Dont blow your shot! Exposure explained.



A few photo terms explained and then let's get to it!

When I use the term "highlights" I am referring to areas of your image that are considerably brighter in relation to the rest of your image i.e the sky or a light source. When I use the term "blowing highlights" this refers to overexposing and therefore losing crucial information/detail in that area of the image. See below..

Highlights in Photo tutorial, example photo


Now look at the image closely, although it was a very bright day, totally spotless without a cloud in the sky, you will see that the ground to the side of the car - still retains some detail. I have edited this image to be particularly contrasty as it is a black and white photoshoot of a bold and striking Rolls Royce. That is the style I have opted for...

However, the way I shot the image allowed me the freedom to edit in a way that afforded me several options with how I wanted the image to look. I will now explain to you how to do this with a DLSR camera. Its important to note that this technique is only relevant to digital cameras and not film, film actually retains some detail that is salvageable if its highlights are blown. But we wont get into the nuances of film photography in this post.

Moon rise underexposed photography tutorial example

Here we see a photo that has been underexposed on purpose. Let me explain why. This was taken in the Italian Alps in a lofty chalet overlooking the mountain range (not bragging) and allowed a great vantage point. I had two options here..

  1. Expose for the town beneath and capture the details of that and totally blow the highlights of the sky (the light and colour, by the way, being caused by the moon rising over the mountain, something I've never seen before!)

  2. Expose correctly for the sky to capture the part of the image I wanted to capture most detail in.

It's usually always a question of - think about what you actually want the image to look like, don't just point and click and hope for the best. Think! 

Lets get technical. Well, a little bit. 

I personally shoot Nikon currently, but have also used Canon and countless other cameras in my time. What they should all have, is an exposure reading/meter when you are looking through your viewfinder which is like a scale or slider - a minus usually being on the left indicating underexposure and a plus sign being on the right, with a 0 in the center. What the camera companies would usually suggest is that a photographer should expose perfectly by making sure your focal point is showing up as 0, bang in the middle for a great image. 

Highlights exposed for photo/Lightroom


What I have found over the years are a few things. Overexposing the sky, a light source or a building wall is fine at times - you may want that edgy contrasty look. When it comes to people, or subjects that you want to capture in detail however i.e the logo and wheel on the rolls royce, the skin detail of the skater, or the skin on the models face as seen below - don't overexpose, in fact you want to underexpose, by at least a few stops. It's also worth noting that your focus point will determine your focusing meter reading, you need to point it onto the area you want to expose for. Modern cameras are smart, but not that smart. 

Example of shadows and highlights in model photography/studio photography

This technique allows you to bring up the highlights and brightness if you wish, but if you overexpose and "blow" the highlights where they matter then you are really going to struggle to recover that detail and portray an image with a reasonably natural range of shadows and highlights. Think of your image as a file of information (romantic I know), if you blow your highlights you have lost a significant portion of information in that area, and you may struggle to get the desired aesthetic for your image in post-processing. 

There should be enough for you to think on there, but dont just take my word for it - get out there and shoot the sh*t! 

I hope this proves helpful, subscribe to my facebook page and maling list for up to date tips. 

Jonny x