Exposure is a VERY Personal Thing!
It was a very long time ago, as I had just started my first class at Brooks: I was returning home from the Central Coast, where I'd spent the weekend with a new friend I had made in school. I was just 18 at the time, and as green as they come to the photographic community. It was a gorgeous spring day as we passed through the hills, carpeted in that gorgeous shade of spring green, and rolling on as far as the eye could scan. Just then my friend asked, "How would you expose for that?" referring to the green hills that I was lost in thought about. I was taken aback by his question, because I didn't know the answer.
Being the "hot shot" young kid at Brooks, it was assumed I'd know such things, and a lot more!
Editor's Note: This is a Guest Blog Post from Moose Petersen
So I looked at the green carpet speeding by our window and said something stupid like, “I don't know, f/5.6?" My friend, 12 years my senior, then answered his own question with this 20-minute diatribe about highlights and shadows, developing times and film—which were a whole bunch of technical stuff that went flying right past me. I thought my head was going to explode! Then I thought I was stupid for not knowing any of this stuff. At the end of it all, I just remember saying, "I just want the pretty green."
Probably being young, rebellious, and to show I didn't know the answer, I went looking for MY own answer to the exposure question. I saw plenty of charts and slides, read a whole bunch of theory, but a simple answer, "to just get the green," didn't come for quite some time. We all know the mechanics of exposure; for a given ISO (back then known as ASA) and light value, we select an f/stop and shutter speed to record what we are seeing. I kept hearing all these formulas to expose for what we were seeing, but it wasn't working for me.
In this process, we had an assignment to go out and shoot EDLs (Every Day Life) without using our meters. "Guess your exposure, if you don't know any other way," we were told. My high-school photo teacher (still the best photo teacher I've ever had) taught me long ago what's known as Basic Daylight—also known as the Sunny 16 Rule.
This rule is usually printed on the inside of film boxes (you won't find that on the inside of your flash card box). The rule is real simple: Convert your ASA (ISO) into a shutter speed, and combine it with f/16, and for a sunny day you have the right exposure. So I had no problem shooting the assignment without a meter. I knew that when it wasn’t high noon or overcast I should open up the lens, permitting me to shoot all day without a hitch.
I processed the film, made the 8x10 prints, and mounted them as required for class, and on critique day, placed them on the rack along with those of all my classmates. I hated this part, having to put my photographs out there for the world to see and judge. The teacher started down the rack. Some prints were already on the floor, failures. Some moved to the top rack, examples of "done right." Then the teacher came to mine. "Exposure is dead on, you even have it right for sunrise," he commented. My prints were moved to the top rack. I looked at them, and while they were technically correct, I thought they sucked!
What was missing from those photos, even though I had followed the rules and they were technically correct? You ever look at your photos and ask that question? I know I did for a long time, or least it seemed like a long time, until someone said the simplest, yet one of the most important things to me, which changed my photography for the rest of my life. "Want better color? Just set your ASA down one notch." Shooting Kodachrome 64 at the time, I set the ASA to 80 and went shooting. What I saw in those slides was that spring green color of those rolling hills. I had that green I wanted. That's when I realized that exposure is a very personal thing!
Have you ever wondered what exposure really is for? If you look at a histogram, you would naturally think exposure is meant to move those peaks and valleys around to produce information in your photograph. And you'd be right! If you use "blinkies" like I do, you might think exposure is all about bringing the highlights down so you don't lose any information. And you'd be right! And with that, I would argue that we're missing what exposure is all about. I would argue that exposure is all about communicating the emotion we are feeling that moment we go click, not some value on a graph.
If you're in a studio doing a product shot of a box of macaroni and cheese, this obviously doesn't apply. But if you're just about any place else, celebrating life with a camera in your hand, it most certainly does apply.
"Want better color? Just set your ASA down one notch."
Here's the leap you might have to make to follow this. What the world needs are more photographs with passion, not another technically correct photograph! I'm assuming that for a lot of you, this might not be what you've read, or how you've been taught to think about exposure. If you enjoy the images I put out to the world (I've gotten over that fear) then you might be enlightened by reading on. My discussion on exposure has nothing to do with f/stops and shutter speeds, but with the heart. We have to feel the light in order to expose for it!
Feeling the light to expose for it—I wrote about that a lot in my book Captured, because I am constantly asked what I am thinking when I shoot. There are two major players in my photographs, the subject and the background. These two entities play against each other while working with each other to tell the story, the visual story in my photographs. There are many things, techniques, tools and ideas we can use to make this happen and unfold, but number one for me is exposure. It is how I feel the light and its play on these two major players which leads me to expose for any given photograph.
"What the world needs are more photographs with passion, not another technically correct photograph!"
It's a crisp morning, with only a hint of the day in the east. A cloud passes overhead, like Darth Vader’s starship looking for a victim. In the not-too-far distance are Merrick Butte and East Mitten towering into the morning sky. The two major players are the rock formations and the sky. Many might go for the warm tones of sunrise, but then that's the major problem with most of these types of photographs. While the sunrise colors are the background, they are not the photograph's subject. The two towering giants are.
I don't want them black—that lack of information removes all the romance from the scene. Every movie buff knows John Wayne came down that road. By identifying our subject and knowing the feeling we want to convey, the exposure is a snap. You want the color of the sunrise, and you want the texture and information in the shadow. HDR is the only way to get that in one photograph. So in this case, feeling the light requires understanding the range of light in the scene, the range of light the camera can capture, and then making the connections between the two.
You ventured to the land of vast landscapes and towering peaks, whose bases start in the sea, and are the home to wildlife that define wilderness. Alaska is either green or white, depending on the season, and its critters come in every shade of the rainbow. One of the most common animals which stop photographers is the Bald Eagle. This white-headed, black-bodied master of the skies (it is only this color after four years of age) is a nightmare to expose! Many try to photograph them in full sun, only to come back very disappointed in their results. Why is that? White on black in full sun, that's the subject. The vast majority of the time it's the head, those white hackles. But it's so small in the frame that the camera meter doesn't know that that's what's important, so it goes for the bigger black body. The result is a blown out head with a little black dot.
How would feeling the light help with the exposure? What has to be sharp in a critter photo? The Eye. What is the viewer of the photograph going to connect with first when they look at the photograph? The Eye. The two major players are the eye and the head, with the body and background being sub-players in full sun:
- Change the light to overcast or shadow, then those last two elements join in as major players.
- Change the light to overcast, and then you can have detail in the white hackles and the dark body, and the whole story of your photograph changes from just a white headed bird to a Bald Eagle in the wilds of Alaska.
While this might seem over simplified, this is how I think of exposure, and how I make the images that I present.
You might be wondering now where underexposure comes into play in this process. Underexposure does two very important things to our photograph. It saturates our colors, and makes the blacks go blacker. It may protect some highlights that might otherwise be lost, but that's a side benefit. It's the first two that are really important to me in my photography.
Color is everything! When it comes to making the subject stand out to the play between subject and background, color is what sucks the viewer into the photo. Color is a whole other piece unto itself. But it is with exposure that I bring out color in my photos in the original capture. And that includes black, which is—by the way—a color.
What does the color black do for us? First, the mind's eye goes out to two colors, white and black, and says, "If this is black, then this is this shade of red, or green, or blue." Every color our eyes can perceive is made more colorful because of the association with black. Underexposure first saturates the colors, and then, by association, the black makes them even more colorful. You understand you can achieve all of this by buying nothing or doing nothing in post? That's pretty dang powerful stuff! But wait, there's more!
I'm always asked, “How do you get such great color and sharpness in your photos?” I just told you the answer to both. I spelled out the color, but what about sharpness? By pushing the black levels to a deeper black through underexposure, we create a defining edge on many elements in our photograph. The mind's eye latches onto that black edge (same thing UnSharp mask does in Photoshop) and again by association says, "That's Sharp!" All of this from simple underexposure!
To be totally honest with you, this is just the tip of the exposure iceberg; there is so much more lying beneath the surface. I would love to give you a formula for exposure, but I know from personal experience that those formulas out there don't work for everyone, for every photo, every time. You must find the exposure that works for you, for the subject in the viewfinder, and the story you want to tell. The camera is a heartless bastard that can't think this through and give you the right exposure for YOUR photograph. Like any good friend, the best it can do is provide solid advice that you must consider, but you must then make the final call as to what the right exposure is for you. The difference between you and the camera is that you have a heart. You have to feel the light, and then use exposure to communicate the emotion you want your audience to feel from your photograph. And this, my friend, is one of the grand journeys of photography we take every day. Why? Our hearts are always changing, always growing, always grasping onto those things in life that are treasured. My advice to you in going after the perfect exposure? Never forget, exposure is a very personal thing!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio
Photos: Monument valley sunrise
Alaska grand vistas & peaks