Understanding Exposure | Simple Tips for Better Photography

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Understanding Exposure

I own an expensive DSLR.  So why are my pictures so dark? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, this post is for you!

Understanding exposure is a giant step towards better photography.

My favorite tools for getting great exposure straight out of your camera are cheap, and sometimes even free!

Read all about getting your exposure spot-on.

When a camera is left to it’s own devices, it will interpret correct exposure as middle gray, commonly referred to as “18% gray”.  In other words, cameras can’t think as well as you can.  They will go for the “average” scene, and assume that you have a typical amount of values (lights and darks) in the frame and calculate your exposure based on that assumption.  A lot of times this works very nicely.  But other times, things go terribly wrong. And without understanding exposure, we can be left scratching our heads as to what went wrong.

Have you ever taken a photograph that you thought was going to be fantastic, only to have your friends face completely in the dark while the background looks perfect? I see this all the time.  Posts on Facebook, Instagram, photo albums, you name it.  We’ve all seen it.  And technically, it makes perfect sense.  The camera chose the exposure, so the background was brought down (darkened) by the camera (along with your subject) to achieve that middle of the road, 18% gray. Without understanding exposure, it’s going to keep on happening.  Here’s a visual to help you understand how your camera sees 18% gray:

understanding exposure
how a camera meters for 18% gray

(This is for illustrative purposes only)

If you let your camera evaluate the exposure of the above image, you’ll get this as a result:

understanding exposure

Again, your camera doesn’t know that you want a light, airy photograph, so it aims for 18% gray.  And gray is what you get. This is where understanding exposure and how to adjust your camera properly will help! [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row equal_height=”yes” content_placement=”top” css=”.vc_custom_1476840066731{margin-top: 0px !important;margin-right: 0px !important;margin-bottom: 0px !important;margin-left: 0px !important;border-top-width: 0px !important;border-right-width: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 0px !important;border-left-width: 0px !important;padding-top: 0px !important;padding-right: 0px !important;padding-bottom: 0px !important;padding-left: 0px !important;background-color: #e1d6da !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″ css=”.vc_custom_1476839562115{padding-bottom: 25px !important;}”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1476839417144{margin-top: 0px !important;margin-bottom: 10px !important;border-top-width: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 10px !important;padding-top: 0px !important;padding-bottom: 0px !important;}”]

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Do you want to go in-depth and learn all about understanding exposure?

I HIGHLY recommend this book by Bryan Peterson.  Check it out on Amazon.

(This is an Amazon Affiliate link – if you click through and make a purchase on Amazon, I receive a small commission and I’m thankful for it :).  Amazon prices through this link are the same as you would find if you went straight to Amazon yourself.)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1476838291430{padding-top: 20px !important;}”]

Tip #1 – Set your exposure manually.

1. Set your camera to M.  That stands for manual.

2. Find something that is 18%, or middle gray.  You can buy a gray card online.  It’s a cheap yet valuable tool to have with you when shooting.  If you don’t have one, use something else that will read as middle gray to your camera.  This could be the palm of your hand if you have medium skin tone, or my favorite when shooting outdoors – green grass (that’s the free part, and it works as well as a gray card).

3. Put your 18% gray object in the light you will be shooting in.  This is important.  This is the light that will be falling on your subject, so it’s the light we need to measure.  Fill your frame with your 18% gray object.  Adjust your aperture and shutter speed so your camera indicates correct exposure.  Like this:

camera, exposure, tips, photography

Did I just lose you with that last part?  If so, here’s where you get a little homework.  Go find you camera manual and read up on how to adjust your aperture (or F-stop) and shutter speed.  Camera manufacturers all do this a little differently, so it’s more than I want to tackle here. But you need to know how to do this.

Once you’ve set your exposure manually, shoot away.  Most likely you’ll want to make some minor adjustments as you go.  Not every single camera will be spot on metering at 18%, so more than likely there will be some wiggle room.  The more you shoot, the better you’ll get to know your camera and how it “sees” the light. If you shoot enough, you’ll do all this without even thinking about it.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the same image, shot manually and in program mode. No editing has been done to either picture.

understanding exposure

Tip #2.  Use exposure compensation.

If you are just too uncomfortable shooting in manual mode, have no fear.  There is a fantastic tool on almost every camera that you can utilize to get better exposure!  It’s called exposure compensation.  I have (and use) this tool on my phone, my little point-n-shoot camera, as well as on my DSLRs (digital single lens reflex).  And quite honestly, if I’m shooting purely for fun, I use it a lot.

If this is new to you, go grab that camera manual again and look up exposure compensation. You need to know how to make the adjustments I’m about to tell you about.

Step 1: Put your camera in whatever “auto” mode you like.  I prefer aperture priority, but you can choose which ever you prefer.  Go ahead and shoot in “P” mode – fully automatic if that’s your comfort zone.

Step 2.: Learn to read the scene you’re shooting.  Is it a bright scene?  Do you want your picture to be brighter than that 18% gray we talked about earlier in this post?  Then you just need to “tell” your camera that by adjusting the exposure compensation towards the + (plus) side.

understanding exposure


Is the scene dark and you want the image to be dark?  “Tell” your camera that by adjusting your exposure compensation towards the – (minus) side.

understanding exposure

Here’s a photo I took with my Android phone using exposure compensation.  I adjusted it to allow less light in and created a silhouette of my son at the driving range.

understanding exposure


If you’ve got 6 minutes, check out this video for live examples of exposure compensation:


Play around with your exposure!  The farther left or right you go, the more dramatic (in a good OR bad way) your results will be.  It’s all about learning to read the light, and enjoying the process!


I really love talking about photography, so feel free to comment with any questions you have!  I’ll do my best to help you out.  

Except for the camera meter images and golf silhouette, all photographs in this post were shot with Canon equipment.

understanding exposure in photography