How to Get Your Exposure In-Camera and Not Have to 'Fix It in Post'

How to Get Your Exposure In-Camera and Not Have to 'Fix It in Post'

Why fix it in post when you can do it right in camera? Learn how you can get a perfect exposure in camera every time!

Often when were out shooting in the field, we get carried away and catch ourselves saying we'll "just fix it in post." But what happens when you get to Photoshop later and you realize your blacks are crushed, or your highlights are blown out (this is especially evident in black-and-white photography)? In this quick article, learn in just five easy steps for how to get the perfect exposure in-camera every time.

STEP 1: Expose for the Scene

On every camera on the market, there is a way to read the exposure of the scene you're shooting. On your menu screen, you should see a bracket ranging from -3 (underexposed) to 0 (perfect exposure) to +3 (overexposed). This meter is reading the incident light in the scene and showing your relative exposure, which can be changed by adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

STEP 2: Read the Meter

When you're setting up your scene, keep in mind your incident exposure. To see what the incident exposure is, simply hold down your shutter half way (or however you set it on your camera), and the internal meter will pop up next to one of the numbers, usually -3 through +3.

STEP 3: Shoot a Neutral Exposure

To avoid having to reduce the highlights or lift the shadows in post, you want to make sure that your shadows, mid tones, and highlights are not blown out in-camera. Make sure that details can be seen in every area of the frame. The key thing to keep in mind is that whatever camera you're using, you want to be sure to underexpose your scene by at least one stop of light to ensure that no matter the scene, the details will remain intact. Adjust your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO to shift the number up or down.

STEP 4: Shoot Away!

Once you notice that the exposure line is in the right spot where all details are maintained, start shooting away! But keep in mind that when the light changes (if you're shooting in natural light), you need to adjust your exposure accordingly.

Below you can see images that are all straight out of the camera and have not been edited yet. The images below were also shot using both strobe and natural light.

f1.8 , ISO 200, 1/200 (continuous light in studio)

f8, ISO 400, 1/160 (continuous light in studio)

f 2.8, ISO 100, 1/2000 (Shot with natural light in front of a window)

f8, ISO 400, 1/160 (strobe and continuous light in studio)

The camera is the most powerful tool we have and should be taken advantage of. By taking just an extra few minutes on a shoot, you will save time later in Photoshop and are guaranteed to walk away with great photos in-camera. As the saying goes, "You can't fix a bad photo in Photoshop." So get it right in camera.

Have questions? Leave them in the comments below!

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77 Comments

Chris Denny's picture

I shoot for a museum, the light is always yellow and in many cases low. I have custom white balance settings around 4000K and the ISO's are always high, which leads to lots of processing to get the noise out. Any suggestions to improve that? Thanks.

Anonymous's picture

Can you shoot on a tripod? In a museum, I assume you can. If so, you can use a remote trigger and slow down your shutter speed. That allows you to lower your ISO.

Then shoot in RAW and you can adjust white balance in post (without losing any detail).

Michael Holst's picture

A tripod is your best friend in dark conditions. It will also let you get creative with subjects if you want to show the flow of people through a gallery.

If you're shooting events and need to have static people, a bounced flash can help give a soft boost the the lighting. Doesn't always work perfectly though.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Perhaps lowering your shutter speed? If you have a tripod of course. This will let in some light. Or even opening the aperture more. Not sure what you're shooting.

Namir Khandker's picture

If you're shooting still objects, you can take several frames using high iso and stack them in photoshop using median or mean mode. The noise will be slightly different on each shot and you can cancel out a lot of noise this way (the more frames stacked the better the result). This is a technique used in astrophotography to clean up images of a starry sky.

Noise wise you should push to the right as much as you can (Can in the sense what I'm willing to be white with no return).
Then if needed to push "Left" then doing it in post processing will have the benefit of the least noise you could achieve.

Once you are aware of that and prefer to save time, then do as above.

Kirk Darling's picture

Yes. For those shooting raw, there is such a thing as a perfect exposure: It's the exposure that captures as great a dynamic range as possible for the equipment. Back in the film days, St Ansel taught us to go flat with negatives to get in all the highs and lows, then handle the contrast in printing.

Audio engineers record sound as loud as possible just short of clipping. The reason they do that is to raise the signal as far above the noise floor as possible--so that all the signal is clear of noise--without clipping at the high ends.

For digital photographers, it means giving as generous an exposure as possible for the same reason--to raise as much of the shadow tones above the noise as possible...but not so much as to clip the highlights that must retain detail.

So, basically, watch the highlights and crank up the exposure until just before you lose them. Then you've automatically got as much of the shadow out of the noise as possible. Then, you've got the right raw data to set to your taste in post production.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Yes!!! Finally someone gets what I was trying to say! That's exactly my process!

With respect Eli, this isn't your process. :) " watch the highlights and crank up the exposure until just before you lose them" is not "you want to be sure to underexpose your scene by at least one stop of light to ensure that no matter the scene." Those are two completely different processes. When shooting with a camera like the old Canon 7D Kirk's process would ensure I got usable RAW files. But if I were to underexpose by a stop with the 7D I'd typically get noisy yucky mush.

The process that you use work really well for you and the camera and the lighting that you use. But it isn't a process to "capture the perfect exposure." Its a process in a controlled environment to capture the "exposure you prefer."

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Good call. Thanks for the feedback

Ed Sanford's picture

Not to be picky, but the Ansel comment is not quite accurate. He said expose normal for a “normal” scene with a full range of brightness. In low contrast scenes, he said under expose to bring out a black and then increase development to push the high values up to zone VIII. In a high contrast scene, he said over expose and then reduce development time bringing the high value down to Zone VIII. These procedures were referred to as N+ and N- development and can be found his book called “The Negative”. In digital we do the same thing by using the histogram.

+1. I often shoot indoor sports at 6400-8000 with a Canon 1Dx. For metering, I typically look for an exposure that leads to clipping of something white on a player's uniform, then "move left" 2/3 of a stop. The highlight warning on my LCD is a great exposure tool.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

This is one of the articles I had been waiting for. Thanks for providing the exposure scale example (it really helped me understand how to estimate the underexposure level). This is still my weakness in photography.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for the great feedback ' I really appreciate! So glad you got something out of it! Check back in my profile every week for more educational content like this!!

Dallas Dahms's picture

Or you could get a mirrorless camera.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

How would that help?

Dallas Dahms's picture

The electronic viewfinder shows you exactly what your image is going to look like before you even take it. It can also be set to show you a live histogram, highlight or shadow clipping and other aids. Changed the way I take photos forever.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Still works though with all mnaual film lenses? Even though there is no electronic sensor in the lens..

It will also work with no lens at all :-).

Namely it really shows what the sensor see, in any case (Of course in the ridiculous case of no lens, all is blurred so it is meaningless).
Also metering is done on the sensor itself and not on auxiliary sensor.

Tell you the truth, We only have DSLR left because of the conservative nature of Photography world and the Photographers nature (It's not a bad thing being conservative, just saying the reason).

As today (Well, few years ago to be exact), with On Sensor AF pixels there is no real reason for DSLR.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

In the old days with film cameras, isn't that how they figured the proper exposure? The meter on the bottom?

I meant that Mirror Less cameras use the sensor itself to measure the exposure. You don't use auxiliary meter which almost certainly is biased compared to the real sensor.

Dallas Dahms's picture

With a mirrorless camera you can mount any lens from any manufacturer (via mount adapter) and depending on the mode you shoot in (I'm almost always in A mode) you will get accurate exposure without any hassle.

I have my front dial on the Olympus E-M1 set to adjust exposure compensation and with the EVF set to show what that compensation is doing I don't really need to think about anything other than composition.

Manual focus can be achieved using the focus peaking functions.

The simplicity and freedom mirrorless brings to the process of taking photos is truly liberating.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Great perspective. Look out for a new post on rokinon lenses and why i still shoot all fully manual in a few weeks!

Nitpicking, but it won't show you "exactly" what the sensor sees, but rather a JPEG preview of it. Depending on your scene, that can be important because the JPEG will clip the edges of your histogram that may still have detail in the RAW file. Also, I don't like to rely too much on exposure preview, because it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between, say, a zone 9 highlight that retains detail, and a zone 10 highlight that's clipped from the EVF alone.

That being said, most mirrorless cameras have a host of other features for helping with your exposure, such as clipping highlights and in-viewfinder histograms (my preferred method).

Dallas Dahms's picture

Live view isn't a JPG as far as I know. It might be compressed but it's a whole lot better than having to chimp after every shot just to see if you got the exposure right.

It is certainly after Digital Processing (Demosaicing, Curve, etc...).
Probably some compression is done as well.

I'd see the logic it will simulate the processing of manufacture JPG engine.
I'm not sure it is JPEG exactly, but I agree with your logic.

But I'm quiet sure the Histogram is based on the RAW data.

Gabriele Zanon's picture

I don't know how other bands work but with Canon i've found the "perfect" exposure in the opposite way with the raw image: over expose by 2/3 to 1 full stop. It retains way more information.

Sometimes if I have a very dark scene and I have people in it, to keep the skin tones safe my exposure is perfectly in the center.

Try yourself: shoot the same image and watch how many megabytes is each photo.

When you process it you can keep much more information in the highlights, unlike what you get in the shadows. If you miss the exposure and is too dark your photos have much more noise, but, if you overexpose too much, you have to trash the photo and, is a risk that I can live with.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Interesting take on it. I always find that on canon -1/3 stop exposure works for my kind of portraits and editing style. Generally my ambient is pretty dark. But I guess it depends on what you're shooting. See more of my work here: www.elidreyfuss.com

Gabriele Zanon's picture

really nice! your style is very moody and dark, i like it! :D
My work I think is the opposite (and my processing workflow too) because I always look for a lot of light and rich tones! If you have time take a look here: www.gabrielezanon.com

Harrison Barden's picture

I tend to do the same with my Canon, I have a hard time trusting it at 0 ("perfect exposure") a lot of the times, I feel it is underexposed if I have it at 0.

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