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One of the most important elements to any photograph is its exposure level. You may have captured a great fleeting moment, composed an interesting composition or photographed a beautiful landscape, but unless it is well exposed (and/or lit), it will always be less than it could have been.

This lesson looks at the various camera metering methods you can use to ensure a good exposure for any situation, as well as some ways to shoot for the digital darkroom so that you can create perfect exposures of high-contrast scenes. This is just one of several lessons on exposure that will be posted on Web Photo School, so be sure to check back for more.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • A look at different metering choices
  • How to shoot in the ESP mode
  • Controlling exposures through the viewfinder
  • How the Exposure Level Indicator works
  • Shooting a winter scene
  • Taking multiple exposures for various elements of a scene
  • Using Layer Masks in Adobe Photoshop to merge multiple exposures

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


    With most cameras, there are a few exposure metering modes to choose from. Depending on the lighting situation, you can select the best mode to capture the optimal exposure. Here, we will take a look at the various modes in the Olympus E-1 camera, but keep in mind that these modes also apply to most other cameras as well.

    In the E-1, there are 3 different metering modes: ESP, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The chart below illustrates the differences between these modes:

    Metering Modes

    Metering Modes

    Both Center-weighted and Spot metering modes are good to use in high contrast situations where you know that certain parts of the shot are going to be either over-exposed or underexposed.

    To properly expose the important part of the shot in such a situation, you would set the metering mode to Spot or Center-Weighted, point the lens at your subject or something neutrally toned (some part of the shot that is not too bright or not too dark), press and hold the shutter halfway down, re-compose the shot if need be, and then press the shutter the rest of the way down.

    This kind of shooting technique is best illustrated in outdoor portrait photography, where the exposure of your subject is vitally important. Stay tuned for upcoming lessons that examine these two types of metering.

    For most situations, however, it's best to leave the metering mode to ESP or Matrix modes. In this lesson, we will demonstrate how to use the ESP mode to capture optimal exposures of a winter landscape.

    To set the mode to ESP in the E-1, turn the power on, press and hold the Meter button located to the left of the viewfinder and turn either the Main dial or the Sub dial until ESP appears in the control panel (figures 1 & 2).

    Remove the lens cap (if you haven't already), set the Main dial to M (manual) and look through the viewfinder. Press the shutter button down halfway and you will notice a series of numbers at the bottom of the frame (figures 3 & 4).

    The first number is your shutter speed, which you can adjust by turning the Main dial. The second number is your aperture number, which you can adjust by turning the Sub dial (figures 5 & 6).

    To the right of the Aperture number is the Exposure Level Indicator. Depending on where you have your aperture and shutter speed set, the Exposure Level Indicator will display a reading on either side of the center post (figure 7).

    Figure 7

    Each increment on the Exposure Level Indicator represents an Exposure Value, or EV. The Exposure Value changes as you adjust your shutter speed and aperture settings. The chart below illustrates how the Exposure Level Indicator appears through the Viewfinder, as well as in the Control panel:

    Chart 2

    Chart 2

    Once we arrived at this tidal inlet in southern Maine, we made some adjustments to the camera before shooting. We set the EXPOSURE mode to Manual, set the FOCUSING mode to MF, set the ISO to its lowest setting (100), set the RESOLUTION to TIFF, and set the White Balance to DAYLIGHT to match the color temperature of the sun (5500 K).

    We set the aperture to f/8 to ensure an adequate depth of field and then adjusted the shutter speed until the Exposure Level Indicator was close to the center post. In this case, it was 1/200th of a second. Once everything was dialed in, we took a shot (Figures 8 & 9).

    As you can see, the Exposure Level Indicator did very well at determining the proper exposure. There is some detail in the white clouds above, the snow looks fairly white, and the trees, even though they are a little dark, are exposed fairly well.

    For many people, this first result would make a fine winter landscape print. For others, however, the trees, rocks and snow are a little too dark and the sky is a little washed out. To remedy this situation, we will next demonstrate how to both increase and decrease the exposure levels within a single frame.

    In situations where one exposure cannot capture optimal exposure levels of both the light and dark sections of an image, it is best to take several exposures of the image and then later merge them into one using Adobe Photoshop. This is similar to using the traditional dodging and burning techniques in film printing, but will yield much more flexibility and control. After all, if you're going to shoot digitally, why not use it to its full potential?

    Right after we shot the first image (f/8 at 1/200th of a second), we took 3 more shots at different exposures. First, we increased the shutter speed to 1/320th of a second (-4 EV) to render more detail in the sky and took a shot (figures 10 & 11).

    Then we decreased the shutter speed to 1/125th of a second to render a brighter exposure of the snow, and finally one at 1/100th of a second to render more detail in the trees and rocks (figures 12 & 13).

    (Note: If you want to have the images line up perfectly, use a tripod when taking the various exposures.)

    Once we were back at the studio, we downloaded the images to a computer, opened up these 4 exposures in Adobe Photoshop and dragged the darker exposures onto the brightest using the Move tool.

    To do this, select the Move tool, hold down the Shift key (this ensures that the image will be positioned precisely on top of the receiving image) and simply click and drag one image onto another. Here, we placed the darker exposures onto the lightest one so that the layers descended from dark to light (figures 14 & 15).

    The idea here is that you are going to reveal (and hide) the various layers of the file to create one optimally exposed image. To do this, you will use Layer Masks.

    First, press the "d" key to set the color swatches to their "default" colors (black on white). To create a Layer Mask, make sure your Layers palette is visible, select the top layer by clicking on it, and then click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the palette (2nd icon from left). You will notice a white box appear next to the thumbnail of your layer. This is your Layer Mask that you will paint on to reveal areas of the layer beneath it.

    Next, select a large, soft-edged Paintbrush and paint over the areas you want to hide. In this case, we painted over everything except for the dark streak section of the sky (figures 16 & 17).

    Figure 18

    When our sky was where we wanted it, we made another Layer Mask on the next layer down and painted over everything except the sky to reveal the lighter exposure of the trees, water, rocks and snow (figure 18).

    Finally, we made a Layer Mask on the 3rd layer and painted over the areas of the trees and rocks to reveal the lightest exposure on the bottom layer (figure 19).

    Figure 19

    Figure 20

    The nice thing about working with Layer Masks is that you can always go back and make adjustments them. You can even use the Paintbrush at various opacities to fine-tune the exposure levels.

    It is always good to save the layered version of a working file so that you can go back and make changes should you need to. Once the layer file is saved, you can choose Layer>Flatten Image to flatten the image and save as a TIFF or a JPEG file (figure 20).

    (Note: If you want to send the file out to be printed at a professional photo lab, remember that they typically like to see files for print in the TIFF format. If you want to post the file to a web page or email, you'll want to resize the image for screen viewing and save it as a JPEG. To learn how to prepare your images for print and the web, check out the lesson on this site entitled Up and Running With Digital Cameras, located in the Digital section of Web Photo School.)

    Here you can see the difference between a raw capture and our final result (figures 21 & 22).

    The difference is quite noticeable. In figure 21 the sky is well exposed. In figure 22 (our final result), the sky, trees, water, rocks and snow are all well exposed: a great final result.

    On our way back from this tidal cove, we took some other shots at various exposures and later merged them to create the following results (figures 23, 24 & 25).

    Figure 25

    The exposure of each element in these images would not be possible without applying the Layer Mask techniques illustrated above. Layer Masks work beautifully with high contrast scenes. By shooting multiple exposures and editing them digitally, you can create perfectly exposed images every time, no matter what your lighting conditions are!

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