Let’s Aim For 18% Middle Gray

So you are at a show, and you have that great background (discussed in my last blog) nailed down.

Now what?

Now we need to figure out how to record the true color of our subject. As always, checking your manual is the first step, so if you are new to photography, flip to the section that explains the exposure icons on your command dial. Memorize what each icon setting does and practice using each one.

When you make an icon choice, you are telling the computer in the camera what kind of photograph you are making so the computer can set the exposure. If you are an advanced photographer you are not letting the camera make these decisions…so skip down a few paragraphs.

Beginners, if you are not sure how to set exposure, put the dial on the GREEN ICON which represents the fully automatic mode.

If you are photographing animals in action, put the dial on the SPORTS icon.

If you are taking a close up, put the dial on the PORTRAIT icon.

Ok, that’s the drill. Depending on how many features your camera has, there may also be icons for night, landscape, and macro photography, but for animals, master the SPORT and PORTRAIT icons first because those are the two icons you will use the most when you photograph animals.

To understand how your camera computer comes up with what it “thinks” is the correct auto exposure, pretend for a moment that your camera is a bucket full of paint. All the light you see pours thru the lens into the bucket where the computer blends it all together. As the colors (or tonal values if you are shooting black and white) mix, the color that is produced is 18% (middle) gray. It’s about the color of your favorite Great Dane or gray alpaca, but more importantly, it’s the color camera meters are calibrated to produce with every exposure.


Here’s the thing. The meter wants to produce 18% middle gray with every exposure which means it doesn’t discriminate among the different objects in the scene, so it doesn’t give more importance to the tonal values of one object over another. This works well as long as there is a good balance of tones from light to dark, but we usually don’t care about all the light and dark in the scene, we only care about the light falling on the animal.

So here are a few suggestions to help you get a good exposure.

1. Your location has a good background, but you frame up the shot with too much bright sky included in the image. The meter reads the bright sky and thinks, I need to shut down (shut out some of this light) to produce an average 18% middle gray exposure. When the meter shuts down, the animal gets even less exposure. Like this.

Solution: The bright sky is throwing off the meter. Move in close and fill the viewfinder with your animal. This will eliminate most of the sky so the meter will read the animal and base the exposure on that animal.



This works for people and animal photographs too.



Notice how much richer the colors are in the second photograph.

2. You are shooting into the sun. See how much glare there is in the photo below?


Solution: Change your position. Move around until you can shoot with the sun behind you.


3. The animal is in the shade.


Solution: Move into better light.


Ok, so most of this is covered in my book and you have already mastered this stuff. It’s easy, right? So next time we’ll attack the creative side of your camera’s command dial, where you must do the thinking instead of the camera.

Good shooting!