Exposure is the easiest thing to master, yet causes the most confusion.
Exposure is simple. Just add or subtract until it looks right.
You need to experiment to know how much to add or subtract in different conditions. A fear of experimentation is what stalls most beginners. Just like sighting in a new sniper rifle, you always make tests first so that you nail your target with your first and only shot every time.
Once you make a few tests in different conditions you'll always know how to get perfect exposure every time. Try every possible condition in advance and you'll be prepared for everything.
EXPOSURE MODES AND METERING
Want to know a professional secret? I always shoot in Matrix metering and Program automatic! I only revert to manual exposure in rare cases where I really need to lock down an exposure in changing light.
I never use center weighted or spot metering!
When I need to make something lighter or darker I use the exposure compensation control with my camera in automatic. Every camera has a compensation control or buries it in a menu.
1.) Make a shot.
2.) Look at it on your LCD.
3.) Adjust Exposure Compensation until it looks perfect.
This seems silly, but you'd be amazed how many beginners are afraid to take control and spin that compensation dial. Usually only one or two thirds is all you need, but in some cases like interior photos with open windows you might need to use a few stops. Don't be timid, just adjust it until it looks correct.
Many compact cameras and some DSLRs may always be a little off. In these cases just leave the compensation set where it works well. My Canon A70 point-and-shoot is always left at -2/3, since as it ships that model tends to overexpose.
With experience you'll recognize the few kinds of scenes which require compensation and you'll be smart enough to adjust the compensation before making the first shot. Thankfully many cameras today, especially the matrix meters on Nikons, are usually correct more and more often. That's a reason I love my Nikons; they are very hard to fool and don't require much twiddling, which saves time and lets me make more great images.
Same as digital above.
The only catch is that you have to get film processed between steps 1 (shooting) and 2 (evaluating). You then apply any correction on your next shoot.
With film it takes more experience to learn what works where, since you always have to have done your homework in advance.
The only things that fool modern meters are light subjects in subdued light, or completely black subjects with no background. In sunlight or with a background there's no problem, but in less light the camera just can't tell that your subject is white. With my F100 I knew to add +1/3 or +2/3 for light subjects under clouds. You learn that by experience
Professionals used to use Polaroid film to gauge their exposure. Today I just use a digital camera! You of course need to make tests the first time to correlate your film results to the digital camera. I explain that here.
WHAT YOU CAN'T FIX
You can fix exposure. Exposure can't fix bad lighting.
If there is too much range between light and dark then no exposure will look correct.
If the shadows are too dark use fill flash, reflectors or wait for the light to change to lighten the dark sections.
To darken the highlights we use scrims, or dark screens, placed between the light source and the subject. Scrims don't affect the shadows.
THE ZONE SYSTEM
Knowing the zone system is helpful, but not mandatory, as you learn all this. See my page on the Zone System.
I use what's built into my camera. It's better than an external meter because it looks through my lens and filters. The only people who tell you that external meters are better are the people trying to sell you light meters.
For cameras lacking a built-in meter I use a digital camera and look at what exposure it used. See my page on how to use a digital camera as a light meter.
Today I only use my handheld meters for their calculator dials to convert the readings from the digital camera's ISO to the reading I need for my film's ISO. I use the hand-held meters reading only as a sanity check.
See also my page on light meters.
Have fun! Just shoot a lot and know that it's normal to need compensation. Be bold and just make your images as you want them. Never think that the meter is responsible for a correct exposure. It's your responsibility to know your meter and interpret its readings as needed.
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