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Quick Tip: Perfect Beach Exposures Every Time

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Read Time: 4 min

Why do cameras sometimes take the fun out of going to the beach? Not only is sand your enemy, the sun can be as well - and not only for sunburn. When the sun is very bright, your exposure is likely to be off if you leave your camera to pick the settings. This tip will help you get the settings right first time so you can spend more time enjoying your break and less time taking more photos “just to make sure.”

It's Beach Time

It's a white sunny beach, nothing can go wrong. Swimmers? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Camera? For sure! Let's get a few shots before we lie down in the sun. Hang on, I can't see the picture properly on the screen, it's too dark. Never mind, auto mode will get it right.

Or will it?

Here’s a typical beach image, using the camera’s automatic exposure settings. Technology is smart nowadays, right

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The funny looking box in the corner is a brightness histogram. Don’t be scared - this isn’t a maths lesson. Dark areas in the image are represented on the left of the graph, bright areas on the right.

Now here’s a shot taken a couple of minutes after the previous one. Same beach, same day – with just one simple setting change.

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Exposure Compensation to the Rescue

What did I change? The exposure compensation. I told my camera “pick whatever exposure you want, then make it brighter again.” The problem is that cameras are programmed to assume the average brightness of a scene will be a predetermined value, regardless of what you are actually shooting.

The actual value is called 18% gray, meaning the average area of the scene being used for metering purposes reflects 18% of the light. Enough of the technical stuff, let’s move on.

As I’ve explained, on a bright beach, your camera will set the exposure to fit its formula, and it will get it wrong. To avoid being caught out like this while shooting on the beach, find your camera’s exposure value (EV) compensation, and set it to +1 or +2. The brighter the beach, the more you’ll have to crank it up.

The value +1 tells your camera to let more light into the camera, so the image will be brighter, also called “+1 stop.” Setting your exposure compensation to +2 will make the increase in brightness even greater.

Here’s a comparison between our two beach scenes:

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Notice how in the first image, the histogram is predominantly bunched up in the middle? This is the camera seeing gray. The area in the histogram boxed in red shows the most common brightness level for the image. In the next image, the camera was forced to see brighter than gray, and the result is not only a histogram weighted to the right, but a pleasing exposure too!

It’s easy to see the brightness histogram for any image when it’s on the computer. In Photoshop look under View > Histogram and change the Channel setting to Luminosity. But how about in the field?

Many cameras now have a histogram function built in. This means you get to see the magical histogram right after taking the shot. Some cameras will even show you the histogram before taking the shot. How cool. Look up your camera manual to find out about your specific display settings.

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Bright to the Right

Just remember “bright to the right” and you'll be fine. When the scene is bright, make sure your histogram shows the values bunching together on the right. This means your exposure will look correct. Your camera will think it’s wrong, but you know better.

After trying this tip out for a few times, you will soon get the hang of intelligently predicting your exposures using the histogram and will be well on your way to improving your photography.

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Kick Your Heels Up

So now you know how to trick your camera into shooting great pictures on the beach. The technique you have learnt today can also be used in the snow, as the camera’s metering will be confused in bright snow the same way as on a bright beach.

You can relax after all and get back to that sunbaking (or snowboarding), knowing for sure your images will turn out fine!

This tutorial was originally written by an instructor who requested their name be removed.

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