How to Capture the Perfect Exposure
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Most of the time there's just too much contrast in life. Point your camera at any random scene and odds on there will be detail that the eye can see but the sensor cannot. Clearly being able to see the spots on the surface of the sun and every detail in the depths of shadow under the rocks is beyond even our wonderful optical system but not much else is. One of the greatest disappointments novice photographers experience is the gulf between what they see and what the camera records, and this is especially true for landscapes. Burnt out skies and dark landscapes, it's a familiar tale.
So, what can be done? Well the first and foremost trick should be to shoot a scene in the right light, typically the soft lower contrast lighting of early morning or late in the day. But still the gap between the exposure for the wispy clouds and the muddy bits is usually just too great. There are essentially two options here; use filters, or merge multiple exposures.
Now before I go any further there's something I have to get off my chest. In the early 1980s I occasionally used graduated tobacco filters. Yes, it's true. It was just something we all did back then. Whilst Wendy was wearing shoulder pads borrowed from the Kansas City Chiefs I had a mullet and dabbled in gruesomely filtered skies. Then I moved on to an 81EF, dubbed the Dallas filter 'cos it gave everyone a tan. In the early 90s I started using a 'champagne' filter, more accurately known as 'soft poo'. It was jacket mounted on a mag and was a combination of an 81C with a touch of diffusion. I had the therapy, and with the help of friends and family I pulled through. I still used a grad blue to jazz up the sky on a grey February day in Avonmouth, and I had a brief penchant for using inverted coral grads to warm the foreground, but my filtration habit was under control. As time's gone on I've become more and more minimalist, ND grads and polarisers are pretty much all I use now. They have long been essential items though; I'd be lost without them.
Then digital capture shifted the goalposts. Some believe shooting digitally obviates the need for filters; others carry on using them just as we did back in the film era. I believe they're still essential, but the way I use them has changed. Who's right? I am, of course. Neutral density graduated filters are bits of resin to stick in front of the lens; they're not exactly hi-tech, but still damn useful.
Dusk at Dooneen Head with Sheeps Head beyond, Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 16-35mm lens, ISO 50, 10 sec @ f22. A classic use of a 0.9ND graduated filter to hold back exposure on the sky.
I bet some of you will now be muttering into your beer and firing off indignant e-mails telling me about various digital filter options. I know Lightroom has a very good graduated filter tool and all sorts of things are possible using masks and layers in Photoshop. These are all useful weapons to have in the armoury, but the crucial fact remains that if the detail in the sky wasn't recorded in the first place no amount of software magic can get it back. So I use ND grads as contrast control devices enabling me to retain all the detail in the sky whilst maximising the shadow detail in the landscape all in one frame (eg ireland_30I5811 above). I can then fine-tune just how heavy I want the sky later in Photoshop. If at all possible I like to do as much in camera to get it right as possible. It cuts down on time spent in front of this infernal computer.