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How to Approach Exposure Creatively

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Many photographers understand the technical pursuit of photography. However, the key to making great photos is obviously more complex than calculating the proper exposure value. We all know that photography is subjective, and approaching art requires a trained eye. Today, we'll look at how to approach exposure as a way to improve our creative process.

Today, we're taking a look at how to expose creatively in two ways. The first of these is to understand the creative effect that manipulating the settings can have. Not all stops of light are created equal, and exposure is more artistic than simply balancing light. After mastering that aspect, we'll take a look at some of the creative approaches toward making exposures. Many scenes can be exposed in a variety of ways depending upon the photographer's vision.


Up until now, you may have always approached exposure from the technical perspective, carefully selecting settings to balance the exposure. If you moved the scale to adjust for a different shutter speed, you compensated with perhaps an aperture or ISO adjustment. Or, maybe you're still using the automatic mode that does the heavy lifting of selecting settings for you.

This approach works "well enough." But if you're ever going to reach the level of controlling the exposure, you'll need to choose settings proactively. That means approaching exposure with a vision in mind for the photo. This is what it means to visualize the outcome and then create it using the tools at your disposal.

Think First

By now, you're probably familiar with the factors of the exposure triangle: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Unfortunately, too many beginners approach these three settings as if they're equal. Sure, moving down a stop of aperture and up a stop of ISO will keep the exposure in balance, but there's simply more to creating great photos than keeping light in balance.

Instead, a better way of approaching exposure is to consider the desired visual effect, having a clear mental image of how you want the final product to appear. Each of the three settings controls not only the light in the photo, but the way the camera "paints" the scene. If I approach a scene in which I wish to isolate the sharpness of one element, I'll think in terms of aperture. If I want to convey a sense of motion, I immediately shift gears and consider a shutter speed that achieves just that.

During my early days of assisting and second-shooting for some amazing wedding photographers, one of the most impactful bits of advice that I remember receiving was to learn to think in terms of just one setting. That means thinking first in terms of the visual product, and of the settings as a subsequent choice.

If I wish to isolate the sharpness of one element, I'll think in terms of aperture. If I want to convey a sense of motion, I immediately shift gears and consider a shutter speed that achieves just that.

The most talented wedding photographer that I ever shot with said that she thought strictly in terms of aperture. Sure, she would pay some attention to ensure the shutter speed was fast enough to avoid blur, but she had trained her eye to consider aperture. While she certainly had the technical prowess to shoot in full manual mode, I perceived that she was certainly a more free creative when she thought in terms of aperture; in terms of limiting the focus area using wide apertures.

This photo was only made possible by first having the visual idea of conveying a sense of motion, and then selecting a shutter speed that would create it. Photo by Forrest Lane.

Speaking of metering and exposure scales, another beginner error is to spend too much time hung up with learning scales. I certainly made the mistake of attempting to memorize f-stop scales in my early days. This certainly has some technical value, but given all that I still need to learn about photography, I realize that my time could have been spent much more wisely.

Ideally, we do not allow the camera to constrain the creative process. When you approach a scene and begin to photograph it, are you dictating how you want the finished product to look, or are you letting your technical knowledge dictate how the final photo comes out? With enough creative experience and adequate technical knowledge, we can begin to reach the point at which we decide how we want the finished photo to look, and then choose the appropriate settings.

This is where modes like shutter speed or aperture priority can become extremely useful. There was a time when I thought I had reached the pinnacle of technical knowledge because I shot in full manual mode. However, despite the fact that I can use manual mode perfectly and select all the appropriate settings, I almost prefer shooting in aperture priority now. Creative freedom is always the goal, and my personal opinion is aperture priority gets me there.

Again, consider the idea that visualizing this photo was the first step in the photographer's creative process. Limiting the depth of field was pivotal to making the focus the man, and not the scoreboard in the background. The photographer utilized aperture as the creative driver. Photo by Forrest Lane.

In short, I think that it's time to flip the model of choosing settings on its head. Instead of letting settings come to you through a function of automatic modes, consider how you want the image to appear before you ever peer down the viewfinder. Determine if you want action frozen or motion conveyed, and how much of the photo you wish to be in focus. This is a much better starting point for an exposure than putting the camera in program mode and guessing from there.

Two Paths of Exposure

If ever you find yourself stressed about capturing an image with the "correct settings," step back and take a breath. I have good news: there's no best way of exposing a scene. Let's look now at some of the creative decisions that fuel choosing settings, and approaching exposure from multiple perspectives.

In reality, almost every scene brings with it two unique ways of exposing it. One of the classic examples of this is how a photograph of a person against a sky can be handled. When placing a subject against that background, there's essentially two parts of the photograph that could be exposed for: the subject, and the sky. When exposing for the subject, you're likely to blow out the sky, while exposing for the sky will leave the subject as a silhouette.

One caveat, of course; when you're hired or commissioned for a shoot, there are certainly more strict creative directions (even if only implied) by your client. Sure, you could expose every photo of an engagement session as a silhouette, but I certainly wouldn't guarantee your clients happiness.

My friend and fellow photographer Forrest Lane recently made this photo of me, which includes a mix of lighting. His technical knowledge allows him to manage the bright window light alongside the shadowed areas, which were balanced nicely for what I think is an appealing outcome. Photo by Forrest Lane.

Anytime that we work with strong lighting, there are going to be different approaches to exposing the photo. Up until now, you may have only used evaluative metering to meter a frame, but this is where some of the more focused metering modes can come into play.

If you aren't familiar with metering, think of it as the way that a camera determines how much light is in a scene. Cameras of the past lacked a meter, but nearly every modern SLR camera includes metering through the lens, which you'll often hear called "TTL" metering. The default metering mode on most cameras is to evaluate the light throughout the entire frame to choose appropriate settings.

This frame was photographed utilzing the evaluative metering setting that takes into account the entire frame. You can see a lot of detail in the shadows, as well as throughout the frame.

If you're looking to hone in on the way that you meter, considering using one of the more focused types of metering. Either spot metering or center weighted metering doesn't take the whole frame into the exposure calculation - instead, it selects a smaller amount of the frame and suggests settings to properly expose for that one region of the photo.

As we start to think about the different ways of metering the frame, it's not hard to realize that in situations with mixed lighting, there are different routes to take. We can meter for the shadows and ensure that light fills them in the final frame.

This frame is in the same location as the one above, but I metered for the sky and underexposed the clouds to bring more contrast and darkness to the image, knowing also that the sky would be enhanced. There's no best way of shooting this scene, only two ways of painting it with our camera.

Even more important than the settings we choose is the vision that we conceive for the outcome of the photo. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that there is one proper way of exposing a photo; there are simply differing ways of approaching them.

Wrapping Up

Photography is a creative and technical pursuit. However, many photographers lean toward approaching exposure from the technical perspective of compensating stops of light. The examples above show that managing exposure can take two routes between exposing the highlights or shadows and the outcome will be radically different.  Ideally, we can envision the scene as we want the final product to appear, and then select the settings that get us there.

How do you approach exposure? Do you let the camera lead you in a direction or do you have an idea in mind before you start selecting the settings?

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