How to always get exposure right - your camera's exposure settings explained

Unless you tend to stick to your camera’s Auto option, you’ll probably be aware of the many ways in which you can adjust exposure on your camera. Those set in a particular way of working may forgo many of these for one or two of their preferred methods, but for those getting to grips with their camera knowing which one to use in a given situation may be confusing.

Should you, for example, use exposure bracketing or exposure compensation? Or perhaps just shoot Raw and tweak exposure in post processing? If your images are a little dark, should you switch to a different metering pattern or would it be better to use a dynamic range adjustment setting? And what about the manual exposure mode?

The simple answer is that all of these can be useful – it’s knowing when to use the one best suited to the scene you’re shooting which is key to making your shooting easier. Read on to find out what each different options does and when best to use it.

Raw shooting

Shooting Raw images allows you to decide many processing options after you’ve captured your images. While you still need to pay attention to your exposure when shooting Raw images, you can make tweaks to overall exposure, shadow areas, highlight details and so on once you’re sat in front of your computer, taking time to get the exact results you want.

When to use it: If you’re in the habit of processing your images and card space allows, it’s a good idea to shoot in Raw images so that you always have a high-quality version.

You may not need to for general snapshots, but as Raw files contain more information than JPEGs, you’ll find that adjusting Raw files for more considered images will leave you with better-quality results than if you were to do the same to JPEGs.

There is, however, only so much information in Raw files that you can tease out of shadows and bring back in highlights, so you should aim to get the result right in camera as much as you can with an additional method, be it exposure compensation, bracketing or something else.

This is particularly the case with most compact cameras whose latitude for processing Raw images is typically more limited than when using a camera with a larger sensor. The more appropriately exposed your file is to begin with the less you’ll have to adjust it in processing – and so the more information your image stands to retain.

Exposure compensation

Exposure compensation allows you to bias your camera’s exposure either towards underexposure or overexposure, and you can typically adjust this in fine increments.

When to use it: This is useful when your camera consistently gives you a meter reading that’s doesn’t quite work for you. So, if your camera is consistently capturing slightly dark images, for example, adjusting exposure compensation by +1EV or so will ensure they consistently turn out closer to what you’re expecting.

This could, for example, be because there are lots of bright or shiny elements in the scene that cause your camera to underexpose or because you’re shooting darker details that the camera overexposes.

Exposure compensation is also useful when shooting a subject against a differently lit background, something that often fools a camera into giving inappropriate exposure. Remember that if your conditions change this may no longer be accurate, so always remember to return exposure compensation back to 0 once you’re finished with it as otherwise it will affect all subsequent images.

Bracketing

Bracketing, or Auto Exposure Bracketing, usually results in one standard image, one image the camera deems to be unexposed, and an image the camera considers overexposed. By giving you three images (or five, or seven, depending on what your camera allows and how you have it set up), you increase the chance of ending up with one image with the most appropriate exposure.

When to use it: Bracketing is useful in many conditions. You can, for example, use this when lighting conditions are constantly changing, such as when shooting under flashing or constantly changing lights, such as with performance photography.

If you’re using a tripod for a landscape or similar scene, you can use this to take three identical images with different exposures for the purpose of blending them together later, so that you end up with a single image with a wider dynamic range than what’s normally achievable by the sensor (a technique known as High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging).

Useful tip: If you know that you are unlikely to need one of the exposures when bracketing, you can use this feature in conjunction with exposure compensation to give you two in the direction of your preferences.

So, let’s say you’ve activated bracketing by 1EV each way so that you have one standard image, one image underexposed by 1EV stop and one image overexposed by 1EV stop.

If you don’t think you’ll need the underexposed image – instead, you’d rather have one normal image and two overexposed ones – simply apply +1EV exposure compensation and the camera’s ‘underexposed’ image will be the standard one, leaving the other two overexposed by different degrees.

Manual exposure mode (M)

This mode lets you change aperture and shutter speed independently of one another. Although the camera still uses the metering pattern you’ve selected to judge exposure, you will need to adjust each parameter yourself.

This can take a little longer but it places more control in your hands and allows you to easily make adjustments tailored to the scene.

When to use this: This option is particularly useful when you may want to alternate between adjusting exposure by changing shutter speed and aperture.

So, taking a moderately-lit scene as an example, you can quickly combine a wide aperture with a fast shutter speed, or a small aperture with a long shutter speed, or a value somewhere in the middle for each.

Manual exposure is useful when you don’t want the camera to change aperture or shutter speed if and when it deems necessary, as it would do when using the Program, Aperture-Priority and Shutter-Priority modes.

This is also useful when using flash, particularly as you need to ensure your shutter speeds stays at an appropriate speed for flash synchronisation.

Dynamic Range Optimization

This option, which goes by names such as Active D-Lighting on Nikon cameras and Dynamic Range Optimizer on Sony’s models, adjusts exposure separately for particulars areas rather than for the image as a whole. Although the exact way in which this works varies between different cameras, it aims to get a good exposure for shadows, midtones and highlights so that details are visible throughout different areas.

It typically offers a number of options so that its effect can be tailored to the scene, although it can be set to ‘Auto’ to let the camera decide this.

When to use it: This option is best employed when your scene has a naturally wide dynamic range. So, a landscape with a good proportion of darker and lighter areas, or perhaps when shooting indoors, where you want darker interior details balanced with brighter ones appearing through windows.

It’s in these scenes where it will have the greatest effect, although the strongest settings can greatly reduce contrast, so only use this if necessary.

Center-weighted and spot metering modes

The default matrix, or evaluative, metering mode takes all areas of the scene into account when judging correct exposure, but switching to another metering pattern may be a better idea if you’re shooting many images of the same subject in an atypical set of conditions.

The center-weighted metering option biases its exposure towards the main subject but also considers the surrounding areas, while the spot metering option only uses a very small proportion of the scene to judge exposure for the whole image.

When to use it: Center-weighted metering is ideal when your subject is lit in a different way to the background, such as when shooting portraits against a bright sky or backlighting, as using the standard evaluative metering pattern here is likely to lead to underexposure.

Spot metering is useful when the subject occupies only a small proportion of the frame, such as when capturing an insect on a blade of grass. This ensures the exposure is completely accurate for the subject at the expense of all other areas.

AE Lock

Unless you use the manual exposure mode, your camera will be changing the aperture or shutter speed (or both) as it deems necessary to produce the most appropriate exposure for the scene. The AE Lock option allows you to quickly lock the exposure to a particular set of settings so that you can use them for all subsequent frames.

When to use it: AE Lock is useful whenever you meter a scene and achieve the exposure you’re happy with but then need to change your position or framing, which could cause your camera to give you a different meter reading.

It’s also useful when something you cannot control in the scene is causing meter readings to fluctuate, such as flashing lights or areas changing in brightness around a subject, and it’s also very useful when using centre-weighted or spot-metering patterns, where slight changes in your position can cause the meter reading to change.