How to Get the Correct Exposure with your DSLR

Ol+Mis+Dock001-186x1601If you have taken your camera out of Auto or Scene mode and tried to take pictures and failed miserably, It is probably because you do not understand how to get the proper exposure for your lens and body combination. Understanding and controlling exposure is something that can literally take years to even come close to mastering. Even then you are probably still going to learn something new every other time you drag out your camera. So what can we do to allow us to get the right exposure while we are still learning. Keep reading to find out.

If you have read many of my tutorials, you will know I constantly tout that you MUST learn to use the manual modes on your camera if you want to take anything more than average images. The problem for most is simply remembering the vast amount of information that is thrown at you while you are learning how to use your camera. Terms and catch phrases are thrown around like snowballs until your seeing nothing but white. Exposure, F-stop, aperture,ISO,Bracketing,blown out, shutter speed, and on and on. Later on these will all make sense, and you will be able to use them with skill and forethought. But what about right now?

I am not talking about learning how to use all the manual functions of your camera right now. I am talking about tools that will give you a  starting point that will allow you to experiment more with manual and get acceptable results. Acceptable is referring to your idea of what your image should look like.  The argument for the correct exposure will go on for decades, but for the purpose of this article, it is a non issue. So what tools can I use to make it easier to use manual on my camera?

The Sunny 16 Rule
The Sunny 16 basically states that if your outside, and it is bright and sunny, then you can set your F-stop to f16 and your Shutter speed will be the closest you can get to your ISO, so you set your camera at f16, and your shooting in ISO 100 your nearest shutter speed would be 1/125, iso 400 would use 1/500 or there a bouts. It generally just gets you a good starting point to snap a couple of images and adjust from there. Now obviously this doesn’t help you a bit indoors. So what do we do in this case? This is where we are going to have to have some help.

The Printable F-Stop Calculator
Coming from an engineering background, slide rules are a common tool used to quickly determine a needed value. Apps for your phones etc are quickly becoming a common replacement for those old fashioned paper tools. But that is not necessarily a good thing. I can reach in my pocket, pull out a slide rule, adjust and return it to my pocket before you can get your phone opened and start searching for your app. I will then have the shot taken before you start entering numbers to figure out what f stop your needing. Plus the chart on the back of the slide rule gives me a mental image that my brain can refer to later if I need to recall a base setting.

The Slide Rule is a simple DIY project that makes it very simple to get a basic starting point for a well exposed image. This particular one is done by Andrew R.Lawn, and full instructions are found here.  Andy’s Handy Exposure Calculator. After your introduction to EV ( a whole other article) you will notice on the back that there is a really nice EV starting guide to get you shooting in a hurry. Knowing these rough starting points can be very helpful in learning how to adjust on the fly. Set your camera tot eh settings ont eh slide rule, snap an image, then see which way you need to adjust. Very simple and doesn’t require a degree in rocket science to understand.

Here I have included two versions of his calculator to download and print out. I tried several models before I found this one and I like it the best. It is best to print it out on heavy card stock though. It will last much longer. I have made a version of these for every camera bag I carry.

Regular Sized – ExposureCalculator

Mini Version – ExposureCalculatorMini

Sekonic l-358 Lightmeter

Light Meters
Your camera has a perfectly good light meter built in to it that probably does a pretty good job calculating your exposure in most lighting situations. But it does have its short comings that limit your ability to take a good image. Even with the the newest cameras using numerous focus and exposure points, they still can’t always expose for exactly what your wanting. They in general expose for the entire scene in front of you. Which means your probably going to either lose shadow detail, or blowout the highlights at some point. One way to avoid this is to use an external light meter that you can pinpoint exactly on what you want to expose for. You don’t have to go out an drop a fortune on the best meter there is. In fact I recommend against it. You need to get something that will in fact do what you want, without overwhelming you with gadgetry you do no need. I started out using the in camera light meter, but also using Andy’s printable calculator as well. I then migrated to Vintage Argus light meter I found second hand in a thrift store. Though old it still worked well for my needs. I have since stepped up and purchased a Sekonic L-358 that I found Second hand and very cheap on E-bay. So take your time and move up as your skills and needs improve.

So you now have a few items that can help you get started on the road to a well exposed image. Using tools such as these will simply allow you the photographer take a better image faster, with a lot less over or underexposed images. As a result this will save you a ton of post processing and giving you more enjoyment from your hobby.

Good luck and keep Shooting STR8!



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Is an amateur photographer and writer who enjoys sharing information with others. "Technical information sharing is a critical part of helping everyone become a better photographer. If you don't know it, you can't do it!" From Film to Digital, photography has changed a lot, but the idea of learning hasn't.

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