Phoenix Commercial Photographer - How to Nail Perfect Exposure
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How to Nail Perfect Exposure

Recently, I was asked to write up a tutorial on how to get perfect exposure in natural light scenes. The answer is surprisingly simple, but will require a bit of basic knowledge of how a camera’s light meter works. To use the method I’m going to teach you in this article you’ll need a DSLR camera set to full manual… if you don’t own a DSLR that’s okay… any camera with the ability to be set to full manual control will work.

How the camera light meter sees the world. When you look through your viewfinder you’ll see the exposure meter on the bottom of the screen. It looks something like this:

Exposure Meter

Exposure Meter

This meter helps you to set proper exposure. What you need to understand is every photographic light meter ever made searches for what is called “middle grey”. Middle Grey is the exact grey tone between brightest white and darkest black and is sometimes referred to as 18% Grey. When your meter is showing a dead center reading of zero that means it is reading that object as perfect middle grey. Just because your meter is reading dead center doesn’t necessarily mean your exposure is properly set and here’s why. It depends on what the meter is reading as middle grey. The camera’s light meter is an electronic device that doesn’t have it’s own mind. You as the photographer are the mind behind the piece of machinery in your hands and need to tell the camera what to do… not vice versa.

Before I move on with how to tell the camera what you want it to do I need to explain a concept called the Zone System. The Zone System is a concept devised by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer right around 1940. At the time it was developed for black and white photography, but the zone system works with color photography as well. Simply put the zone system is a universal breakdown of reflectivity tones that can be applied to any photographic scene. Below is a chart illustrating the zone system tones.

Zone System Tones

Zone System Tones

Taking a look at this chart you’ll see a swath of grey tones that go from darkest pure black to brightest pure white. The middle grey that I talked about above is dead center at Zone V. It is the exact grey tone between the two extremes and it is what your camera reads as perfect exposure when the light meter readout is centered.

So how does this apply to your photography and getting proper exposure? You need to be able to think in terms of the above grey scale and see the world in those tones… and then you need to be able to communicate that to your camera’s light meter and in turn exposure settings.

Below is a photograph of mine broken down into the zone system.

Zone Applied to Landscape

Zone Applied to Landscape

In the above image you’ll see that the brightest white recorded in this scene that still has some detail is in my clouds. Taking a look at the zone system chart you’ll see that would fall into Zone IX. Then look to the bottom of my image where Zone I is located in the deep shadows on the backside of the rocks. There is still detail in those shadows even though it is very dark so Zone I best represents that part of the photo. Zone V or Middle Grey is located on the illuminated hillside and that is roughly Zone V because it is somewhere very close to the middle of very bright and very dark.

Think about this… a photographer is shooting a snowy landscape. He pulls his camera to his eye and sets his exposure to what the camera says is perfectly exposed. Later when he loads them into his computer he’s disappointed that the snow is a dull light grey instead of white… why? Because his camera meter saw the white snow as middle grey for it’s “proper exposure”. So how do you go about finding the perfect exposure for any given scene using the zone system? The answer is very easy and can be done by anyone.

What you’re going to need is a Grey Card. There are all kinds of versions of grey cards from collapsible ones that fold up for easy stowing in your camera bag to simple cardboard ones. A grey card is simply a card of some sort that is perfect middle grey. The same grey that your camera’s meter is trying to find. You can use the grey card as a “target” to point your camera at that will give your the perfect exposure for any scene.

How to use the grey card in the field: Once you have your grey card and are out shooting photos you’ll want to use it to find middle grey for any given scene. Once you find what the perfect middle grey is and set your camera shutter speed and aperture to that all the other zones from the Zone System chart above will fall into place on their own. Using the above landscape image of mine I’ll walk you through how you would use the grey card for this scene. Take a look at the way the main light source is falling on your scene… in the above it is the Sun and it’s coming in a kind of an angle from the back right. Take out your grey card and hold it out in front of you and twist and turn it. See how the light sometimes falls onto it’s surface and other times it becomes shadow? That is the main light source falling onto the grey card. So whatever the light source that is illuminating your subject… be it a landscape or a portrait you’re going to need to hold the card out and twist and turn it until the light source is falling solidly onto the grey surface. Once you find that spot hold it there… bring your camera lens close enough to the card that the grey side fills the frame. Now everything in your viewfinder and in turn being seen by your camera’s meter is the perfect middle grey of your main light source. Focus does not matter… so if your camera is having a hard time autofocusing on the card just switch AF off. Go ahead and adjust your shutter speed or aperture until the light meter is centered at ZERO… remember to keep the frame filled with the card and to keep the card turned so that the main light source is illuminating it’s surface. Once you’ve set your camera to that grey card you’ve found your perfect exposure.

BONUS: A grey card is perfectly neutral and can also be used to set a custom white balance ensuring accurate color rendition.

Now that your camera is set you can put the grey card away and freely compose your photograph and shoot away. The camera now has been told that the settings you’ve used will produce perfect tonality in whatever parts of the scene are being illuminated by the light source. The shadows and highlights will naturally fall into place and you should get a near perfect exposure. Take a few shots and check your camera’s histogram data… a good histogram should look something like this.

Ideal Histogram

Ideal Histogram

A good histogram should look something like the above image… a hump centered in the middle. If your histogram is pushed to the far left your image is underexposed… if it is pushed to the far right it is over exposed. Having the data curve centered to the middle like this means that you’re getting the maximum amount of digital information throughout the tonal scale… this would be getting the most dynamic range out of your camera’s sensor.

Now a side note… no camera can render the entire tonal range of certain images as the eye sees it. There’s a limit to the deepest shadows and brightest highlights that a digital sensor can record. Every camera is different and some sensors can hold a larger range between the two extremes. So that being said… while using the grey card method I’ve shown in this article will deliver the perfect exposure in most scenes there are always times when a scene may be too contrasty for the camera’s sensor to effectively record detail in all areas of the image. For example… everyone has shot a photo of a sunset and found that they can’t have both good foreground detail and good sky detail. The dynamic range or extremity in illumination tones is simply outside of what current sensor technology can record. There are post production methods for extending dynamic range… namely HDR photography which most people are familiar with or you can google and research on your own, but for the normal everyday scene my methods described above will be your absolute best bet for nailing that perfect exposure.

Hopefully this tutorial will “shed some light”… haha! on helping you to achieve better results with your photography. For anyone who is having a difficult time understanding this method or would just like to learn more I’ve started taking appointments here in Arizona for hands on one-on-one instructional mentoring sessions where I teach absolute beginner to advanced photography techniques. If interested shoot me an email at


TravisShoots® is a Phoenix Commercial Photographer specializing in on location advertising photography production. Primarily shooting lifestyle, environmental portraits, and landscapes his work has helped brands tell their story for 10 years.