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Photo Editing For Amateurs – Part II: Photo Exposure

Proper photo exposure is the most important factor in creating a good image.  Ideally, you capture the right amount of light on your subject when you take the picture.  But let’s face it, sometimes we need a little help after the fact.  And that’s where editing software can some to the rescue.  In my last post I shared a number of very good software options, so if you haven’t selected a program to use take a look at that post.

Good news – obtaining the “right” photo exposure is not an exact science.  Rather, it is subjective and is very much in the eye of the photographer.  What I think looks perfect may be too bright or not bright enough for your tastes, and vice versa.  So what we’re really doing is taking what comes out of your camera and seasoning to taste.  Editing for exposure, then, is just about making sure the areas of your photo that are important to you are presented in the best possible light.  Pun intended.

What Exactly Am I Looking At?

There are three general areas to consider in any photo:

  • Highlights – These are the bright parts of the image.  Typical highlight areas will be things like skies, shiny objects, and white dogs.  If you care about showing your viewer the highlight areas you want to make sure they are not overexposed or “blown out”.
  • Midtones – As the name suggests, these are the middle tones in a picture.  Grass and trees, Caucasian skin, and gray or tan cats will all be midtones.  If your subject falls in the midtone range you want to ensure that the tones are accurate, and not to dark or too light.
  • Shadows – Finally, shadows are the dark parts in your photo.  Shadows on faces, dark clothes, and black dogs will all be considered shadow tones.

Editing for photo exposure is simply a matter of adjusting each of those areas to your satisfaction.

A good first step is to ask yourself “What’s the subject of this picture?”  If it’s a white dog, you’re going to want to show the details in the fur and make sure the pup doesn’t have a nuclear glow.  You’re going to focus on the highlights in that photo, and you’re going to set the exposure to bring out the bright tones.  If you’re working on a shot of a black horse, it’s the opposite.  You want to adjust the exposure so the viewer can see texture and muscle tone in the dark coat.  And so on.  Be clear on what you want to show your viewer and adjust accordingly.

Take a look at the images below to see how this works.  The left image is what came out of the camera.  The photo exposure is pretty good – assuming my subject is the horse.  But what if my subject was the fan in the stall?  The second picture illustrates how I can crank up the exposure, bringing out the detail in the shadows to show the fan.  Because I’m not concerned with the highlights looking good, I don’t concern myself with the ridiculously bright horse.  It’s all about the fan!  Of course, when I took the shot I was seeing the white horse in his stall, and that’s what I wanted to show my viewer.  So when I did my editing I lowered the exposure to bring out the detail in the hair and show a little bit more of the contours in his facial structure.  You’ll note that the fan is no longer visible at all, but I don’t care about that.

photo exposure

Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but I hope it helps demonstrate the idea of adjusting an image to your taste.

How Do I Do It?

How you actually make the adjustments varies from software to software, but almost all programs use some sort of slider.  I use Adobe’s Lightroom, and exposure control is done by moving the slider to the left to make the image darker and the right to make it lighter.  The nice thing about a slider is you can use your mouse to make smooth adjustments and watch them take effect on the photo on your screen.  A little left, a little right…boom, that’s perfect!

photo exposure

The Exposure slider in Lightroom.

There are many adjustments you can make to your pictures if you like, but photo exposure is the foundation on which everything else rests.  Get that right and you can take an average photo and make it better.

In my next post in this series I will discuss how to use your photo editing software to adjust contrast.

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