How to check whether your exposure is correct?

in Photography Lovers2 years ago (edited)

In this article, we are going to talk about how to check whether your exposure is correct, and how to get the perfect exposure for each image.

Shooting toward the sun is a tricky thing to do. Therefore the histogram is a fantastic tool to shoot images like these. Tamron SP 24-70 F/2.8 @ 27 mm | F/18 | 2 Sec | ISO 100 with NiSi Medium GND8 & Landscape CPL

To correctly expose is often regarded as difficult. Especially for beginners, it can be hard to grasp. After failing a couple of times, beginning photographers might resolve to the automatic mode of their camera again. With this article, I will try to show that it doesn’t have to be that difficult. With learning how to read the histogram you will see that it is a very good tool to find the best exposure for the image you want.

Because of all the ice, there is a lot of "light" in the image, by using the histogram, I made sure to get the correct exposure.

In photography, the basic element is light. You won’t get a good picture without a proper exposure, it’s as simple as that. If there is too little light on the sensor, the photo is underexposed. If there is too much light on the sensor, the picture will be overexposed. In the case of an underexposed photo, the details will disappear in the dark areas and, in an overexposed photograph, in the light areas. The room to correct this afterwards is very limited so it is best to get it right in camera. In contrast to the analogue era, however, we now have some amazing tools that we can use to guide us in finding the best exposure we need to get the results we desire.

The required shutter speed is determined by the amount of light, and the subject (still or moving), in combination with the aperture and the ISO, plus the intended effect of the photo. If you want a waterfall to be sharp and detailed, you use a shorter shutter speed than when you want to emphasize the effect of moving water. The ‘correct’ exposure therefore depends on what you want to show.

I needed to get the shutterspeed right for the fast moving aurora, but also wanted enough light in the foreground. Quite a challenge!

Back in the days of the analog camera, it was necessary to determine the correct exposure values using an external light meter. This was based on knowledge, experience and a certain dose of luck. It was really hard practice and you had to get a lot of experience to master this. Film was expensive so you wanted to have it correct right away. There was no way to preview your image. Fortunately, nowadays the camera has a number of very useful functions. We have the LCD-display, the built-in light meter, and the histogram. I deliberately put them in this order, because that is the way they should be used, as we will learn in the following part of this article.

Now you might think that the image on your LCD screen or digital viewfinder provides sufficient information about the exposure. Overall this might be true, but it is anything but accurate. Because you can set the brightness of the LCD screen, it is variable. Furthermore, environmental factors such as sunlight, reflections or darkness also influence what you see on the screen. It is a handy check to know if you’re getting there, but it’s not a reliable method to perfect your exposure. Therefore, the LCD-display should only be used as a rough indicator.

Photographing in thick fog results in a flatter histogram, because there is less contrast.

To determine whether your settings are correct or not, you can use the built-in exposure meter. Which shows a bar with scale . This is the exposure indicator. The pointer indicates whether your exposure is correct . The camera thinks the picture is right when the pointer is in the middle. With an underexposed photo, the pointer is on the left. With an overexposed photo, on the right. The numbers are called stops. From 0 to -1 means half the amount of light, and 0 to 1 means a double the amount of light.

Personally, I often use the outcome of the light meter as an indication. It often happens that my exposure turns out to be either above or below zero. This really depends on my subject and my intentions. For instance, photographing in snow or straight into the sun messes with the exposure meter. In those situations you need something else, something much more reliable. Luckily we have it! It is called the histogram!

The histogram is an amazing tool! Unfortunately, it is also feared by a lot of people because of its seemingly complex appearance. For that reason, a lot of (beginning) photographers won’t use the it. This is a pity because it offers so much information and once you know what it means, it is really simple to use. As mentioned, the histogram is a much more reliable method to check whether your exposure is correct and to make sure you get the result you want.

The histogram is nothing more than a graphical representation of the number of pixels with a certain brightness.

The histogram is a graphical representation of an exposed image, which shows you how many pixels in your photo have a certain tone on a scale from 0 to 255. The horizontal axis runs from pure black (0, very dark) to pure white (255, very light), with mid-gray in the middle.

Each tone is one pixel wide. The vertical axis shows the amount of pixels that have that tone. If you see a peak, then many pixels have that tone. When the photo is predominantly dark, then the weight of the graph is on the left. With a light photo, the weight is on the right

Using the histogram, it will become quite easy to see when details will be lost in either shadows (pure black) and/or highlights (pure white). A peak at the immediate left side means that image information disappears in pure black. A peak against the right side means information dissolves in pure white. Both are not desirable, but if you are forced to choose (because of extreme contrast difference for instance), go for a peak on the pure black side.

In general, black shadows are experienced as less disturbing than blown out highlights. The shape of the graph depends on the subject and the amount different tones (light and dark areas). And, because all brightness information is displayed in this graph, we can use the histogram for checking our exposure because it accurately reflects the brightness levels. Moreover, you can clearly see what you are doing using live view and therefore prevent errors when fine-tuning your exposure (Image 6).

Because each picture is different, your histogram will be different too. If the histogram shape doesn’t match the typical mountain shape with the center of gravity in the middle, it does not mean that it is poorly exposed. Do not compare your photos with a certain type of histogram. It is a tool that is useful for correcting over- or underexposure and to check whether all tones are represented or not. It is not a fixed rule that you should keep with every shot. The final exposure is determined by what you want to transfer with the photo and your creative vision. This means that you sometimes deliberately overexpose a photo and another time you will underexpose. Sometimes, you even have to over- or underexpose to get the correctly exposed image.

With snow and ice, there often is a lot of contrast. The histogram helps a lot with finding the right exposure!

In situations where you have predominantly light areas in your photo, such as a beach or snow, the automatic mode will produce an underexposed photograph. To illustrate this, I used a picture of a lighthouse in the Netherlands. At the end of the winter, there was a beautiful ice deposit due to prolonged cold and strong eastern wind. I wanted to capture this during blue hour (an hour before sunrise) to emphasize the icy cold even more.

The first photo is exposed to the middle. The gravity point is exactly on medium gray. It can clearly be seen that the photo is underexposed. As a matter of fact, the pars that should be white turned out medium gray. In order to get the correct exposure, I’ve exposed this image towards the right, which means that the center of gravity within my histogram has shifted to the right side of the graph.

Almost all modern cameras have a means to view the histogram. Depending on the brand and type of camera, this can be live, which is awesome because it immediately shows the effect of adjusting the shutter speed, aperture and/or ISO. Your camera doesn’t have a live view of the histogram? That’s no problem; use the light meter of your camera as an indication, take a picture and view the histogram in the viewer. Adjust the exposure and repeat until you are satisfied.

The moonlit landscape seems almost silver!

I really hope you learned something about using the histogram! Get out there and try it for yourself!! I hope my stories inspire you to pick up the camera, and head out for adventure! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

If you like my photography, please consider following me on, and on Facebook


Very informative!!! 😍😍❤️

Thanks very much! Glad you like it!

Enjoyable and informative with some great photography as well, thanks for reasoning to help photographers find our feet!

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Thanks very much for the Upvote!!!

Thanks very much Joan! I think it is nice to help each other to learn new things and techniques.

Always try to learn something new on the little camera I have and some neat tricks learned from people here in Hive. 😌

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Thanks a lot!!

Thanks for the amazing post @harmenpiekema. I am really bad at taking pictures, mostly because I have no technical knowledge, but I am trying to solve this by reading online articles on photography, and posts like yours are really what I am searching for as a newbie. Thanks again for sharing this

Thanks for the nice compliment! I really hope my article will help you achieving that! One of the most important things is to have fun and to enjoy what you are doing!! Get out with the camera and don't look too much at other images. Try to find what you love and go for it!

Thanks for the advice, I appreciate that. I think that I will probably enroll in a photography course just to learn the basics and then go out and have fun 😊.

I think I learned something.

I'll have to read it a few times to pick up all the valuable information, then take out my camera and click click click away.

Glad to hear!! And most importantly, have fun photographing! That helps!!

Good read, well explained and very informative. Also, nice to see another Dutch photographer here. 😀👍

Thanks very much Thijs! Yes, there aren't that many!

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Thanks very much!

I have to admit at firstI have only looked at your beautiful photos, Harmen, but then it was great to refresh my knowledge. Great article and very helpful 👍

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Thanks a lot for the nice compliment! Really appreciate it! Always love a good beer too! Thanks!

All my pleasure, Harmen, you're most welcome 🙂

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Danke sehr @johannpiber, einen gutes bier ist immer schön!!

Nice to discover you here Harmen! Was already a fan of your instagram (but somehow my account got deleted by the end of November...😕) and nice that I'll be able to follow you overhere.

Nice post with some great information about the histogram!

Thanks very much!! Glad to hear you liked it! Yes instagram is weird...

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Thank you for your support @harmenpiekema, much appreciated!

That is an awesome tutorial with some epic shots!
Thank you very much for sharing!

Thanks so much for the nice compliment! Glad to hear you liked it!!

wow what an amazing view my friend likes

Thanks very much!

Wow! so cool!

Thanks very much!! Glad to hear!


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