Whats the Best Exposure Method?

“If we know exactly where we’re going, exactly how to get there, and exactly what we’ll see along the way, we won’t learn anything.”—M. Scott Peck

In photography there are no one perfect or correct way to do anything, although some program presenters speakers may disagree arguing that only their way is the one, true perfect road. I disagree. There is no “my way or the highway” in photography. In my world—and on this blog—you get to choose the way that works for you. Even a road less traveled is OK; if it produces the results that you want. If it doesn’t, it’s time to look at alternatives and with testing, fine-tune them to your preferred subject matter and way of working.

If you have a hand-held or in-camera manual meter setting of 1/500 sec at f/11 and want to use a slower shutter speed allow for subject or camera motion and choose 1/125 sec you’ll have to adjust the aperture so that that the same amount of light falls on the sensor. By selecting aperture (Av) or shutter priority (Tv) mode, your camera does this exposure for you, eliminating the all of the guesswork. Sometime when I have to work quickly, I’ll use Program mode (P) as in the above image at the Tokyo Motor Show, which produced an exposure of  1/60 sec at f/5 and ISO 400. And then there’s Manual mode, which I wrote about yesterday.

Gray Card: When using the substitution method, you replace an object within the scene with an object of known reflectance, such as a Kodak Gray Card or Gray Card Plus and take a reflected-light reading from this object. You can also substitute objects that match the light reflectance quality of the object in the scene. Don’t have a gray card? Back in the film days I used to take a reading off of grass, if there was any in the scene, and open up one stop.

When pointed at subjects that reflectivity near 18%, reflected light meters—in camera or in hand—are calibrated to give an accurate exposure. The exact value varies and  details are complex with some handheld meters measuring 12% with others at 14%. By placing a Gray Card in the scene to be photographed and taking a reading off of it with any reflected light meter, you can expect consistent exposures but sure be sure to read the fine print instead of just accepting the reading as gospel. The instructions packed with the Kodak grey card, for example,  contain the following advice about adjusting meter readings:

  • Normal subjects: “Increase the indicated exposure by ½ stop.”
  • Light subjects: “for very light subjects decrease exposure by 1/ stop”
  • Dark subjects: “If the subjects is dark or very dark increase the indicated exposure by one to one and one-half stops.”


light.bookBarry Staver and Joe Farace are co-authors of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s currently out-of-print but while new copies are available at collector (high) prices, as I write this you can purchase used softback copies for less than eight bucks from Amazon.

Author: Joe Farace

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