How to Get the Correct Exposure in Camera

One of the most challenging aspects of photography is getting the right exposure.  It’s often an enormous frustration for beginners.  Even advanced photographers may waste time tweaking settings, shoot too many brackets, or miss the moment trying to bracket for slightly uncertain situations.

And beyond “nailing the exposure” trying understanding exposure is enormously beneficial to understanding how to truly master luminosity masks for extracting more detail from RAW files or manually blending exposures.  For example, if you don’t know exactly what detail was captured in your RAW file, how do you know when you should bracket or how much?

In the videos below and the corresponding e-book, you’ll learn how to quickly find the right exposure, as well as whether and how many exposures you need for manual blending or HDR (hint: probably not nearly as many as you think).

 

Part 1:  Before You Click the Shutter

The meter in your camera is a very useful tool for scenes with normal contrast, but it lacks the precision needed to properly set exposure for high contrast scenes (such as sunsets).  It only gives you a general evaluation of the scene.  The meter doesn’t tell you anything about whether your shadows or highlights are clipped.  Which is why the live histogram is so valuable.  Even if you need to use the meter to deal with fast-moving portraits or sports, experimenting with the live histogram will help you better understand how to best use the meter in your camera.

In this first video, I’ll discuss the various methods of determining exposure and show you how to properly use the live view histogram on your camera to “expose to the right”.

 

 

Part 2: Reviewing the RAW on your camera

The live histogram is a great way to get the right exposure or something very close, but it has some limitations.  It is only a preview and probably does not offer an RGB histogram.  You can see greater detail during playback, which is critical to confirming you got the right exposure, need to make changes, or need to bracket your shots.  I’ll show you how to interpret the highlights and shadows during playback, blinking highlights, and RGB histogram in this part 2:

 

 

Part 3:  Reviewing the RAW on your computer

As good as the tools are in the camera, there is no substitute for looking at the image in Lightroom or another professional software application on your computer.  Not only can you see more accurate color and detail, but you can quickly adjust a few settings in the RAW to truly check the image.

In this third and final video, I’ll show you why you cannot use the histogram in Lightroom the same way you do in the camera, why overexposure is so problematic, and a very simple way to check exposure in Lightroom.  Additionally, I’ll show you a few simple tests you can use in Photoshop to learn how to better interpret the exposure when you are out in the field, by better understanding the limits of your camera’s ability to recover shadow detail.

 

Be sure to get the corresponding e-book for a summary of the workflow shown in the videos, as well as more discussion on when and how to bracket for the perfect exposure or manual blending to extend dynamic range.

  • it might be worth mentioning that a program like Raw Viewer can show you what channel is clipped from the actual raw data before any processing takes place. This would allow you to get to know your sensor and not to just depend on the histogram in camera which is almost always never accurate in the specific channels…a good example is how manufactures pick a channel to record the over-exposure in low light high dynamic range images usually the Green channel and they leave the Red and Blue channel to record slightly less. If you knew for example that when low light shooting your green channel hit the wall on the in camera sensor but in looking at the actual histogram in Raw Viewer you still have a 1/2 of stop before you hit the wall then you can predict what you will see in you PP software.

  • John

    For finding the best exposure (where the brightest pixel is at the right edge of the histogram) you need a camera that can show you a live histogram. My Nikon D610 does not have this feature.

  • The D610 has a histogram during playback – not as fast as live view, but extremely useful. I amm not sure if the D610 has a histogram during live view. With my D810, you can only see the histogram if the meter is active (so I have to press “OK” first and then “info” a few times). If the meter is not on screen, then clicking “info” will not show the histogram. You might want to try that to see if the live histogram is just a bit “hidden”.

  • John

    The D610 does not have a histogram during live view. It does have a histogram during playback, but that can’t be used to determine the “best” exposure using your method of incrementally decreasing EV. Meanwhile my other camera, an inexpensive Sony A6000, has a live histogram. I have configured the Sony so that I can use it as you explained.

    I have always practiced ETTR, but using a seat-of-the-pants exposure adjustment of +0.7 EV. I think your method will give better results.

  • Agreed, slows the process. But you can at least take a few snaps and use the playback to find the right exposure. That’s unfortunately the best that’s apparently available on that camera. Seems like a silly feature to omit these days, kind of a standard.

  • Gunes Haksever

    This is by far, the best exposure tutorial I’ve ever seen or read or anything. It’s miles ahead of anything similar that I read or watched in over a decade that I’m into photography. Truly priceless, concise, very relatable and applicable information. What I got out of this, will change things for me, it will improve my workflow greatly for sure. Can’t thank you enough Greg.

  • That’s amazing. Thank you, Gunes!

  • Norman Nichols

    Very enjoyable and instructive.
    I am a canon owner do you have any figures as to how many stops can decently be rcovered in the shadows with canon. I seem to recall reading that tis is a weakness with canon sensors compared to Nikon.. Any comments.

  • I have never owned a Canon, so I’m no expert. But my understanding is that none of the Canon’s have the dynamic range to match the D810 or Sony a7rii. So your ability to recover shadow detail probably isn’t as good (and your histogram will be different as well). That’s why the testing I show in video #3 is important, because it helps you understand the limits of your camera (at a particular ISO, as that’s a factor too).

  • John

    It’s a well-known (and frequently mentioned) fact that the histogram on the LCD is not the true raw histogram, but rather one based on a rendered JPG. I was initially surprised that Greg doesn’t mention this. But there may be a good reason. If the histogram on the LCD is consistently more conservative than the raw histogram (and I’m assuming it is), then you can’t go wrong using it. You may sacrifice a fraction of a stop, but you’ll never exceed the upper bound of the sensor. It simplifies the method and the explanation.

  • That’s true, and I did mention it briefly around the discussion of why proper white balance is important to use the histogram. But I didn’t emphasize the point too much either and the point could be missed in the midst of a relatively longer video. My rationale being that one can quickly go down a very deep hole that I think runs the risk of not being helpful to my intended audience (and very likely confusing). There are other things you can do to improve the accuracy of the histogram slightly, but they are neither practical nor necessary for most use in my opinion (the gains are too small to justify the effort, and most photographers would get much more benefit from spending their time improving other aspects of their craft).

    I do wish a RAW histogram was available in modern cameras. With all the efforts to squeeze out an extra stop of dynamic range from the sensor/processing, this seems like a simpler way to get gains that can be of equal benefit.

  • Mike

    Thanks for putting together one of the best tutorials I’ve ever seen on exposure. I’m putting these techniques to work immediately!

  • Great, thanks!

  • Gilbert

    Very useful information. I did use a Lumix at one time that had a histogram in the viewer that could be adjusted before releasing the shutter; in effect, adjusting for proper exposure. I didn’t know that my 810 also had that capability in Live View. Thanks for that info. I will make sure to use it in my photography.

  • Interesting. The D810 histogram can only be calibrated in the sense that you can choose JPG settings that are closer to how you will process the RAW (getting the right white balance is relatively important, significantly poor color will definitely push you to shoot a little darker than needed).

  • Nicole Xu

    Great tutorial, but question what is the harm in blending. So for example wouldn’t it be easier to just blend 2-3 imagines together instead of having lifting shadows? Wouldn’t noises be reduced that way?

  • I’m a huge fan of blending and do it very often. But if the scene does not require it, there’s no sense in creating extra computer work. And sometimes multiple exposures aren’t practical due to subject motion or other considerations.

  • Christopher

    I thoroughly enjoyed the tutorial and some of the ETTR is finally gelling for me. What about using the D Lighting turned on so you don’t go over on your exposure? Or turning on the contrast control (blinkies) so you know you are in the safe zone?

  • Mark Payne

    Many thanks Greg. Getting the image in one frame is always important to me. I’ve certainly learnt something 🙂

  • I’ve never liked the automated enhancements, because it creates one more complication to understand (it won’t work 100%, and now you have to understand when and how to correct it). And anything that adjusts your JPG can affect the quality of the histogram.

  • Great, have fun shooting!

  • Ken & Pauline McGrath

    Thanks for the e-book Greg. The three videos offer an excellent explanation of how far to push the exposure and subsequent processing of the raw.

  • You’re welcome, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Christopher

    I don’t have my D-lighting turned on for that one reason, never liked the results. I shoot only in RAW/NEF so I have that control in post processing. You make a great case for not pushing the whites to the wall and letting your blacks fall off the bottom. Coming from a film background, this is 180 degrees, and having a learning curve.

  • It’s definitely a different world with digital!

    I didn’t say it in the video, but if you’re going to push anything to the limits, it’s a white subject (as in colorless). Loss of color is easy to do and easy to see, so white subjects tolerate a little over-exposure better than bright colors. But I generally shoot the same way in either case.

  • erichatch

    Excellent tutorial. I’m already putting it to work. BTW, my D800e (too cheap to shell out for the newer one) also has the RGB histogram

  • Monique Nenson

    This was was SO helpful Greg. Thanks so much for posting this. I certainly agree with Gunes. You’ve done a wonderful job explaining this in a way that’s it comprehensive, clear, understandable and enjoyable. I can’t wait to see how it turns out when I try it.

  • Great, thank you for the feedback!

  • Lawrence Keeney

    I agree 100% with Gunes Haksever.

    Tomorrow morning I have a Real Estate photo shoot of a sunrise over a lake on a property which my client is trying to promote. I will be doing the shoot from within a room on the 5th floor of this property.

    I had no idea I could pull 3 stops out of the black in Lightroom, so my thinking about the changing exposure as the sun is rising will be completely different from my previous thinking about this subject.

  • Steve Crowley

    Thank you so much for this. The comparison of the in camera histogram to the Lightroom histogram is going to be so helpful in shooting and evaluating my images. I always wondered why highlights would read clipped in my D7000, but did not show the same clipping in Lightroom. Knowing what to look for with the color shifts due to proper and improper exposures answers a lot of questions I’ve had for a while while shooting high contrast real estate and wide dynamic range scenes.

  • Yeah, tricky how a tool that looks the same can behave so differently.

  • Bruce Johnson

    Great tutorial Greg. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I just want to reiterate the requests of others and throw mine in asking you to include a video of how you brought the image to its final state. Love to see the start to finish process. Kind feels like somebody tore the last 20 pages out of a spy novel.

  • Hi Bruce- Doesn’t sound ungrateful, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. The whole process is too long for the types of YouTube videos I typically post. Is there a particular aspect of the image that interests you? I could post a more focused tutorial with this or a similar challenge. Most helpful when I know what draws you to an image, so that I can think about how to best help. Thanks,

  • Bruce Johnson

    I am interested in knowing about the processing used to pull the detail out of the dark areas now that the highlight detail has been preserved. I am sure that if I had more Lumenza experience the pieces would fall into place, but I am having a bit of trouble parsing out how the detail and contrast have been salvaged out of that murky darkness.

  • Thanks, that’s helpful.

  • Dusfim

    Very well explained which helped me more to understand what should I do for the best exposure.

  • Jed Best

    Hi Greg, Fantastic and informative tutorial. I do have a question and request. The request is would you mind explaining how you processed the image in Part 3. You certainly opened the shadows and increased the saturation. Was this in LR or Photoshop. Also, as you mentioned that the histogram in LR is generic then would it be more optimal to do,the demosaicing in Capture NX-D? Again, thank for all the effort and produced such a very informative tutorial. Jed

  • jed best

    Hi Greg,

    Terrific tutorial but I have a question and request. The request is can you add a description of how you opened the shadows and increased he saturation /vibrance. Was this done in Lr or Photoshop. My question is since you say that the histogram is generic in Lr would it not be better to do the demosaicing in Capture NX-D. Again thank you. Jed Best

  • Was edited with LR, Photoshop and Lumenzia.

    If you want to take things further in the computer, you might want to check out a program called RawDigger. I haven’t used it, but it seems to cover that need. I find Lightroom is perfectly fine for my review at home, and I don’t see a way to get a better measurement in the field without adopting UniWB (see here for more details: http://www.dslrbodies.com/cameras/camera-faq/what-is-uniwb.html). With the techniques I showed in the video, I’m able to confidently hit or get very close to a perfect exposure to the right. If I really need the dynamic range in a single frame, I’ll bracket in 1/3rd stop increments to nail it. If a single frame can’t get it, I’ll bracket by 2 stops).

    Most of the time I’m shooting golden hour with moving light, so I try to avoid it and generally think trying to get more technical becomes impractical in most real world situations (or you miss the shot trying to be perfect). I find focusing on the scene and art are much, much more valuable than any tiny improvement I might get by being more technical in the field (relatively speaking, I spent a lot of time testing to get to such a simple solution). I’ve never met a photographer who jumps through all those fire hoops and has wowed me with their portfolio. Not saying that perspective is wrong, but I think it obscures larger and more important aspects of photography.

  • jed best

    Thank you for your reply. Not to be a pain, how did you open the shadows, LR or luminosity masks in Photoshop. Buy the way, I lived in Minneapolis for a few years while doing my residency. Love the city.

  • jed best

    Sorry bit I just realized you answered my question in the first sentence.

    Jed

  • jed best

    Using the D850 are your clipping points the same as your 810 in Lightroom? thank you. Jed

  • Same process, driven visually. Lightroom does not yet support the 850.

  • jed best

    Thank you. By the way, do you ever go to Al’s breakfast ?

  • By the U? Never been.

  • jed best

    Great breakfasts.cMy wife and I used to live in Loring Park

  • Tyler Elmore

    Very excellent tutorial. Very informative and I learned a lot. Thank you for your hard work for putting of all this together. I still had a little trouble and this video really filled in some blanks. Hope it helps all you of as well. https://youtu.be/irWDyplcryg


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