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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Stop underexposing your pictures

Guitar Hero
© 2009 Simon Hucko

I talked the other day about how your camera meters a scene. In there I mentioned that your meter assumes that every scene is 18% gray, which is an average for a "normal" scene. If you just go with the meter, you're going to end up with pictures that look dull and gray. This is a mistake that all new photographers make (including myself), and a quick stroll through Flickr will show you plenty of examples.

To prove my point, I grabbed a quick flower shot. The first picture was taken using matrix metering with no exposure compensation. The second was taken at EV +1. These are straight conversions from Aperture, with only the standard RAW developing (no exposure or levels adjustments):


Proper exposure

As good as the camera's meter is, it got confused by all of the white, and thought the scene was brighter than it really was. By setting the exposure compensation to +1, I counteracted this and got a correctly exposed picture. This was an extreme example where I knew the meter would get it wrong, but there are many times when walking around that the meter will expose under where it should be because of a bright patch in the scene. It's not the meter's fault, that's what it was designed to do. You just have to realize what's going on and make the necessary adjustments, either in camera or in post. (But that's lazy. Do it in camera.)

Just for kicks, I did a quick edit on the second photo:

Proper exposure (edit)

I did a custom white balance on the petals to make them truly white, boosted the saturation, adjusted the levels until I got the brightness and contrast that I wanted, did some noise reduction and edge sharpening, and then added some vignetting. You can see that it ended up even brighter than the "properly exposed" shot above. I considered it properly exposed because it held the highlight detail (texture on the flower petals). I pulled the middle tones up to give it more overall brightness without losing the detail on the flowers. If I had exposed for where I wanted the leaves to be, the flowers would have blown out and lost all detail.

Look through your photos and see if you can find ones that are underexposed. Try to figure out why your meter did what it did. Pull them into your image editing software and see if you can get a better result with a little tweaking. And remember - friends don't let friends post underexposed photos to the internet.


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