Shoot for What You See, Not the 'Correct' Exposure

Shoot for What You See, Not the 'Correct' Exposure

There are times when achieving a balanced exposure across your entire image is ideal, ensuring that you don't lose the details in your shadows and highlights. But, some of the most interesting images do not follow that rule whatsoever, and you should try shooting that way too.

This article is aimed primarily at beginners and early intermediates to photography. There can be a lot of conflicting information when you start any discipline and I don't want to add to that, but rather suggest openmindedness. Many of your camera's modes will affect the exposure of your image, and the camera's intentions may not align with your own vision for the photograph. This dissonance can be easily overcome, but many beginners will not have the confidence to purposely underexpose their image, for example. In this article, we'll discuss why it has its place and when you might opt to overrule the robots.

With the advent of digital photography and built-in light meters, it's difficult to accidentally underexpose or overexpose your image. If the automatic settings don't do the heavy lifting for you, you've got the histogram, highlight and shadow clipping, and the ultimate failsafe, taking the shot again with new settings at no extra cost. However, it is these automatic settings — by which I don't merely mean auto mode, but more or less every mode that isn't manual — that can sap a lot of character out of your shots.

Let's start with one of my strongest examples. While in Devon, England, I was trekking along the coastal cliffs with a friend at sunset, enjoying the summer weather and looking for a great vantage point. We found ourselves overlooking a secluded cove with not a single person around and took some nice, albeit fairly ordinary landscapes. As the sun dipped out of sight and blue hour set in, I looked at the only route into the cove — a treacherous, dilapidated set of stairs scaling about 50 feet of the cliff edge — and I wanted to capture the moment. The whole scene had that lovely blue, tranquil hue to it, it was nearing dark, and I wanted to preserve the mood and keep the exposure accurate to the time of day.

Below is the image in two different versions. The left-hand version is with everything on auto, making use of the tripod, gathering enough light for the "correct" exposure, and fixing the white balance. The right is shot manually and exactly how I saw it, and to me, it's a significantly better image. It perfectly captures the light, the mood, and the colors that I saw that evening, but it is objectively underexposed.

This debate is, of course, subjective to a degree. There will undoubtedly be people who prefer the first image to the second, but what isn't subjective is wanting to capture a scene as I saw it. To do that, you will often have to go against the "correct" and balanced exposure that auto modes would strive for.

Shooting what your eyes saw is not the only reason I would opt to underexpose or even occasionally overexpose an image. For me, there are stylistic considerations too. The below image is an editorial created for a watch brand that makes a nautical-themed model called the Trafalgar. I took this shot in the middle of the day, in the shade, by the ocean, and it's a long exposure to get the movement in the water. I could have easily doubled or tripled the exposure length, got smoother water (which I didn't want, in all honesty), and had the entire scene better exposed. But, that would sacrifice the moody scene — I wanted a darker image with no highlights, as that was truer to the brand and watch model.

Editorial image created for watch brand, Ballast, for their nautical model, Trafalgar.

Although it's rarer, I will also overexpose my scene, though this is less of a niche example. That is, underexposing a whole scene isn't as common as correctly exposing a subject and blowing out the background. The below image is a portrait where I was aiming for the high-key look, but with relatively flat, natural lighting. To correctly expose most of the skin with a shallow depth of field, I had to blow the background out, also sacrificing a lot of contrast. There were plenty of ways around this problem, but the result is what I was aiming for. Now, objectively speaking, part of the model's face and hair have blown highlights and have lost detail, but it does not detract from the image in any way. A more balanced exposure would give the image a completely different feel — that isn't necessarily wrong, but it wasn't "correct" for my intentions.

Model: Hanna Hughes

So, how is this actionable to a beginner? Well, the first consideration is how you would like the resulting image to look. A perfectly balanced image — exposure-wise — can be the right choice, but there are times when it's unimportant if you lose details in your shadows or highlights, perhaps even desirable. Similarly, with color, the "right" white balance may not be reflective of the scene and therefore not the best choice.

The most effective route with all photography is to have an idea of what you want to create and then work backward. If you want to achieve a moody feel to your shot — something I often strive for — then letting your camera pick your exposure (and to a lesser degree, your white balance) can lead to undesired results. This can be adjusted to an extent in post, of course, but I always aim to get an image as close to the final goal in-camera. If you look at my article, "10 of the Best Moody and Dark Street Photographers on Instagram," you will see myriad examples of technically underexposed shots that achieve everything they aim to.

How do you approach exposure in your photography? Do find yourself manually lurking north and south of that "correct" exposure? Do you prefer to do it all in post? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

Lead image of Ryan Beatty, shot by me for FAULT Magazine

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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Interesting concept. I always try to shoot for maximum quality which entails exposing to the right. So my images will nearly always be brighter than what I saw ooc. Photo editing is where I recreate the athmosphere as I perceived it. Getting it right in camera can be difficult and if you mistakenly get it too dark, you already lost valuable detail. Definitely takes a lot of practice and understanding of how what you see on the back of the camera aligns with what you see in front of you.

I'd say that while you are 100% right that you probably are best off shooting for maximum quality, modern cameras have enough flex in post that if you do underexpose, you can pull it back up without taking a hit. I realise that's in stark opposition to my own article as that completely defeats the point of "getting it right in camera"! It's definitely a difficult skill to match what you see with what the camera captures, but so valuable to have. Your work seems to capture each scene perfectly or you're incredible at making look as if it did!

For me as a dslr user, I use spot metering and select my midtone in that process know that in the raw editing process I will be able to get the tonal range right. It's very much about choosing the range of blacks with detail to highlights with detail. I think you just get an eye for it

Playing children of the night is way easier than giving the feeling of being blinded by the light. I love images where the light is overwhelming, blowing the scene, but I simply can't capture it the way I see it or I see in other's pictures. Handling low key is rather easy with modern sensors and post production.
Older lenses help creating those images of high key brightness, but it's still tricky to get it right. Maybe one day I can show what I'd love to capture.

First and foremost each photographer is the artist (per say) and everything to capture an image are in those hands! Like in the beginning of the article you show (I believe) to be a auto capture. To this point a camera's Auto function is something you pay for also as well as all the little options you get. The camera has its own little darkroom inside that many forget over time all we use the mind to get results. To truly know what your camera is capable of when you first use it (any camera) is to do Auto shots and next something your mind says. Some cameras even have two auto modes, so do both. In post look at settings auto(s) produced compared to yours. Also there is bracketing of images this will bring a higher dynamic range to your image. In the beginning it was a way to do indoor captures with the outdoors as seen by someone. Today it is great for sunsets/rises and blue hour, example 5@ +/- 2ev is great for a small sun but also the bright image will bring out the detail on the shadow side/darkside of objects, there for you get rid of silhouetted objects like the grey hulls of boats will be whiter. This is just another trick but you will have all five shots to combine as you like. But also to keep in mind when in a high dynamic area where others will use a long expose relying on the DR of the camera, the 2nd was an experiment at the time, for I forgot my sticks, and using my new A7RM2 doing 3 @ +/- 2EV hand held and finding each image great but also using the new FE 12-24mm f/4 at 12mm yes f/4 and in '17 no one else had a 12mm so some jaws dropped when the tour was over, you have to know your camera any camera and experiment the only way to learn without YouTube. Night shots the hardest to figure but the camera's aperture mode can handle it so you do not have to bend the mind so much. In '15 my new A7S with on camera apps using the "Digital Filter" the last image was done in camera, yes a couple of hours of play in the chill and a police officer asking every hour (Mods 1 and 2 you can buy and have forever on your camera). That one app is better than bag full of filters.
The bottom line is you are not just an artist/photographer/controller of light but mainly a mad scientist with plans of places, times of day and night all rolling around in your head but also how to capture with your main tool the camera and the positive it is the digital days you no longer have to wait weeks or months to see the results and can get many different out comes in seconds. And your classroom in on the net at no charge, new ideas every minute YEA!!!

Thank you for taking the time to actually think about and write an article vice simply sharing a link to a YouTube video.

This article is a good primer on what Ansel Adams concept of visualization.

Going beyond the “correct” exposure is often necessary to achieve your vision. Constant practice helps in achieving your vision and goals.