Don’t be fooled

Many people have experienced this scenario: They’re photographing something like a concert, play or graduation and the main subject is extremely overexposed to the point of glowing like the sun. What happened?

The camera’s default position is to read the overall amount of light of a scene. Quite often the aforementioned scenes will have a dark background. While we may not see it because our eyes have a much high dynamic range of light and dark, this causes the camera to see the scene as too dark thus overexposing the main subject. This can be caused by a strong spotlight on the subject or even just a darker colored backdrop.

In January, I covered the swearing in ceremony for Mayor Michael Tubbs as well as several other city council members at San Joaquin Delta College’s Atherton Auditorium in Stockton. A black curtain served as a backdrop for the large stage where the proceedings were held. Tables that were set out on the stage for the council members were also covered in a black drape. Even the floor of the stage was painted a flat black. Stockton poet laureate Tama Brisbane recited a poem before the actual swearing in.

As an experiment I put camera on program mode, which automatically sets both the aperture and shutter speeds. While the light on both subject and background were pretty much the same, the black curtains in the background made the camera think the whole scene was darker than it actually was. The result was a overexposed photo. So much so Brisbane’s facial features were almost totally blasted out.

But I knew that the dark background would throw my exposure off and I also knew that, for me, the quickest solution was to switch to manual, which meant that I choose the settings for both the shutter and aperture.

It’s a simple solution and I am a great advocate for budding photographers to learn how to use their cameras on manual. However, it takes time to learn to do and one may not be inclined to do so. What do you do then?

If you’re using a smartphone there’s not much you can do. The phone’s camera isn’t flexible enough. The same goes for most compact point-and-shoot cameras.
The only thing you can do is try and get close, fill the frame with your subject and eliminate the background as much as you can. But that’s not an option and telephoto capabilities with phones and point-and shoots are, at best, limited.

Using a DSLR is the best way to go in situations like this. Even then there are still a couple of different methods you can use. The first is to use the aforementioned manual exposure. This is certainly old-school photography but yields the most accurate and pleasing results. The downside of course is that the learning curve can be pretty steep. You’ll have to learn how to use the camera’s built-in light meter, how it can be fooled by tricky light situations and how to compensate for it. Evaluative metering separates the frame into zones, compares the zones and then averages the exposure. These 2 patterns are usually fine for a landscape or everyday type of shooting but can lead to problems with more difficult lighting.

What you want to use, if your camera is so equipped, is spot metering. As the name suggest, it reads the light at a small spot at the center of the frame, anywhere from 1% to 5% of the total area. This pretty much eliminates the camera reading the background and guarantees you getting the proper exposure on your main subject.

The camera is just a machine that’s easily fooled. With a little learning and practice you can be the brains of your picture-taking experiences and make yourself foolproof.

Contact photographer Clifford Oto at (209) 546-8263 or coto@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/otoblog

Don’t be fooled.

Many people have experienced this scenario: They’re photographing something like a concert, play or graduation and the main subject is extremely overexposed to the point of glowing like the sun. What happened?

The camera’s default position is to read the overall abound of light of a scene. Quite often the aforementioned scenes will have a dark background. While we may not see it because our eyes have a much high dynamic range of light and dark, this causes the camera to see the scene as too dark thus overexposing the main subject. This can be caused by a strong spotlight on the subject or even just a darker colored backdrop.

In January, I covered the swearing in ceremony for Mayor Michael Tubbs as well as several other city council members at San Joaquin Delta College’s Atherton Auditorium in Stockton. A black curtain served as a backdrop for the large stage where the proceedings were held. Tables that were set out on the stage for the council members were also covered in a black drape. Even the floor of the stage was painted a flat black. Stockton poet laureate Tama Brisbane recited a poem before the actual swearing in.

As an experiment I put camera on program mode, which automatically sets both the aperture and shutter speeds. While the light on both subject and background were pretty much the same, the black curtains in the background made the camera think the whole scene was darker than it actually was. The result was a overexposed photo. So much so Brisbane’s facial features were almost totally blasted out.

But I knew that the dark background would throw my exposure off and I also knew that, for me, the quickest solution was to switch to manual, which meant that I choose the settings for both the shutter and aperture.

It’s a simple solution and I am a great advocate for budding photographers to learn how to use their cameras on manual. However, it takes time to learn to do and one may not be inclined to do so. What do you do then?

If you’re using a smartphone there’s not much you can do. The phone’s camera isn’t flexible enough. The same goes for most compact point-and-shoot cameras.
The only thing you can do is try and get close, fill the frame with your subject and eliminate the background as much as you can. But that’s not an option and telephoto capabilities with phones and point-and shoots are, at best, limited.

Using a DSLR is the best way to go in situations like this. Even then there are still a couple of different methods you can use. The first is to use the aforementioned manual exposure. This is certainly old-school photography but yields the most accurate and pleasing results. The downside of course is that the learning curve can be pretty steep. You’ll have to learn how to use the camera’s built-in light meter, how it can be fooled by tricky light situations and how to compensate for it. Evaluative metering separates the frame into zones, compares the zones and then averages the exposure. These 2 patterns are usually fine for a landscape or everyday type of shooting but can lead to problems with more difficult lighting.

What you want to use, if your camera is so equipped, is spot metering. As the name suggest, it reads the light at a small spot at the center of the frame, anywhere from 1% to 5% of the total area. This pretty much eliminates the camera reading the background and guarantees you getting the proper exposure on your main subject.

The camera is just a machine that’s easily fooled. With a little learning and practice you can be the brains of your picture-taking experiences and make yourself foolproof.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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