Friday, 14 October 2011

Exposure Compensation Tip for Landscape Photographers

When I want to be inspired my default is to head out and take landscape photos. There is something about being out in nature with only peaceful thoughts in my head to keep me company. Mind you, it took a few years to get there. As I learned more about photography I realized that there is so much more than raising a camera to your eye and clicking a shutter.

I can remember this one scene with a dark blue sky and bright sun kissed mountains in the background and a shadow filled grassy foreground split by a meandering river with bright reflections of the mountains behind. If I metered the camera on the shadows, the brighter parts of the photo were blown out, if I metered on the brighter mountains the shadows were too dark. Using an f/22 made everything appear in focus if it was a bright scene, but the exposure time for my early morning landscape photo was so long I could not hand hold the camera. (Insert visual of me sitting in front of my computer pulling my hair while I see my improperly exposed images) That was an outing I wanted to forget. But back I went armed with the proper exposure info. This time I got the photo I was after.

To learn proper exposure you first must understand that there are basically three universal metering choices. They are matrix or evaluative, spot metering and center-weighted. Your camera manual will tell you what modes you have and how to change between them. I won’t go into those details; instead, I’ll explain what each of these modes do and what photos to use them for.

Matrix or Evaluative Metering
This is probably the most complex metering mode, offering the best exposure in most circumstances a landscape photographer will encounter. Essentially, the scene is split up into a matrix of metering zones which are then automatically evaluated individually. The overall exposure is based on a closely guarded algorithm specific to that camera manufacturer. Often they are based on comparing the measurements to the exposure of typical scenes.

This setting is generally what I use for landscape photography, with modifications using exposure compensation. (We will get to that in a minute)

Center-weighted Average Metering
Probably the most common metering method implemented in nearly every digital camera and the default for those digital cameras which don't offer metering mode selection. This method averages the exposure of the entire frame but gives extra weight to the center and is ideal for portraits. Think of this as a balance between spot metering and evaluative, where the “spot” is much wider and has a softer transition.

Spot (Partial) Metering
Spot metering allows you to meter the subject in the center of the frame (or on some cameras at the selected AF point). Only a small area of the whole frame is metered and the exposure of the rest of the frame is ignored. This type of metering is useful for brightly backlit, macro, and moon shots. Take a landscape photo and meter on a bright sky and the rest of the photo will be dark. Meter on the shadows and the rest of the photo will be blown out.

For the nature photographer, it’s ideal for situations where you have a lit subject (such as a leaf in the sun above) and a darkened background where you want the subject to stand out. If you were to take this photo in evaluative mode, your light meter would average the exposure needed for your lit subject (the leaf) against the exposure for your darkened environment (with more weight given for the background since it covers more area than the leaf). In short, your end result would be an image with a blown out subject and a not-so-dark environment

Another great tool for photographers is the exposure compensation feature. This allows you to instantly adjust the exposure in either direction without having to input the changes manually. You can select to adjust your metered exposure by 1/3 of a stop increment (whether you’re in a priority mode or in full-auto).

I use this often because it’s so much easier than adjusting your settings manually. I mostly shoot in aperture priority mode and there are times when my light meter will over or underexpose my photo a bit. Instead of making note of my settings, going into full manual mode and inputting a different exposure, I can simply adjust my exposure compensation dial and get a different exposure.

So basically, this is a way to instantly override your light meter. Your camera will meter your image and give you an exposure based on its own calculations, and exposure compensation allows you to trump this function without having to go into full manual. It’s very handy, especially since my camera will often underexpose an image by 1/3 to a 1/2 of a stop.

People often ask me what my camera settings are when I am taking landscape photos. So here it is…
• I typically shoot in aperture priority around an f/20.
• I set the camera to evaluative mode.
• I meter the focal point that is as close to a mid-tone colour as I can find and lock the exposure
• I then set the camera on manual focus and focus 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the frame.
• I watch my histogram and make any EV adjustments needed.
• I take three photos, one at the original camera default, one slightly over exposed, one slightly under exposed.
• My camera sits atop a tripod, generally lower to the ground for a more interesting POV and I use a shutter release cable to eliminate any camera shake. (if your camera does it, lock the mirror up as well)

My suggestion is to establish your own workflow that you can follow before every photograph. Yours may differ from mine, and you may have some suggestions for us on your workflow. So please comment below and let us know your workflow when taking landscape photos.

Happy Shooting