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Getting the best exposure (10/24/2007)
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 film will be underexposed and 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 somewhat. 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 of the rainbow. You can then delete the shots that don't live up to your expectations.

In the previous two articles, we covered ways of getting good exposure while out in the snow, but it wouldn't hurt to review those techniques here to emphasize them. Foremost in importance is keeping the camera warm and dry. Next, you'll want to avoid underexposure. With print film, underexposure would result in loss of the detail in the highlights, and increased graininess in the photos. 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 film or digital SLR, or a compact digital camera with exposure adjustments, open up two stops under bright sun, one stop if the sky is overcast. If the option is available, you could also increase exposure with the backlight button. Also, if it's available, you could use the Exposure Compensation Bar and set it at +1 or +2. With a digital camera, you can review your pictures later when you get in a warm environment.

Firelight is beautiful, fascinating to watch, very unpredictable, and virtually impossible to meter. Photographing a bonfire, campfire or burning building with a compact film 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 film or digital SLR 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 a film 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 film or digital 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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