Metering for optimal exposure is crucial in all forms of photography, but especially so for landscape and cityscape applications. When you’re shooting outside during the day, you’ve got to deal with the sun and the sky, which of course can be extremely bright, and you may also have very dark shadows relative to the sky within the same frame. This can create an extremely wide dynamic range that can be tricky to expose for, especially when shooting backlit scenes facing the sun.
Photographs © Jason Tables 2021
Before I go on, I’d just like to say that I’m a subscriber to the belief that there is no such thing as “correct” exposure in landscape or any other form of creative photography. Each photographer has their own vision of how a scene should look, and depending on what you’re going for, you may feel that you need to break the “rules” of proper exposure.
However, you should know the rules before you break them, because opening up an image that you’re excited about in Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW and realizing that you’ve unintentionally clipped the highlights or shadows is not a good feeling.
Clipping is essentially data loss due to an image either being too underexposed or too overexposed, meaning there is no detail or recoverable information in the shadows or highlights, respectively. Luckily, clipping can be avoided if you know which metering mode to use, and when, and how to read your camera’s histogram.
Reading the Histogram
The histogram is a graphical representation of all the tones in your image, and the brightness levels of those tones. In general, most cameras show an RGB histogram similar to the one shown below, which displays tone and brightness values for each color channel—red, green, and blue. The gray color represents the brightness levels of the image overall.
The horizontal axis represents all the tonal values in your image, from the darkest blacks on the left, to the brightest whites on the right. The vertical axis represents the number of pixels concentrated in each tonal range.
In the example below, the histogram indicates a well-balanced image, with the largest number of pixels concentrated in the mid-tone range, and with plenty of information in the highlight range, as well. Notice that there is detail in the brightest part of the image, which is the sky, as well as in the darker parts of the image in the water, mountains, and stadium in the background.
On the other hand, if your image is overexposed, which means it has clipped highlights, it will look more like the histogram and image shown below.
Notice that the whites, the brightest tones in our image all the way to the right of the histogram, are spiking to the top of the vertical axis. This indicates that there are highlights in this photo that are “blown out,” or, in other words, the image has a large concentration of completely white pixels, with no detail at all. As a result, the sky in the image is completely white and lacks any detail.
Now, the thing about blown highlights is, our cameras aren’t very good at recovering detail from them. If I were to bring this image into Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW and pull the highlights slider all the way down to recover highlight detail, it would not make much of a difference. All the beautiful detail that was in that sky is lost for eternity. On the other hand, our cameras are very good at recovering shadow detail from underexposed images of high-contrast scenes, which takes us to the example below.
This histogram represents an underexposed image, as indicated by the large spike in the black tones all the way to the left of the horizontal axis. Also, notice that there is information in the highlights and white tones of the photo, as shown to the far right of the histogram; but they are controlled, and are not spiking to the top of the vertical axis. Since our cameras are so good at recovering shadow detail from underexposed shadows, and so bad at recovering it from overexposed highlights, this is the kind of histogram you generally want to shoot for in high-contrast scenes such as this. Below is the final image, after editing the RAW photo above in Lightroom.
As you can see, much of the shadow detail in the scene has been recovered.
So, now that you know what your histogram should look like when shooting high dynamic range landscape photos, you might be wondering how to photograph them. Well, the secret lies in understanding your camera’s metering modes.
When using evaluative, matrix, or multi metering mode, depending on the manufacturer, your camera will meter the scene based on the content of the entire image, taking an averaged reading of the frame in general. This is likely the default metering mode of your camera, and it will work just fine for many landscape scenes with low to medium contrast. But, for very high-contrast scenes, with extremely bright and extremely dark areas as in the example above, evaluative metering would probably not be the best choice, because it may cause you to overexpose the image and lose highlight detail that cannot be recovered, or greatly underexpose the scene and lose more shadow detail than desired.
Center-weighted metering also takes the entire frame into account, but it favors the center region, which can be helpful when the subject is in the center of the picture in front of a brighter or darker background. This mode often works well for portraits but can fail miserably in landscape scenes that have an extremely bright portion that is not directly in the center of the frame, such as in our example above.
With spot metering, your camera meters the scene based on a single point of your choosing. When shooting the dock scene above, I used spot metering to expose for the brightest part of the frame, which was obviously the sun. This produced an image with plenty of headroom in the highlights, but with some clipping, or near clipping, in the blacks and the shadows. I knew that I’d be much better off underexposing my shadows than overexposing my highlights, and spot metering helped me to ensure that all my critical highlight detail was preserved. As for the underexposed shadows, they were easily recovered in Lightroom, and the result is evident.
Setting the Exposure
When shooting landscapes using the various metering modes, you may soon find that you need to make adjustments to your camera’s exposure-related settings to achieve the optimally exposed image, as indicated on the histogram. If you’re shooting in any of the “auto” modes, such as aperture priority, shutter priority, or program, the exposure compensation dial will be your best friend. If you’re shooting in manual mode, you can adjust your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO until the histogram, and image, look the way you want them to look.
Metering and exposure can be tricky when shooting landscape or cityscape photography, especially in very high-contrast scenes, but if you keep these rules of thumb in mind, you’ll find that most high dynamic range scenes can be captured fairly easily and won’t give you too hard of a time in post. If you have any questions on histograms, metering, or exposure, please feel welcome to leave them in the Comments section, below.
You can also learn HDR to use in high contrast situations
Thanks so much for reading, I actually have a follow up article that is going to post soon on this very topic of ultra high-contrast scenes, and how to deal with those
Hello B&H Explora,
Since this article was about landscape metering, I think U should have mentioned to a good aperture for landscape photography, like f11 or f16 so that there is deep depth of field with everything in the photo in focus. Also, if your highlights are clipping, you should increase your shutter speed, leaving your aperture unchanged, until the highlight clipping stops. And the reverse if your shadows are clipping, thereby underexposing them, you should reduce your shutter speed, at the same time of not clipping your highlights.
If nothing in the frame is moving, prioritizing aperture and letting that determine shutter speed is great ... but if something in the frame -- say water -- is moving, you will probably be better off deciding on shutter speed for the amount of blur you want (or can tolerate) and then working focus and aperture around that. And sometimes you need a shorter exposure so you don't lose the sharp- everywhere image, for instance to smeary leaves and branches on a windy day.
If everything in the frame still, and is at a distance, you're probably better off using the sweet-spot aperture for whatever lens -- typically somewhere between for lenses up to about 100mm. If what's of interest is all pretty close , focussing on whatever absolutely HAS TO be in focus and bracketing f-stops to provide a choice of DOF intervals may work.
Also, nowadays pro and prosumer DSLR and mirrorless cameras give pretty-good to great high-ISO results so you can select from a range of shutter/f-stop combinations, and some cameras have a mode where the camera accepts shutter and f-stop and computes "right" ISO.
Thanks for your comment Mike!
Thanks for your comment! I'll think about doing a more depth of field related article as it pertains to landscape photography in ther future!
Nice summary of exposure modes and clipped highlight problems. But it fails to mention the most useful metering tool that many cameras have: the "blinkies" to indicate clipped highlights. This gives you an instant check of whether you need to compensate exposure to prevent clipped highlights in important areas.
Ah yes, the blinkies are definitely a quick way to see when you're clipping highlights or shadows. Thanks for reading Wayne!
This is an excellent article. Thank you. It explains the necessary info in an easy to understand format. However, you knew there'd be a "however", right? :) The article needs to be edited so that the "below" and "above" statements actually reflect the location of the graphics.
Thanks for your eagle eye, Henry S.W. We have altered the wording to correspond correctly to the graphic.
Thanks for pointing this out and thanks for reading Henry!