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Getting the best exposure (01/11/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

We can usually rely on our camera's meter to give us the best exposure, but there are some situations in which the meter reading is not accurate, needs some adjustment, or is of no use at all.

One of the most spectacular sights in nature is a rainbow. If the sun is shining brightly right after a storm, you might find one toward the south early in the morning or to the north late in the afternoon.

To capture a rainbow on film, you should overexpose print film by one or two stops. If you expose for the sky, the rainbow will probably be washed out. The best thing to do is aim the camera at a relatively dark part of the scene, lock in exposure, then compose the rainbow scene as you want it and snap the picture. The colors in the rainbow will be strong; and as an added bonus, other colors in the scene will also be quite rich.

If you shoot slide film, just the opposite is true - you'll want to underexpose the film. Aim the camera at a relatively bright part of the sky, lock in the exposure, compose the scene as you want it, and shoot.

Also, to shoot good rainbows with a digital camera, you'll want to underexpose. But you'll also have the chance to review your shots. Take several pictures with the camera aimed at varying degrees of brightness in the sky for as long as there is brightness in the colors. You can then delete the shots that don't live up to your expectations.

If you are one of those people who like to be out with a camera on wintry days, you know the importance of keeping the camera warm and dry, but you might not know how to obtain the best exposure of snow scenes. If you were to take a picture after metering off the snow, the image would be underexposed. With print film, you would lose much of the detail in the highlights, and the graininess of the film would be increased. If you shoot slides or digital, the snow would be grayish in appearance, and much of the detail would be lost in the shadow areas of the scene.

In order to get nice white snow and retain shadow detail with print film, slides or digital, meter off the snow, then increase exposure. If you have a 35mm or APS SLR, open up two stops under bright sun, one stop if the sky is overcast. With a compact 35mm or APS camera, increase exposure by using the backlight button, if it's available on your camera. On a digital camera, you can use the Exposure Compensation Bar and set it at +1 or +2. You can review your pictures later when you get in a warm environment.

Incidentally, snow scenes are much more interesting and dramatic if the sun is shining. Shadows created by the sun give a greater feeling of depth to the scene, and they also give roundness, form, and texture to the snow.

Firelight is beautiful, fascinating to watch, very unpredictable, and virtually impossible to meter. Photographing a bonfire, campfire or burning building with a compact 35mm, APS or digital camera with no exposure adjustment capabilities is somewhat risky because the results are so unpredictable, but go ahead and try it anyway.

Even with a sophisticated SLR or digital camera on which exposure can be adjusted, there is no good way of getting an accurate meter reading of fire. A better method is to use a generalized "Exposure Factor" technique. With the EF method, the aperture is always f/4. To find the shutter speed, set up a fraction with 4 as the numerator, the ISO of the film as the denominator and reduce it down. For example, with ISO 400 film with an SLR, or when a digital camera is set at ISO 400, the fraction becomes 4/400, or 1/100 sec. A shutter speed of 1/125 is close enough. Don't be frightened. This is about as much math as you will find in these articles.

Because the calculated exposure is only a generalization, bracket exposures. With a 35mm or APS SLR, take a shot at the determined exposure, then increase the exposure one or two stops for a second picture, and decrease it the same amount for a third shot. If you're using a digital camera, you might have an Auto Exposure Bracketing (or AEB Mode). If this is the case, use the most extreme settings. Or you can use the Exposure Compensation Bar, both extremes of the bar. As we said, shooting fires with any compact camera can be risky, but don't let that stop you. 


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