How to rock your exposure in photography: Advanced techniques that will help anyone

Updated: Mar 17

Exposure in photography is nearly the most important tool for your artistic style. For a very long time, I didn’t pay enough attention to this question: How to choose the correct exposure? Exposure in photography is one of the fundamentals since photography is all about light.

In this post, I will describe how you can manipulate Light by choosing the settings of your camera. Will try to give some insights into how great images are created. And also try to focus attention only on complete understanding of exposure.

When I was starting out, what I found in different tutorials, is that I need to use manual mode on my camera, to learn faster. I was walking for years taking pictures in manual mode. I didn’t have any understanding of how to expose a photograph. By that I mean I was learning how to use shutter speed, aperture, and ISO but not the exposure. By the way, it’s good to master all of that, but I actually barely use manual mode and mostly use only AV mode since I can do almost everything with that.

What mistake I made for an embarrassingly long time is that I exposed the images without thinking of how I wanted to see them. Since obviously, the cameras can’t see the world the same way we see, it’s better to understand well how to use these limitations. Our eyes can capture much more information than the camera. I remember people saying it’s so beautiful but it won't look as good on a photograph. And Yes it won’t look the same on a photograph, but in many cases, it definitely will not look worse.

How is important exposure in photography

Knowing how to use exposure in photography and how to choose the right exposure setting opens up a great way to manipulate almost everything in your photograph. You can change the mood of the whole photograph.

Good photography is a stylised version of the world and not a copy of it. By changing the angle you can make it more or less dynamic and can attract the viewer to your subject. You can do almost the same by exposing the pictures with the aim to show your subject and improve your photography composition. Photography is a form of art and it’s very versatile. Of course, in some cases it’s important to show the colours and light the same way as in the real world, there are cameras worth 40 thousands made for it. But here we are talking a bit more about your own perspective of the world and that’s where it’s very important to know all the artistic tools and basics to create the masterpieces that you will share with the world.

How dynamic range works

Let me quickly explain to you how exposure in photography and dynamic range works.

So the biggest line on this picture is the whole range of light from shadows to highlights.

Since we can not see all of that, the dynamic range of our eyes is narrower. The most narrow is the range of your camera. Exposure in photography is your choice of which part of the light will be captured. Since camera can’t capture everything. So anything on every side of the line will be either too bright or too dark.

And if you expose your picture focusing on highlights (to not overexpose it), you will get a lot of shadows. And vice versa if you expose for the shadows you will overexpose the highlights and get a lot of white on your picture. I will show some examples below.

The picture below was exposed automatically and right in the middle of the light metre. Basically, the camera captures the mid-tones but not most of the shadows or highlights.

Since the camera can’t see the whole range of light, I get overexposed highlights and underexposed shadows. And the mistake would be to try to make the shadows brighter and highlights darker. All you will get is not these details in the shadows but artefacts and noise.

Of course, you can try to use HDR and combine 3 images to get a bigger dynamic range.

But What I want to say is that you can turn your narrow dynamic range into an artistic tool.

Many great photographers and cinematographers expose the frames for the highlights.

I did the same on the example below

Example for tutorial how to use exposure in photography
-2 exposure to protect the highlights from overexposing

I took this picture ~2 steps darker. In this example, the dynamic range of the camera is positioned in the highlights area. It instantly created a lot of negative space and dark areas where you can’t see any details at all. I personally like focusing on the highlights since it’s a great way to hide all the unneeded and odd details in the shadows

Overexposed image. Example for tutorial how to use exposure in photography
+2 exposure to keep the shadows bright

Sometimes you can also expose for the shadows, then the highlights will glow and will be completely white. I would only recommend doing that if you have a certain idea and the needed details are only in shadows. You might need it for portrait photography for instance.

Overexposing a photograph is a rare thing since we do not often see highlights overexposed and it looks less natural.

What I try to say is that there's no exact, correct way of exposing an image. You only need to choose the optimal exposure for your needs. Different light setting and purpose - different exposure. As a short recap, let me show an overview of the different exposure types below.

How to expose highlights and use shadows as an artistic tool

So once we know the different ways to expose a photograph let’s start to use this as an advantage. Don’t be afraid of the dark shadows. Try to see patterns in them and find interesting ways to compose them. A shadow can create context and make the composition more dynamic. One of the most important things in design is shapes.. They create the mood of any artwork. The design of the shapes is a completely different topic but what I wanted to mention is that the shadows can work as very good big shapes. They can be dynamic if they lay diagonally or static if they positioned horizontally and vertically. They might make a picture calm and relaxed or eerie depending on your own desire.

Luckily It was sunny during the time I wrote this post and I took some photographs where I can show how a picture can be better if you turn down the shadow

An evening photograph of a shop. Example for tutorial how to use exposure in photography
Sunny evening in Berlin

Apotheke in Berlin. Example for tutorial how to use exposure in photography
Old pharmacy sign in Berlin

underexposed photograph. A Tutorial for understanding exposure in photography
A street in Shöneberg, Berlin

Underexposed image of an arch in Berlin. Tutorial for understanding exposure
An Arch in Shöneberg

By using the shadows you open new horizons in your photography game.

If you use Manual mode try to expose your highlights perfectly and shadows darker and try to see where you can make them even darker. If you’re a lazy guy like me and use AV mode I would suggest using exposure compensation and (when needed) set it to -1 or -2 until you see nicely exposed highlights.

How to train this technique

For small training, I would suggest:
  • Go out with a camera on a bright sunny day.

  • Try to switch on AV mode (aperture priority), set aperture around f6-8

  • Set exposure compensation -2.

  • Walking around, try to find highlights around you, try to see the shadows and the shapes. If you see an interesting spot of light in a shadow, focus on it and leave the shadow dark.

  • This way you can add a lot of mystery to a photograph, hide a lot of things inside the shadows and attract the viewer to the desired part of an image.

  • One more thing you can do in post-production is to also darken parts that aren’t completely dark but also not needed there.

  • If you try making the photographs this way for a couple of hours you will definitely start to make your images more minimalistic and subject-focused.

Some more images where I use my knowledge of exposure in photography

Dark nigh image of a woman on a coast of a lake under a street lamp. tutorial about exposure
Anna In Tegel

A cinematic photo of a couple in a tunnel
Foggy night in Manchester

A portrait of a young man in a car park with dramatic light
A portrait in a car park

Low key photograph of a woman standing on a square
Low key photo in Manchester

Dark cinematic photograph of a young woman. For tutorial about exposure in photography
Cinematic shot made at home

That’s everything I wanted to say for this topic.

If you enjoyed my photography tutorial and want to try out this technique I’m sincerely happy about that.

Please feel free to share your images and thoughts with me.