Wednesday, November 13, 2013


I talked about this about four months ago, but it is worth repeating, especially since winter is upon us. 

All cameras have what's called a built-in light (or exposure) meter. The good news is that they usually do exactly what they are engineered to do. The bad news is that what they were engineered to do is often not what we want in our photographs. To keep it simple, if we photograph something dark or black, the meter will try to lighten it up as close as possible to gray. If we photograph something bright or white, it will try to darken it as close as possible to gray. That doesn't sound good, huh?

The good news is that there is a simple way to override your built-in meter. It's called the exposure compensation dial on your camera. Look for it in your camera manual. It will either show you something like -.3, -.6, -1 or +.3, +.6, +1, etc. On some cameras, you'll see a scale that looks like this: -3. . .-2. . .-1...0...+1. . .+2. . .+3, etc. What these numbers mean is that if you move your exposure compensation dial toward the minus side (from zero, or 0), your are underexposing your picture, or darkening it. If you move it toward the plus side (from zero, or 0), you are overexposing your picture, or lightening it. 

Now, here is where this really becomes meaningful and useful, especially this time of year. Let's say you are photographing a winter event where most of what you see in your viewfinder is snow! Well, snow is white; the built-in meter will give you gray, just what it was engineered to do. The solution is your exposure compensation dial. By just adjusting it to a +1-2 stops, you will negate that nasty meter. The meter cannot think; it does not know that you want that snow to look as it does to your eye--white. 

How much over-exposure you will need depends on how much whiteness or brightness there is in the scene. Look at these two images. Since the scene was not 100% covered with white snow, an adjustment of just +1 stop was needed to lighten the gray look. Notice the added detail on the horses when given just a 1-stop more exposure. 

Maybe this will help to further explain what happens when we overexpose. When I overexposed the first image by 1-stop, I didn't add more whiteness to white snow, I added more whiteness to an image which my built-in meter had rendered gray.   

                                        No adjustment to the built-in meter result

+1-stop overexposure (from gray)

So, when you are out shooting this winter, just take one shot at a +2/3, another at +1.3 and compare the two. Then, just make one more adjustment, depending on your results.
Happy winter shooting. Shoot me an e-mail if you have any questions.