The Guide to Improving Your Exposures in Landscape Photography

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While most cameras today do a fairly decent job of properly exposing the scene at hand, they don’t get it right all the time.

This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography, where quickly changing lighting conditions – and compositions that include both dark and light areas can often result in images that are too light or dark – or, where part of the scene is underexposed while the sky is blown out.

In tricky lighting situations, it’s easy for your camera’s light meter to get confused resulting in an over or underexposed image. In other cases, where you may want to intentionally overexpose to draw out certain details, or underexpose to create a certain mood, leaving the settings up to your camera isn’t a good way to get the results that you’re after.

No matter what type of images you’re going for, or what effect you’re looking to create, having a clear understanding of exposure and knowing how to adjust your camera’s settings can help you to get the results that you’re after, each and every time.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how you can adjust your exposures for different situations, and make use of tools that can help you to capture those excellent shots.

Understanding the Exposure Triangle

First, let’s take a look at exposure itself. Exposure is based on three main components: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each of these variables works together to allow light to reach the camera’s sensor; influencing the resulting image. Understanding these three components will give you to better control your images’ exposure.

  1. Aperture: Aperture is the size of the opening that allows the light in to hit the sensor.
  2. Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is the length of time that light is allowed through the aperture for.
  3. ISO: ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to the light. The higher the ISO, the higher the camera’s sensitivity.

All three of these components work together to create what’s known as the exposure triangle. When you adjust one, you must adjust another in order compensate.

he Metering Scale

Most cameras today use a process known as TTL metering, or, through the lens metering, which means that the camera examines the light coming through the lens and adjusts the settings accordingly.

You can see your camera’s meter readings, by switching to manual mode and looking through the viewfinder. The meter is usually found on the bottom or side and often appears as a number scale with a tiny triangle pointer above the numbers that indicates whether an image is properly exposed. The scale will have a 0 at the center, with numbers on the right to indicate overexposure, and on the left for underexposure. Getting the pointer as close to 0 as possible is usually ideal as this indicates proper exposure.

If you depress the shutter halfway, you will engage the meter and as you move the camera around you’ll notice the meter readings change, depending on where you’re focusing. This is because different objects are lighter or darker.

While the metering scale is great, it really only gives you a partial story. It tells you how much light you are getting, but it doesn’t show you where in the frame it is coming from or how much is coming from where. This is where metering modes come in.

Measuring the light or brightness of a scene is crucial for finding the ideal exposure for your image. Your camera should have a number of different ways that it can measure incoming light, here’s a quick look at how they work.

  1. Matrix or Evaluative Metering

    Matrix or Evaluative Metering is your default camera setting. With this setting, your camera will look at the light in the entire scene and average it, giving it what it considers to be the best lighting. This is a great mode for scenes that are evenly lit or, for those times where you’re not sure what exposure to use.

  1. Spot Metering or Partial Metering

    With Spot Metering, your camera focuses on a small area at the center of the frame and measures only the light in that specific space. Spot Metering is helpful for situations where the subject you are trying to capture is much brighter than the background, and is especially ideal for photographing backlit subjects as well as for situations where you have a specific area you would like to have the exposure based off of.

  2. Center-Weighted Average Metering

    With Center-Weighted Average Metering, your camera looks at light from the entire scene and averages it while emphasizing the center of the frame. This method is ideal for portraits since most subjects tend to be in the center of the frame, and often proves to be the most effective way to get the right exposure.

The mode that you chose will depend greatly on your desired focal point, available lighting, and of course, the type of image that you’re looking to create. Be sure to check your camera’s owner manual to find out how to change these settings on your camera.

Use Exposure Bracketing

Using exposure bracketing to take a series of different exposures is a great way to increase your chances of capturing an image with the right exposure. With bracketing, you can capture a sequence of images with different exposures, resulting in a series of images that are slightly lighter and darker than normal. If you’d like to, you can also use the resulting images to create an HDR composite in post processing later.

Check Your Histogram

Your histogram can be a useful tool for determining if your photo is over or underexposed. Take a shot then check your camera’s histogram. A well-exposed landscape that includes a lot of color will give you a nice curve, rising in the middle, and going back down toward the right. If most of your pixels are on the left chances are your image is underexposed; too many on the right and it’s overexposed. However, in many cases you might prefer an image that is slightly underexposed since the colors that you see will be deeper and richer so keep this in mind when reading your histogram.

Use an ND Filter

Using a graduated neutral density (ND) filter is a simple way to capture landscapes that are properly exposed. ND filters reduce some of the light going into the lens, making them especially ideal for photographing images that include both a bright sky and a darker foreground.

While getting your exposures right takes a lot of practice, it’s worth spending some time brushing up on your knowledge of the exposure triangle and the different metering modes that your camera is capable of. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be able to capture images that are well-balanced and more in line with your creative vision and won’t be caught out by tricky lighting situations again!