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

Previous comments
Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Interesting. Yeah for my studio work where you can see above I still underexpose. because my workflow generally is underexpose the ambient, fill in with light/bring exposure and contrast in post just on the face or other areas using dodging and burn.

I've had the same experience and have noticed how noise will increase the file size. I expose to the right with high ISO then move left in post if needed. But, I still tend to do this for portraits with low ISO.

I don't always trust the meter alone since my backround can vary quite a bit -- very light or very dark. I often find that the highlight clipping warning in the LCD is a good indicator for exposure and try to pick an exposurte that's 2/3 stop below the clipping point. If I must rely on the meter alone and the sceen looks balanced to average out to 18% grey, then my first shot is typically 1/3-2/3 over exposed.

Still, there are times when I will experiment wildly. Underexposing a sunrise scene can really bring out color in the clouds. It's good thing that film is cheap these days.

I try to understand how the article differs from:

Step 1: rely on TTL metering of the camera all the time
Step 2 (optional): add -1 adjustment if you see too bright objects

Another setting to take into consideration is the metering area. A spot exposure centered on a dark subject can make the meter look way under exposed, and correcting would blow out the photo. Make sure your metering area is subject appropriate!

Color Thief's picture

Where to even start with this…

First, measuring the incident light on a scene is something that is done with an incident light meter. These are the kind of light meters you see with little white domes. THEY measure incident light. The meter in your camera does NOT measure incident light — it measures reflected light. This is a very important difference. Since incident meters measure the light falling on the dome, they don't care if the subject is all white or all black because they aren't measuring light bouncing off the subject. Not so with your reflective meter in your camera. This is why camera meters can be fooled by light or dark subjects. It's also why there is no 'prefect exposure', which in turn is why the premise and conclusions of this article are absurd.

Here's a simple piece on the difference between incident and reflected exposure from Sekonic:
https://www.sekonic.com/l-478/incident-vs-reflected.html

Ryan Stone's picture

This article isn’t great. First off, your camera has a reflective meter, not an incident meter, and can be fooled by tones in the scene. Saying the definitive exposure is always one stop under is ridiculous. A snowy scene would then be 4 stops underexposed. Likewise a black cat on a black background would be 2 stops overexposed, even when “underexposing” by one stop. Little thing called the zone system.

Also, underexposing a Nikon/Sony/Fuji isn’t really underexposing at all since they are ISO invariant to a point and one of the reasons you can’t seem to “pop” skintones like on Canon, the resulting tones are the same after post processing an ISO 100 or 800 file. On Canon, pushing the histogram to the right, not left, leaves the most/cleanest shadow information available for recovery, and slight purposeful overexposure can create film-like bright airy skintones since the exposure gain is done after the sensor capture on all Canons except some of the newest bodies (that ironically can’t seem to produce those famous Canon skintones but have better file malleability).

It makes me crazy that “real” photographers think zeroing out your cameras meter is good exposure. For example, spot metering on Caucasian skin should be 2/3-1 stop to the right, because skin is not middle grey unless you’re dead. Trying to contain a high contrast scene inside the histogram isn’t always possible and certainly not desirable for every subject. Blowing inconsequential highlights or blocking up shadows for creative purpose is more so “correct” exposure than zeroing your meter, which is only correct when shooting a patch of lush green grass or certain tones of concrete, for example.

That image of the circled “correct” camera meter literally made me yell at my screen.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thank you for the response :) I have now learned something new today. I was just sharing what simply has worked for me. You could see what i mean if you'd like by checking out my work here: www.elidreyfuss.com I should have been more specific and less general. Again appreciate the feedback. Hopefully next article will be better.

Ryan Stone's picture

Your exposure advice lends well to your style of portraiture, nothing wrong with that, but as an Exposure 101 article specifically about reading your camera’s meter, it is factually incorrect, a middle or to the left exposure in “evaluative” or “multi” metering is a safe exposure on some of these newer 4 stop latitude cameras, but putting tones in their correct zones on the histogram (without losing important subjects to clipping/shadowing) is a truly correct exposure, and how the in-camera meter will read varies wildly based on subject brightness, colour, and reflectivity.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thank you for your detailed response. Yes I should have clarified more in the article. Will do for next time.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Again I was simply writing about what works for me since thats all i know. I did forget to mention that I use only manual lenses. Film lenses. The exposure on my live view is not actually what the image looks like, so when I first started using them this is how i found out how to get it around the 0 line or -1/3 stop, the image would come out perfectly exposed. I would hold down my shutter half way every time i took the shot and measure my exposure for the scene. Thats how i learned. Look out for a new article soon on fully manual lenses.

Ansel Spear's picture

Strange article. It's almost 100% wrong. Thankfully, as a seasoned old fool, I'm able to spot the errors in the rationale here. However, if I was a novice looking for a bit of sound exposure advice, this article is not only misleading (incident reading), but also offers poor advice (expose to the left in every shot).

Ansel Spear's picture

Oh, and by the way, my car is the most powerful tool that I have. Not my camera.

This article is wrong on so many levels and should not be taken as a serious advice on how to assess and obtain optimum exposure. Fstoppers really should pay attention and edit out misleading content like this.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I just shoot RAW and bracket the exposure. That way I can focus all my attention on composition.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Exactly!! That's all I do too! It easier for post processing in my opinion. I guess it just didn't come accross clear in the article

Color Thief's picture

Maybe the reason this didn't come across clear in the article is because the premise of the article is: 'Learn how you can get a perfect exposure in camera every time!' That's quite a different thing than 'shoot RAW and bracket the exposure'. In fact it's almost the opposite.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thank you for clarifying: yes I probably mid worded the title. But glad it's all clarified in the comments section. :)

Michael Dougherty's picture

In outdoors photography when the range of light is too radical, there is no right exposure. When I bracket and I can't find the image with the right exposure, I can exposure blend or overlay images and correct in post processing.

Hiram Baasch's picture

I find that using the camera's 'spot' metering to place the most important area of the image in the right zone (adjusting exposure either through shutter speed and/or aperture or through exposure compensation when using a priority mode and auto ISO) will give me good exposures (not 'correct' exposures or 'perfect' exposures, which I think are wildly uninteresting).

Ed Sanford's picture

This is confusing. I just use the histogram and expose to the right (until it touches the right side). This reduces the noise and captures the full range of tones

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Great idea! You expose to the right to avoid noise in the shadows correct? What kind of work are you shooting?

Ed Sanford's picture

Landscapes and nature. It avoids the noise, but it also nails the exposure. Even if I have plenty of room without going all the way right, the ETTR files provides a much better file (negative) because it provides the best dynamic range that my camera can handle thereby making Lightroom sessions pure pleasure. That is if I am fortunate to have photographed something worthwhile.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Oh ok. very different then studio portraits :)

Ed Sanford's picture

True.... in the old film days, we used a flash meter and took an incident reading on the main flash. Then used a fill light with one or two stops less depending on the desired ratio. Of course we added hair and background lighting as required. However, the f stop would be based on the main. In a studio setup, the exposure would be nailed every time with Kodak vericolor film. Why is digital any different. I am just seeking to learn.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

It's not. Thats why I wrote this article :) With those tips when in studio setting thats how i figure out light power and settings.

Color Thief's picture

"Why is digital any different"
"It's not."

But it is, in some very important ways. A digital sensor has a linear response to light. Film doesn't. This is why we talk about film's shoulder and response curve, but not digital's. It's also why we can expose to the right in digital without screwing up the relationship between values so long as we don't clip. (and it's why film doesn't clip in the same way digital does).

I understand the desire for content marketing and the constant need for new material. But you're really not doing yourself or anyone else any favors by writing about topics before you have earned any real expertise. I feel truly terrible for anyone that is reading this article and taking its advice.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for taking the time to reply to every thread. It've very admirable how much you know. I truly would love to see your expertise presented in your work. Put up some work on fstoppers and send me over the link. Again would love to see a face behind these words :)

Adam Lee's picture

When I'm shooting out in natural light or somewhere with consistent light, I still use the ol' human grey card technique my photography teacher taught years ago. Meter Asian skin tone (my hand) "needle in the middle", take the shot.

Meter white skin tone, needle in the middle, close down a stop.

Meter black skin town, needle in the middle, open up a stop.

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