How to Capture the Perfect Exposure

August 18, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 10 Comments | |
How to Capture the Perfect Exposure Image

Laying the gradation along the skyline works well, but where using grad filters falls down is if there are features cutting that skyline (eg. snowdonia_30I5576 below), like a mountain, tree or supermodel. The grad will darken those areas too resulting in a “grad head” look, not good.

In these situations with the camera on a tripod you can shoot two frames, one exposed for the sky and one for the landscape and merge them in Photoshop.

It works well, and is a very handy technique to master. In fact doing a number of exposures to cope with extremes of contrast in an image and merging them is a really useful option.

The perfect registration between the images makes the merging easy. I'm not going to get sidetracked into Photoshop Speak now but believe me, it's not rocket science.

So if that's the case, why bother with filters at all?

How to Capture the Perfect Exposure Rolling farmland on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, nr Ysbyty Ifan, County Conway, North Wales. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm lens, ISO 125, 1/10sec @ f11. The trees breaking the skyline made using a grad filter inadvisable if I was to retain detail in the autumn colours of the leaves in the top branches so two exposures were merged here.

Movement. Trees swaying in the breeze, waves breaking, cloud scudding across the sky. These are effects we love to maximise in our landscapes, aren't they? But that movement will make making a perfect join of multiple exposures very difficult. And obviously when shooting hand held a perfect registration between multiple frames isn't possible. (eg. umbria030I3208 below) Clearly there's a time and a place for both techniques. In fact in a really high contrast situation such as when shooting straight into the light I often use both; merging exposures made with a filter attached.

How to Capture the Perfect Exposure An olive grove near Montefalco, Umbria, Italy. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 16-35mm lens, ISO 100, 1/30 sec @ f11. The branch swaying in the breeze meant that merging exposures would have been difficult so a 0.6 ND grad was used to hold detail in the sky.

So to recap where possible I'll always try and make the RAW image as perfect as possible exposing just one frame and using a filter if necessary. If there's a complex composition that makes using a grad impossible I'll resort to merging multiple exposures. Also when using extreme wide angle lenses such as my 15mm fish eye or 14mm fully corrected optic on a full frame sensored camera filters are out due to vignetting, so merging is the only alternative. (eg. goldencap8086 below) And whilst we're talking about merging exposures I have to mention that notorious three lettered acronym; HDR.

How to Capture the Perfect Exposure Sunset over the Jurassic Coast from the Golden Cap, Dorset, England. Canon 1Ds mkII, 15mm lens, ISO 100, 0.3 sec @ f16. Merging two exposures was the only option due to the curvature of the front element and vignetting.

Entry Tags

David Noton, HDR, filters, high dynamic range, perfect, exposure, neutral, grads, multiple exposures, shadows, graduated, highlights

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#1 Mandeno Moments

This is a thought provoking article and I hope that there’s a followup that shows how to use Gimp & Photoshop to blend two shots. 

IMHO the “perfect exposure” is whatever you think it is when you’re taking photos for yourself, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

If you’re taking photos for someone else, paid or unpaid, the “perfect exposure” is usually whatever makes that person happy.

12:29 am - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

#2 Tom

You can of course create an HDR from three bracketed shots.  It is a little more work but you can get the perfect exposure every time.  Takes a little learning but follow my tutorial and you will be doing it like a pro for free very soon!!!

12:51 am - Thursday, August 20, 2009

#3 Tom

Heres the Tutorial

12:52 am - Thursday, August 20, 2009

#4 Disappointed

Tom, thanks for the link! Great blog, by the way :-)

That one link alone is worth more than the three pages of fluff David wrote for this site.

3:08 pm - Thursday, August 20, 2009

#5 Ian Woolcock

As much as I enjoy reading David’s articles and viewing his work I have to say that the cathedral shot looks totally unnatural to me. It is in itself a prime example of why HDR images look fake.

Otherwise a good article, though almost a word for word repeat of one of his dispatches. Would far rather read information from a working pro than the flickr crowd.

3:52 pm - Friday, October 16, 2009

#6 Dave

Nothing ground breaking in the article, but a useful read. After reading David’s article and looking at the images at the link posted by Tom, I agree. HDR is crap.

8:40 am - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#7 James K

good article. as discussed above there is no such thing as the perfect exposure. we all see light and scenes differently.

Nonetheless some good advice in this post.

I’ve just made a post on my blog about the workflow I use to get a well exposed shot - may be useful…

11:39 pm - Monday, February 8, 2010

#8 Florian U.

that article did start a thought-process in my mind so good job :)

Regarding HDR: Its not crap. HDR is very useful and can lead to good results. Its just when you over-do it (putting all the sliders to maximum for example), it looks unnatural and almost comic-like. If thats what you want to go for, enjoy. I prefer HDR to add just that little bit of detail in the shadows and the highlights ;)

3:03 am - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

#9 nikon s8100 reviews

Is a nikon d80 compatible with a metz 45 cl-1 flash?

1:21 pm - Saturday, June 25, 2011

#10 $1 web hosting godaddy

Wow this is very nice and very useful and can lead to good results.

10:52 am - Friday, July 3, 2015