Exposure – Examples

Nature photography offers both opportunities and challenges when it comes to exposure. One way to recognize the opportunities is to look at lots of photographs. I learn a lot by looking at images made by good photographers and, especially, noticing the lens and settings used. You can usually puzzle out why certain choices were made when you examine the resulting image and the conditions under which it was made.

This post presents examples together with comments and settings (all ISO 200 – my camera’s low normal ISO – except where noted).

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Often, the most dramatic images are those made when shooting into the sun (back lighting). However, this situation presents much greater exposure challenges than does sun behind you (front lighting) and sun to the side (side lighting). Front lighting is often boring. Side lighting is wonderful for emphasizing texture. Back lighting is in a class of its own for the variety and drama it offers.

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Silhouettes are obtained by back lighting the subject. Spot or center metering in order to properly expose the bright parts will give a good starting exposure for a silhouette. Beyond there, use the histogram & exposure compensation for fine adjustments.

A common factor - telephoto lens (between 180-300 mm), ground fog for soft color and eye protection, tripod & knee pads

Left f/4.8, 1/6400, 180mm, EV – 2/3;  Center f/5.6, 1/1250, 200mm, EV 0;  Right f/22, 1/320, 300mm, EV – 2/3

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In order to get the proper back lighting, you need a light source behind your subject. For nature photography this normally means sunrise or sunset. In studio situations, properly placed flashes provide the desired back light (and side & front – often all in varying locations and combinations). Maybe we can have Esta provide examples. For now, I’ll continue with landscape & nature.


Left f/16, 1/200, 14mm, EV 0;  Center f/16, 1/160, 18mm, EV -1/3;  Right f/22, 1/400, 29mm, EV -1/3

These three were all made with a wide angle lens to take advantage of a wide angle’s ability to keep everything in focus from near to infinity. Note the water drops on the cattail leaves in the left image – less than 2′ from the 14mm (f/16) lens. In the center image I was slightly further away and used 18mm (still f/16 for a HFD of about 3 feet). Still further in the right image and used 29 mm (but now f/22 to compensate for the longer focal length’s effect on the HFD). In each image I wanted the foreground to be mostly a silhouette.

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Left f/25, 1/125, 70mm, EV -1/3;  Center f/22, 1/50, 18mm, EV -1;  Right f/22, 1/25, 18mm, EV -2/3

These three images all illustrate an interesting effect – a sun burst. Fairly easy to do when shooting into a bright source of light. Two elements to the “trick” –

  • Stop your lens way down (I normally use f/22)
  • Allow just a very small piece of the light source to “peek” past the edge of your subject. If there’s too much bright light it won’t work. Experiment, and check your LCD monitor to see how well you’ve done. This also works with night photography as shown below –
  • Left f/16, 18mm;  Right f/5.6, 46mm
  • Left – Only the light in the center of the station exhibits a “burst”. This is due to the wider aperture (16 vice 22) and that the other lights are in bright areas – the burst does best if there’s a darker surround for contrast.
  • Right – Here’s the opposite of a “burst”. It’s what you get with a very shallow DOF (this image is an overlay of the same scene shot twice – once at f/16 with sharp focus and once at f/5.6 and out of focus. The technique is known as the Orton Technique. Take a look at our focus lesson’s Bokeh post for more.)

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Opportunities abound. You just have to be aware – and you have to understand exposure!

Left f/4.5, 1/2500, 70mm, EV – 1/3;  Center f/6.3, 1/200, 200mm, EV -1.33;  Right f/16, 1/3, 24mm, EV – 1.33

#2 was made about 30 minutes after sunset; #3 about 30 minutes before sunrise. The nicest sky colors occur in this time frame. It’s funny to watch photographers pack up their gear and leave the instant the sun drops below the horizon. Ditto, those who show up 5 minutes before the sun pops over the horizon. I say – if you snooze, you lose.

#1- f/29, 1/60, 42mm, EV 0;  #2 – f/25, 30 s, 46mm, EV +2/3;  #3 – f/20, 10 s, 62mm, EV – 1.0; #4 – f/11, 1/8, 65mm, EV +1.66

#2 is a double exposure; the “real” moon was further off to the right and lower.

#1- f/6, 1/4000, 30mm, EV -1.33;  #2 – f/11, 1/60, 70mm, EV -1.33;  #3 – f/36, 30 s, 95mm, EV+2; #4 – f/25, 1/50, 48mm, EV -1.66, ISO 400

Most of #3’s settings were chosen to make the shutter speed as long as possible. I wanted the clouds to blur. ISO 400 was used in the final image because there was a slight breeze moving the cattails and I want a slightly faster shutter speed to offset that.

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Look at the images together with their settings. If you understand the material covered in these first two months you should be able to understand why the settings were chosen. None were chosen “at random”. Also, note that most do not have a zero exposure compensation. Some use a very small EV (fine tuning) and some use a full stop or more. Don’t just automatically take what the camera gives you – check the histogram and adjust accordingly.