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Why Is Exposure So Important?
Jim Doty, Jr.

Taking control of the technical side of exposure is essential to empowering your creative vision.

In the words of National Geographic photographer,  Dewitt Jones, "Regardless of where you are in your photography; beginner, advanced amateur, or professional; vision without technique is blind. No matter how beautiful the conception, a good image will not manifest without good technique."

Exposure is at the heart of the photographic process.

It not only determines how light and dark the various tones in your image are (the technical side of exposure), it also determines the "look" of your images (the artistic side of exposure). Every exposure decision is also an artistic decision. If you have your camera on auto exposure, you have turned over the artistic decisions to a computer chip. There are dozens of exposure combinations (apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO settings) that will give you exactly the same "exposure" (lightness and darkness of tones), but very different artistic "looks". Only you know the look that you want for a particular image.

Your camera can't read your artistic mind.

Your camera doesn't know that you want to make a particular sunset darker and more dramatic, or that you want to create a certain portrait with delicate, ultra light skin tones. Your camera doesn't know that you want to freeze ever water droplet in a fountain, or that you want to create a blurry "angel hair" waterfall. It doesn't know that you want the Tahitian gliding across the Pacific in a pirogue to be slightly blurred and the background more blurred to show motion, or that you want to freeze a cityscape but blur the lights of the cars.

Your camera doesn't know that you want the background behind your flower to be a totally soft blur, or that you want your landscape to be sharp from right in front of your lens to the distant horizon. All of these artistic decisions are created by exposure choices. Artistically, your camera is clueless. Your vision won't become a reality unless you take control of exposure


Left on autopilot, your camera will give you average exposures of average scenes, but it won't always give you the best exposures.

Auto exposure can have problems, especially with the dramatic subjects and dynamic lighting that often have the most artistic potential. And sometimes your camera gets things totally wrong. There are times that auto exposure works just fine. Other times it will be far from the results you want.


Finally, the best exposures will also give you the best colors.

If you miss the best exposure with your camera, you can correct the exposure with software, but the colors will be off. Miss the "ideal" exposure by more than 1/2 stop and the colors start to shift. Miss by a stop or more and the colors shift dramatically (and software won't be able to correct the color shifts after the fact).

Gretag-Macbeth ColorChecker

This is a properly exposed photo of a Gretag-Macbeth ColorChecker with the individual color patches labeled.

This is what happens when the chart is overexposed and then the overall exposure is corrected with software. The problem is the exposure of each individual color patch doesn't "exposure correct" in the same way. Many of the color have shifted and some of the colors can't be recovered.

This is what happens when the chart is under exposed and then the overall exposure is corrected with software. Once again, the exposure of each color patch doesn't "exposure correct" in the same way, and the colors have shifted dramatically, some of them becoming so dark they can't be recovered without blowing out the other colors.

This is second row of color patches from the above three exposures. You can see how the colors have shifted. The orange patch on the left turns yellow when overexposed and red when underexposed. It is virtually impossible to use software to do both an exposure correction and a color correction for every individual color in a photograph. If you correct for one color, you will throw the other colors even farther off.

Taking control of exposure will give you the best possible colors your camera is capable of producing.

One of the first signs that a photographer has become serious about the quality of their images is the desire to master exposure.

In the series of article linked below, I will take you through the basics of exposure.

Exposure Articles:

Speaking Your Camera's Exposure Language: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Using Reflected Light Meters, Part One

Using Reflected Light Meters, Part Two

Simplify Your Life with an Incident Light Meter

Turn Your Camera Meter Into An Incident Light Meter: Using an ExpoDisc

Using a Gray Card, Incident Light Metering on the Cheap

The RAW versus JPEG Exposure Advantage

My Exposure Book

My most detailed and comprehensive coverage of the art and science of exposure is in my photography book, Digital Photography Exposure for Dummies.  In Parts I and II there are 10 chapters of information (220 pages in all) with exercises, photos and illustrations devoted entirely to both the science and art of exposure.  If you are a beginner, the book will quickly bring you up to speed. If you are well beyond the beginner phase, there are plenty of intermediate and advanced techniques for you to go out and try. You are getting a beginners guide to exposure and an advanced guide to exposure, all in one book.

In Parts III and IV, everything you experienced in Parts I and II will be applied to all kinds of photographic situations and topics. Go here to find out more.


December 22, 2010
Updated June 6, 2013

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