. Whereas if it falls over a highlight you’ll end up with an underexposed image.

4. Underexposed Foregrounds in Outside Shots

Image with underexposed foreground which is very dark with little detail

Many landscape photographers will find that they struggle to get enough light into the foreground when shooting outside. This is usually because the sky is so much brighter than the land.

So, the camera will choose a suitable exposure for the sky, but this will leave the foreground significantly underexposed. Correcting this does require purchasing a graduated Neutral Density filter (ND) for your lens, but they really are an invaluable tool. The dark part of the filter is put over the sky. The gradient will be where the dark and light meet placed over the horizon. Conversely, this can be reversed if you’re suffering from overexposed skies. This is where the metering system has caused the sky to be bleached of colour. ND filters come in a range of f-stop ratios (2, 4, 6, 8. 10), which means that there will be this number of f-stop differences between the dark and clear parts of the filter.

Graduated ND filter
Graduated ND Filter

5. Exposure Settings: Not Keeping an Eye on Your Shutter Speed

Because the first thing that most photographers think about, in terms of exposure settings, is what depth of field they want in their image, the aperture is usually the setting chosen first on a camera. However, this can lead to slow shutter speeds (and a tendency not to notice this if we’re in a rush!). To ensure pin-sharp shots if you’re handholding your camera, you need to be shooting at 1/60th second and faster. So, if you’re not getting a fast enough shutter speed, the simplest solution is to push your ISO up.

When digital cameras first came on the scene, shooting at higher ISOs could lead to a lot of noise (digital grain) and deterioration in the quality of shots. However, modern DSLRs have improved significantly and can now achieve higher ISOs without loss in quality.

6. Underexposed Backlit Subjects

Image of man in field with bright sun in distance dominating picture

Lighting a subject from behind can give beautiful effects, but it can also confuse your camera! Because the camera is trying to balance the exposure for the whole frame, your subject can often be left underexposed. It is very simple, however, to correct for this problem by changing your metering to centre-weighted to get the exposure settings right. As this puts the emphasis on the exposure of the centre of the image, the camera will correctly expose your subject. Alternatively, if you have a modern DSLR, you’ll be able to link your active AF point to the spot metering, which will allow you to expose correctly for subjects which are off-centre. Do remember that spot metering only meters for the central 5% of the image.

7. Underexposed Shadows and Overexposed Highlights

The human eye has a far greater dynamic range than digital cameras. This can become noticeable when photographing high contrast scenes. We don’t notice blown out highlights or clipped shadows with our eyes but when we try to capture the scene on camera, they can become obvious. To correct for this and capture the whole dynamic range, you’ll need to take several exposures – one for the highlights, one for the mid-tones and one for the shadows. Combine these to create one image. This can be done in-camera on some models or in a post-production programme such as Photoshop by using the HDR setting.

8. Relying on the LCD

The problem with digital cameras is that, if you’ve learned on one, you’ve never had to work without an LCD screen. Film cameras only had a viewfinder, which is a far more accurate way of viewing your image. The problem with LCD screens, you see, is that they are somewhat inaccurate. To help make your pictures easily viewable, they’re normally set around 2 stops brighter than the actual exposure of your image. This can, therefore, lead people to think that their image is correctly exposed when it’s not. Therefore, remember to check your exposure indicator line (which goes from – to +) to ensure that your images are correctly exposed.

Exposure Settings: In Conclusion

So, by following these tips you should be able to ensure that exposure problems are a problem of the past!

Video Tutorial: Wrong Exposure Settings? Why your camera can get it wrong!

by Mike Browne

Your camera’s light meter isn’t infallible and will often give you the wrong exposure. We’ve all taken photos in the snow and they’ve come out looking dull and grey when they ought to be bright and shiny. So why is that?

Your camera’s light meter doesn’t know how much light you have. It works out the exposure by looking at how much light is reflected by whatever you choose to put in the viewfinder. And this can cause problems because some things reflect more light than others (like snow for example) and consequently your camera will set the wrong exposure.

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