The Perfect Exposure

An article by David Brooks on January 27, 2009


I have written before about the correlation between aperture and shutter speed but this time I wanted to go in a different direction. We know that aperture and shutter speed come together to make “the perfect exposure” but what if you don’t want “the perfect exposure”?

We’ve all taken those photos that we have metered properly but still doesn’t carry the same impact that the actual scene did. It would be easy to think that the camera is not able to capture the image for one reason or another, which may be accurate depending on the scene, but it also might be a question of which exposure is actually “perfect.”

If an exposure is made up of light, aperture and shutter speed it would be reasonable to say that as one of those values changes the others must be adjusted as well in order to create the same image. Sometimes your camera cannot understand what your eye sees. The fact that HDR Photography exists should indicate that there is a difference between the range a camera and that of our eyes. But all of that aside, there are things we can do to adjust our exposures to get us in the right direction.

Personally, I like to set my aperture and ISO for the lighting and then adjust the shutter speed as necessary. To me, that lowers the number of things I have to adjust in order to take photos and take them quickly. That leaves shutter speed and focus as my typical adjustments. Let’s say I take a photo like this one:

Demonstration of the camera metering of an exposure

(Admittedly I have been looking for an improperly captured photo for awhile now, my D80 is usually pretty good about catching the right tones. Snow, however, is often a problem for cameras.)

Though it is metered correctly, to me the colors just aren’t where they should be. I need to adjust my shutter speed to make the image more intense. I notice that the colors are a bit washed out by the sun, so I’m going to speed up the shutter speed to compensate. Though not metered correctly from my camera’s perspective I feel that this image is a bit more appealing overall.

Demonstration of the camera at the perceived exposure

Considering the way the images are presented above it may not look like much of a difference between the two, but there is a difference. To illustrate that I went a step farther and created some variations to show how saturation changes by adjusting just one element, in this case the shutter speed. The suggested metering from my camera is 1/1250, however my preferred exposure is 1/2000, one step faster. You can click on the images below to see the variations.

  • 1/4000
  • 1/3200
  • 1/2000
  • 1/1250
  • 1/640

In this example I’m showing really small changes to the coloration over a series of images. In the real world, if you’re shooting something like a really dynamic sunset it may be an adjustment of four or five shutter speeds in one direction before you find the colors that really stand out. Even photos of people could stand to be adjusted if the lighting isn’t where you want it to be. My point is simply that we cannot always rely on our camera’s sensor to deliver what the eye sees.


This is occasionally viewed as something for Photoshop to handle. I have nothing against using Photoshop, but I’m not going to endorse that method whole-heartedly. I would prefer to take the best photo possible and then adjust as necessary. Especially since in the case above, had I left it to Photoshop I would be missing some of the actual tones from the snow. Photoshop can work miracles, but it’s really difficult to add what isn’t actually there.

So while this may seem elementary to some of you, it may be the thing that makes someone’s next photo shine.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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