There Is No Such Thing as 'Correct' Exposure

As photographers, we spend a lot of time trying to get the perfect exposure and discussing and learning a variety of techniques to do so. But what is a "correct" exposure anyway? Maybe it does not exist at all.

Coming to you from James Popsys, this insightful video discusses the idea of "correct" exposure. I think Popsys is on to something important here. We spend a ton of time talking about and practicing the technical side of exposure, and of course, it is crucial that you have solid technique in that area. However, what sometimes gets lost in that process is that mastering the technical side of things is the means to an artistic end, not the end itself. The exposure you want for what you are trying to express with your image and what the "correct" exposure is by conventional standards may not always be the same thing; in fact, they may be wildly different in certain circumstances. The important thing is not that you always nail the "correct" exposure, whatever that is, but rather, that you have the skills to control the exposure of an image however you want and you put them to use by making intentional decisions about it. Check out the video above for Popsys' full thoughts. 

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J. H.'s picture

But yes, there is. Saturate the sensor with as much light as possible without overexposing (important) parts of the scenery. That's it. No more, no less. And all those who talk excessively about exposure really have no idea. Who needs more than 12 minutes to express the above fact? And who expects us to watch this?

(Edit, added)
Later in post processing, you can darken or lighten your photo. So it is(!) up to the camera to collect as much data as it can. Then in post: You want to have the sky overexposed? Turn up the brightness. You want the dark parts underexposed: turn down the brightness.

Deleted Account's picture

Really..or an attempt to be contraversial? For negative material it's the minimum exposure to record detail in the shadows...and for digital and positive film it's the maximum exposure to retain highlights.

Of course the scene contrast is relevant to the precision of the exposure have a much larger window of error if your scene has no shadows or highlights!

The whole point of correct exposure is to record the full tonal range (if possible) regardless of original scene brightness and contrast. For instance a strip of negs, or positives...or files should all have the same density...or for digital, 0 to 255.

With single sheet film you could adjust the process to deal with different original scene contrasts because when it comes to printing you want them all to have the same density and tonal range regardless of original scene contrast and brightness. That's why we have handy ways of limiting the light hitting the film or sensor?

When it comes to digital you have to hope the DR is sufficient to have recorded all the tones and your best chance of this is if you have exposed for mid tone grey, 18% be "1" on the scale of 0-255.

Robert Nurse's picture

At 6:55: "Exposure is all to do with what the photographer wants it to be". That's pretty much what it is. How many times has my histogram and meter yelled at each other about "correct" exposure? Who makes the final decision?

J. H.'s picture

Please explain to me how what the photographer wants has anything to do with what is there. "Correct exposure" is done in post-processing. What you do before is collecting as much data as you can. The final decision is up to you. The time to decide is in post-processing. The guy in the video, I liked other videos of him, does not really know what he is talking about. But maybe he shoots JPG only, so some points are valid. But that is about the same as shooting analogue with instant film or dia film instead of negative film.

Robert Nurse's picture

Here's an example of my mindset. I photographed my niece in an alley in DC in the middle of the afternoon. She's standing in the shadow of an overpass of some sort. Now, using the "correct" exposure (the meter's recommendation), the image would have looked nothing like this. I exposed for her face which blew out the background significantly. 90%+ of the result was captured in camera. Post processing was involved. But, mainly to increase contrast and bring out the dress more. But, I didn't raise exposure level in post to achieve this. Some audiences would call this exposure "incorrect" and it would be if the desired result was to get a darker background. Correct/Incorrect depends upon the results the photographer wants and if they achieve it.

J. H.'s picture

Please read what I have written: Expose in such a way that you keep as much information as necessary, but DO NOT overexpose IMPORTANT parts of your image. The camera has a special button to correct the camera's decision.
For your example that would mean: a) keep as much of the backlight as possible while slightly (1-2 EVs) underexpose her face and dress. b) post process your image, decide what you want. In this case: brighten your image. But if you want to keep more details in the background: raise the shadows (face, dress) and lower the high lights slightly.
The reason for this is: Keep the possibility to decide later what you exactly want to do. If you expose "correctly" for the face and dress at the time you take the picture, you loose much information in the background.
Edit: I forgot to say: I like your photo. However, the contrasts are a bit harsh. But that's just my taste. Well done!

Robert Nurse's picture

Thanks for the compliment! I think we're circling the same thought just with different semantics. "Expose in such a way that you keep as much information as necessary" or keep as much as information as the photographer wants. What I did was tell the camera what I felt was important: i.e., her face, blouse and dress. All the rest, I really didn't care about. Even the histogram told me I'd be losing information in the whites. This was the effect I was after. Keeping this in mind, I knew what the camera was going to do: blow everything else out. It was a chosen exposure that I knew I'd have the basis for before post processing even began. For this image, post didn't include exposure level directly: i.e., the exposure slider. Now, even though I didn't use that slider, exposure would be affected in some way by altering pretty much any of the sliders in the Basic and Tone Curve panels. On that front, yes: exposure is affected by post. But, I think what the author was saying was that "correct", as it pertains to exposure, is more subjective and is based upon what outcome they're after. If you didn't know I was after this affect, you could correctly assume that something was off.

J. H.'s picture

Yes, agreed. Thanks for elaborating. The subject is much more complicated, we just touched the surface. It is about colour space and the transformation of the very wide dynamic range and a very wide gamut to a paper or screen with much less dynamic range and a much restricted gamut. It is all about the human perception. That said, you want to have as much data as you can get. It is not different to analogue photography but it gives much more help to achieve this goal: the histogram and the wider dynamic range of a digital sensor of today (ISO invariance). Still, one has to know how to interpret it. Have fun, cheers!

Deleted Account's picture

Although I understand your position, I disagree, and reflect the question is subjective. I don't want to make deliberate decisions which will increase my time behind a screen, and some have gone back to film for precisely that reason.

My view is if you can get it right in camera, then do so. By way of example, if I'm shooting in forest in high contrast conditions, I will crush the blacks in camera, as opposed to getting as much data as possible.

Equally, I would reflect upon Ansel Adams' The Camera, The Negative, The Print, and suggest that although the tools have evolved, the concepts contained therein remain valid.

Finally, before asserting James Popsys is clueless, you should look at his work. I submit that he really does know what he's talking about.

J. H.'s picture

You mention Ansel Adams. His zone system is exactly what this is about. It's not really used any more because it's related to the dynamic range of photographic paper and film. But the idea is exactly what you should (could) do when you shoot digitally. So you say you disagree, but in fact you very much agree.
Of course you should get it right in the camera. That's what I mean, again no contradiction. Your phrase "get it right" is in contradiction to the title of the video "There Is No Such Thing as 'Correct' Exposure". And all I'm saying is: Yes, there is!

Deleted Account's picture

I really do appreciate someone telling me what I think.

I also find it interesting you aren't able to make the logical leap I alluded to.

But yes, you're right, there's only one proper way to produce photographic images...

And btw, "get it right" according to my subjective intent.

J. H.'s picture

I am not telling you what I think. I am interpreting your statements. On the other side, I never said, there is only one way to produce images but rather to use all information possible to store in your file. What logical leap do you think of?

Deleted Account's picture

Quit while you're behind.

J. H.'s picture

I do.

STEVEN WEBB's picture

Correct exposure is determined by the photographer depending on what the photographer wants to convey in the image, whether done via camera settings or in post.

william sheehy's picture

Interesting how some believe there is a right or wrong way to do something. How limiting. The “correct” exposure camp seems to come from the digital world. Having made a living with film for many years you learn how exposure changes the image. Post was not really a great option in many situations. Especially when you have deadlines and there just is limited or no post. Even today Taking that technique to digital, there definitely is an argument to in camera exposure variations. For example very few cameras are totally linear in exposing an image.
Even at that different people have different ways to make their art. Some prefer in camera, some love to work with computers in post.
The word “ correct “ does not exist in art.