The Secret To Correct Exposure With Any DSLR Camera – Revealed for the First Time

Jan 29, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

The Secret To Correct Exposure With Any DSLR Camera – Revealed for the First Time

Jan 29, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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the secret to correct exposure

Are you just starting out with photography?  Have you ever wondered why that expensive, brand new, professional grade DSLR in your hands is betraying you and not giving you perfectly exposed photos – every time?

Read this article and you can learn the secret to correct exposure with any DSLR camera – revealed for the very first time – right here on the internet.

(Warning – the truth about getting correct exposures from your DSLR camera may shock some readers – discretion is advised.)

The secret ingredient is… Cough syrup.
Nothing but plain, ordinary, over-the-counter children’s cough syrup.

Homer

Experience.

Works every time.  Works with all cameras.

If you’re looking for a shortcut to success, sorry to burst your bubble.

If you’re wondering why experience counts when you’re holding one of the most sophisticated cameras ever made – keep reading.

I am going to start the explanation at the beginning of time.

Back in the film days…

…getting correct exposure was easy.  You just lined up the little needle in the middle and bang – perfect exposure.

Of course, the real secret was behind the scenes in the lab.  Most modern films have an exposure latitude of several stops – so as long as your initial exposure was in the ballpark, your prints would come back from the lab perfectly fine.

Then along came digital and screwed everything up – while at the same time giving unsuspecting new photographers the illusion that they could easily “fix” poor exposures.

In reality, with nearly all digital cameras, you have to nail your exposure.  Using RAW with a modern professional level DSLR’s helps increase the odds – but if your initial exposure is off by more than a stop – you’re still in the quality danger zone.

This is very counter intuitive for new photographers to understand.  Everyone knows that Photoshop, Lightroom and every mobile phone app ever made has an exposure slider to “fix” poorly exposed images.

Unfortunately, most of the time this means brightening underexposed photos – and if you were shooting in (P)rofessional mode to begin with, chances are brightening that photo is going to cost you image quality.

If you’ve bothered to read this far, you should know exactly what I mean.

All right, according to the gas chromatograph, the secret ingredient is… love? Who’s been screwing with this thing?

Professor Frink

Why Your DSLR Hates You

When I first started taking photography seriously, exposure used to drive me crazy!

What the heck do I have to do to set this camera to take correct exposures?  What are the “right” settings?  Is it the metering mode?  Maybe I have to use exposure correction?  Maybe I have to use this exposure lock button?  What is Active D lighting?  How do I bracket my exposures?

Why can’t this damn thing think for me!???

Your DSLR hates you because it is batting for average.  You on the other hand want it to swing for home runs.  You just don’t know how to tell your camera to hit homers yet.

the secret to a good exposure
An average photo with an average histogram and perfect exposure.

For average photos, an average histogram is awesome.

If you’re getting bored of average, you have to do something else.

Most beginning photographers start by figuring out way’s to trick their camera’s internal algorithms to produce images that look more like what they want – while at the same time sticking with Program Auto (aka “P” aka Professional Mode).

Metering modes, exposure corrections and exposure lock are all examples of “tricks” that tell the camera to modify how to interpret exposure – but there is still no way of knowing that it will spit out the photo that you want.

Plus, it gets very confusing very fast trying to remember how to push which button to set what in which setting.

There is an easier way.

Its called Manual mode (aka “M”).

Free your mind.

how to get a good camera exposure every time
A good photo with a bad histogram and near perfect exposure. Your DSLR camera does not want you to take this photo!
the secret to perfect dslr camera exposures
A good photo with another bad histogram. Good luck trying to trick your camera to automatically expose this properly!

The Real Secret to Correct Exposure With Any DSLR Camera

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a problem getting very close to the exposure I wanted in camera.

My usual process now is to guess what the exposure is (I’m usually in the ballpark), chimp once, adjust, chimp again, good.

(“chimp” v. Photographer slang to quickly look at a preview of a photograph on the back of the camera.  Similar in appearance to fidgety monkeys.)

The odd time I am in a difficult lighting environment, I use a lightmeter for my initial guess and/or compare notes with the histogram.

That’s it – that’s the real secret to correct exposure with any DSLR camera.

And I say that not to sound all high and mighty, but as someone who used to really struggle with getting correct exposures.

Until cameras figure out how to read your mind, you just have to let go of the idea that there is some mystical camera setting that will produce correct exposures every time.

Use Manual mode and practice.  That’s it.

Sing it with me – cause I know you want to!

Let it go, let it go!

YouTube video

Have You Struggled With Getting Correct Exposures With a DSLR Camera?

Are you an exposure correction / exposure lock devotee or do you just bypass your camera’s brain all together and use your own?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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28 responses to “The Secret To Correct Exposure With Any DSLR Camera – Revealed for the First Time”

  1. echomrg Avatar
    echomrg

    i wondered what exactly should i do with cough syrup until i went back and noticed the source of the quote ;)

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      I just realized that particular episode first aired in 1991 – likely before most people reading this were born. I wonder if anyone recognizes the toy holding Superman in the lead photo either.

      1. Joshua Boldt Avatar
        Joshua Boldt

        Hey now, I graduated high school in 1991. :)

      2. buffoon Avatar
        buffoon

        number 5 is alive

  2. Neil Schulman Avatar
    Neil Schulman

    Nice article. That’s also one benefit of an EVF. They aren’t perfect but they previsualize better than anything else.

  3. los mignones Avatar
    los mignones

    I come from a film/video background and chronically under expose. I just cant let the highlights clip but I’m working on it: I gotta let go :)

  4. Rex Deaver Avatar
    Rex Deaver

    While Manual is a tool everyone should learn, another alternative is to use a camera that is actually quite competent at exposure, dynamic range, etc. Which pretty much eliminates most DSLRs and encompasses most MILCs.

    1. I shoot film Avatar
      I shoot film

      lol

  5. fookoffdisqus Avatar
    fookoffdisqus

    Correct exposure. utter utter bollocks. There is no such thing as the correct exposure, only a good exposure. What might be correct to your creative mind will not be correct to another’s.

  6. Nick Avatar
    Nick

    My quick and dirty fix without using manual settings: 1. Keep the metering mode on center weighted average. 2. Put your subject in the middle of the viewfinder and hit the exposure lock button. 3. Recompose your photo and shoot. Works great 99% of the time with pretty minimal fuss.

    1. GS_790 Avatar
      GS_790

      That’s not quick and dirty, that’s just the prudent thing to do. But we may also be talking about two different things. 1: chronic over or under exposure. 2: making choices in difficult conditions. Your advice is more for thing 2.

      If you switch over to manual, and don’t change the meter, you will duplicate the (total) exposure that an automated mode would have made; going under or over the line is just exposure compensation by a different name and dial. Cutting the metering area down to center weighted, or even spot, will allow you to get the subject right, and let everything else do what it does.

  7. Stan Stephens Avatar
    Stan Stephens

    Really? I’m out.

  8. elohiym Avatar
    elohiym

    I place my Fuji X-T1 on spot metering and then hunt the scene slowly. I scan the scene and watch how the camera adjusts to different areas that I’m metering. When I find an area that gives me great lighting across the entire scene without be over or underexposed I hit the exposure lock button. This technique won’t work for every photo you want to take but it works for many situations where there is tricky lighting. When I show folks how to do this they don’t get it until they see how the live view changes as they scan the scene. I like to scan edges where there is no direct light or hard shadows. Usually in any scene something is lit almost exactly how you want your entire scene to look. For example in a backlit scene you can’t focus on the light because you’ll create jet black shadows. If you focus directly on your subject then you’ll clip the highlights. Let’s use the model on the beach at sunset example. If you focus on the sunset background your model will be a black silhouette. If you focus on the model your nice sunset just turned all white. So focus that built in meter on the ground or on an object behind you or on the edge of the horizon where the water meets the sky. Hunt that scene and lock the exposure. Then scan back to your model and see how it looks. Even micro changes in where you focus that meter can have a profound effect on the exposure/live view. I practice this all the time at night while even watching tv. I grab the camera and just hunt the scene in my living room looking at how the camera adjusts itself to different areas that I focus on. Sounds weird but I know my camera and how it reacts to light. Even practice with an iPhone can teach you this technique. Slowly pan around your scene and you’ll see how the phone adjusts the exposure.

  9. fj1200 Avatar
    fj1200

    I shoot a lot for my son’s rowing club. If I can get the sun behind be that’s great – fantastic shots, good exposures, great colour and detail. After about 11am and the sun has moved, it’s much harder. If I’m shooting a regatta often I have to pan and start shooting into the sun and end up away from it within 10 or 15 seconds, but have to cope with the sun and massive glare off the water and then immediately into deep shadow in the trees and darker water on the opposite bank within the same pan. I use a 7D with a Canon 70-300L. Camera set to TV at 1/500 or 1/800 and ISO 400 to freeze the action but still struggle getting good exposures in all cases. Been doing this 4 or 5 years and haven’t cracked it yet but getting there – I mostly struggle with over-exposed images for some reason. But even so have some fantastic shots.

  10. Emiliano Pedruzzi Avatar
    Emiliano Pedruzzi

    i read a book about the zone system, and i find it pretty useful to understand how to set my exposure, i try to “average” what i “see” in front of me to a certain shade of grey and move the exposure compensation from the 0 (as in 18% grey) to what i really want. this method works for me when i take pictures during concerts or parties alike, and i rarely mess with the exposure dial in lightroom too much (if not for artistic purposes)

    however EXPERIENCE is key and a couple chimps will get you there, you only have to find a meaning to what you do and not rely on pure luck every time, to grow as a photographer :D

  11. Sascha Faber Avatar
    Sascha Faber

    There should be a “S” mode for this blogpost… cause it “(S)uck” … perfect metering should be explained properly, not like this written down piece of “i have no clue, but i rant about something”… don’t do the petapixel, pls

  12. Phil Taylor Avatar
    Phil Taylor

    There’s no such thing as perfect exposure…it’s subjective. Pointing the needle in the middle only ever got you perfect exposure if you filled the frame with a grey card and wanted 50% grey at 18% reflectance. In every other shot ever, it failed.

    An exposure meter is there to gain an understanding of where you would like to place tones of an image in relation to the overall dynamic range of the sensor medium.

    A good knowledge of contrast control and light characteristics will give you a pleasing image in terms of tonal values – not exposure.

    Please find some truthful and helpful content before publishing it.

  13. balls Avatar
    balls

    wow, that was very patronising and self aggrandising, considering the ‘revelation’ didn’t come until half way down the page. I would suggest the following accompanying piece:

    The secret to not treating your readers like dumb twats

    …Some grandstanding bollocks, confirming the stereotype of d-bag photogs that rambles on for 1000 words…

    The real secret? Don’t treat your readers like twats!

    (ENDS)

    Also, a quick proof read will help you out…

  14. JOhn C Avatar
    JOhn C

    Not really sure I got anything out of this, becoming a trend. An article to say you get better with practice…maybe… Used to check this site daily, becoming less frequent

  15. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    I’m always surprised at how close I can get when I eyeball exposure in M, but I still rarely do it. I think it works the same way as spellchecking does – even when I’m using one of the other modes I’m watching the settings and remembering them. I should really spend more time practicing in M. Thanks for the encouragement.

  16. Steven Holm Avatar
    Steven Holm

    Getting a little click baity here

  17. Mortimer Avatar
    Mortimer

    everyone who studies photography will learn there is no such thing as correct exposure.
    but what to expec…..t this is a tech side not a photographer website.

  18. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    Dumb click bait title. Patronizing article. Unsubsidized.

  19. grs101 Avatar
    grs101

    100% correct article. Histograms can help but arriving at a ‘correct’ exposure depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the photo. Trying for an even histogram spread with no blown highlights is not as important as artistic direction.

  20. Jessica Horton Camillo Avatar
    Jessica Horton Camillo

    I thought this was great! I don’t think you treated your readers like “dumb twats” at all. I think you are absolutely right! There is no right answer. …except to take that expensive ass camera out of auto and figure the settings out! I loved this, it kept me reading and interested and when I got to the “let it go part” …. I honestly let go of asking myself “what the hell is wrong with me? Why can’t I get it right? ” Answer : The camera is waiting for me to teach it….Not, me waiting for my camera to magically spit out perfect pictures! Ha! I finally get it! Thank you!

  21. Tyler Elmore Avatar
    Tyler Elmore

    This video really helped me with my exposure problems. Hopes it helps you all. Good luck

    https://youtu.be/irWDyplcryg

  22. David Schmude Avatar
    David Schmude

    This is the most useless article I’ve ever read in my life.

  23. Patriarchy Pete Avatar
    Patriarchy Pete

    My technique? Frame the scene and punch the exposure lock button, then underexpose by 3/4 to 1 stop (my camera anyway). Boom, no loss in shadow data and highlights aren’t blown to bits.