Fine Tune Your Exposure

In my blog on 18% middle gray,  I suggested some simple ways to improve your exposure. But you’re good, and you don’t need simple. Plus you ran right out and starting practicing and you‘ve already got all those suggestions nailed down.

So now for the harder exposure issues which will take you out of the beginner realm. To put these concepts into practice, you need an SLR camera with manual exposure options.

First off, yes, the 18% rule does apply to all photography, so no matter what you are photographing (scenics, buildings, people…anything…it doesn’t have to be an animal) the camera meter will always try to produce an 18 % middle gray exposure.

Remember that just because we are all using digital cameras now (which means white balance is also a factor in making an image),  it doesn’t change the basic premise: cameras are all calibrated to produce a reading of 18% middle gray with every exposure.

Ok. We’ve got that issue out of the way. But it’s important. Unless you understand 18% middle gray,  you will not be able to fine tune your tricky exposure situations.

Let’s say you are making a photograph of a group of animals and they range from light to dark in color. Yikes! How do we properly set our exposure so the group of animals are all the correct color? Unless we do some thinking, and make some manual adjustments to our settings, the camera will aim for 18 % middle gray and the beautiful colors of these alpacas will not be accurate.


So what to do?

Try this.

Put your exposure dial on manual……it will be ok. Just do it.

Now set your shutter speed on 1/250 of a second (this will stop any action from the subjects moving).

Next, go up to the darkest alpaca and meter off his wool. The camera will give you an aperture setting to balance the speed setting of 1/250th of a second. Remember that aperture setting. Now go up to the white alpaca and meter off his wool. Remember that aperture setting too.

Now you have two aperture settings, one for darkest animal and one for the lightest. Set the aperture for a value between these two readings and shoot!

Voila. Now you have a good exposure of very different tonal subjects.

I’m an animal photographer, so I’ve used an example of animals for this exercise. But if you love to photograph flowers, or buildings, or scenics, you can do the same thing. Meter off the dark, meter off the light, and set your exposure for in between.

If you prefer, you can use a gray card to set your exposure.  Many professional photographers carry a gray card to use for tricky metering situations. Pointing your camera at the gray card in the same light as your subjects, is used to calibrate your meter for 18% middle gray. But you have to  be sure to meter the card in the same light as your subjects. This means you need to dig it out of your camera bag (the clock is ticking) direct an assistant to hold the card up in front of the subjects, (clock still ticking), point your camera meter towards the gray card, (clock ticking, ticking) and hope the animals don’t move during all your preparations. (Because if they do, the light falling on them may have changed.)

So while using a gray card works well for static subjects, getting the correct exposure while photographing animals in a field or a show ring is difficult. Animals move, and in a split second they can totally change the light falling on the composition you are trying to make. It’s way tough. We are shooting moving targets. We don’t have a lot of time to fiddle with gray cards.

Master the averaging method suggested above. It’s easy and fast and conforms to my most important rule of photography… keep it simple.

Good shooting.