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YOUR CAMERA AND MIDDLE GRAY

Last week we talked about composition. This week, I want to turn your attention to light. Without it, you have no image. So today, let’s focus on how your camera sees light.

If you look at a standard gray scale one end is pure white and the other is pure black. Of the several shades in between, the one right in the middle is called “middle gray.” (see an example here: http://tinyurl.com/3yvz7t)

Believe it or not, this middle gray is a standard that your camera is set to expose for on every photo you take. With each shot, the camera reads and evaluates the overall light and dark in the image and then makes the exposure for middle gray. Usually cameras today are pretty close. But what that means is if your image has areas that are overly bright, it can trick your camera into underexposing parts of the shot. The same applies in reverse. Areas that are too dark can trick your camera into overexposing parts of you shot.

Take this shot of three kids on Halloween (http://tinyurl.com/3yvz7t)

See that brightly lit area on the house and the highlight area on the little boy’s foil crown?  These two areas together fooled the camera into thinking that the subjects of the image — the boys — were brighter than they actually are. As a result, their faces are underexposed.

In my adjusted version (http://tinyurl.com/3yvz7t), the bright area on the house is almost entirely washed out. Much of the detail is now missing. But what’s more important here is to see the boys’ faces clearly, not the details of the house.

Another tricky light situation is winter shots with lots of white snow. The camera will see all that snow and try to make the overall scene middle gray, underexposing the shot.

This shot (http://tinyurl.com/3yvz7t) of dogs in the snow, submitted to our challenge this month, is one such example. All that snow on the ground fooled the camera, though the darker tree area kept it from underexposing as much as it would have if it were just the dogs and the snow.

Knowing what your camera is looking for and how it does its calculations will help you “fool the camera” when you want to have control over the final results.  When you’re in a situation with a lot of snow, for instance, you can do a few things to compensate for the mistake your camera will be inclined to make…

The first and easiest solution is to see if your camera might actually have a setting for snow. If it does, then switch it to that setting. This tells the camera to adjust for the scene being predominantly white. The camera will automatically make the adjustments and not try to make your snow middle gray.

The other, more advanced, thing you can do is to make the adjustment yourself. In your camera’s modes you can set your camera to take shots that will be 1-2 f-stops over or under exposed (read your manual for how to do this on your camera).

Take a few test shots and look at your histogram — remember that you are intentionally overexposing. Turn on blinking highlights if you have them, and be sure that only the areas of brightest snow and white are blinking and areas that should have detail are not blown out and blinking as well.  When switching modes and making these types of adjustments, be sure to change them back when you’re done!

Another thing you could do (and this will sound counter intuitive) is to use fill flash on the subject. Doing this will help balance out the white of the snow and your subject — in this case the dogs — by putting more light on them and, thus, providing proper exposure.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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