Exposure Confusion and Misconceptions Clarified « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Exposure Confusion and Misconceptions Clarified

This sub-adult Ring-billed Gull was photographed in flight at Jamesport, NY with the hand held Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens with the Canon 1.4x EF Extender III (Teleconverter) and the Canon EOS-1D X Digital SLR camera body. ISO 800. Evaluative metering + 2 1/3 stops off the light grey sky was 1/2500 sec. at f/4 in Manual mode. This worked out to about +1 1/3 stops as framed. Why? Because the gull is well darker overall than the sky. Read and study the info below to solidify your understanding.

Central sensor/AI Servo Surround/Rear Focus AF active at the moment of exposure. Click here if you missed the Rear Focus Tutorial. Click on the image to see a larger version. If you own a 1D X be sure to check out the info on our EOS-1D X Autofocus Guide below.

Note that after I adjusted the sliders during RAW conversion in DPP the RGB values for the brightest WHITEs (the uppermost tail feathers) were R: 230, G: 232, and B: 235. To learn how and why I now use DPP for all of my Canon images click here. Note: this JPEG represents the full frame original capture.

Eye Doctor work as in the MP4 videos of the same name here.

Exposure Confusion and Misconceptions Clarified

While reading most of the comments at Monday’s blog post, “Learning to Think Like a Pro In The Field,” it is very clear that many folks are far more confused about exposure and about working in Manual mode than they should be. Kudos to Charles Scheffold who gave an answer that was both simple and correct: “The background behind the gull (water) was darker than the sky – that’s the reason for the exposure difference as framed.” Elinor Osborn was the only other photographer who gave a reasonable (though wordy) answer to my question, which boiled down to this: “Why did that 2 1/3 stops off the light grey sky work out to 1 2/3 stops as framed?”

It is no coincidence that both Charles and Elinor have attended multiple BIRDS AS ART IPTs (Instructional Photo-Tours)….

I will begin here by suggesting that everyone who is not 100% confident about working in Manual mode click here for the free excerpt adapted from “The Art of Bird Photography II (ABP II: 916 pages on CD only). Read it. Bookmark it. And return often to study it until you understand the principles and are comfortable working in Manual mode.

I will continue by addressing many of the misconceptions gleaned from the comments on Monday’s post.

The Starting Point

In many situations, I use the sky as a starting point for my exposure calculations. Why? I always try to meter off something large and of consistent tonality as a starting point. The sky–I usually meter about 30 degrees up from the horizon–often works quite well. When the sky is not of uniform tonality I will look for a large cloud and work off that. At times I will meter off the sand and at times I will meter off the water. Anything that is large and of consistent tonality will work.

Where to Next?

Once you have chosen a starting point, how do you know how much light to add (or in rare instances, to subtract)? If you are experienced and have studied exposure theory on pages 58-63 (and especially the diagram on page 62) in the original “The Art of Bird Photography” and fully understand the material covered in the Exposure Simplified section of “The Art of Bird Photography II (ABP II: 916 pages on CD only), you will generally have a good idea as to whether you need to add 3 full stops of light or to subtract 1 stop of light or be somewhere in between.

Here’s the rub: even if you have not mastered the materials and the principles referred to above you can still get it right in the field as long as the light is consistent for a few minutes and the subject remains available. Let’s say you meter a light grey sky 30 degrees above the horizon and null the meter so that your aperture and exposure settings yield an exposure that matches the exposure suggested by your camera’s evaluative or matrix metering pattern. The indicator that moves up and down on the analog scale in your viewfinder should fall on the 0 mark. Next, point your lens at the subject and make an image. Take a look at the histogram. If there is not any data in the rightmost histogram box or two, you can try adding one full stop of light to the exposure that you have set. In bird photography this is usually done by choosing a slower shutter speed but it can also be done by choosing a wider aperture or a higher ISO. Now make another image. You will need to keep adding light until you have data at least halfway into the rightmost histogram box. This will give you a workable RAW file with the WHITEs showing RGB values in the 225-235 range. Just what you want.

If you meter off a large area of consistent tonality and make an image with those settings that includes the subject and you find that there are large areas that show flashing highlights, it indicates that you have severely over-exposed the image. The data will be pegged to the wall on the right side of the histogram. In this case, you will need to subtract light by choosing a faster shutter speed, a smaller aperture, or a lower ISO. Keep adjusting your exposure until you have data that protrudes only halfway into the rightmost histogram box.

In both cases, you will be learning as you go.

Understanding “As framed”

In both of the situations above the indicator on the analog scale that you see in the viewfinder will almost always fall on a different value when you are metering off your large, consistently toned area and compensating than it will when you include the subject in the frame. In the original post I wrote that I added 2 1/3 stops of light to the meter reading off the light grey sky and that when I framed the gull image that the indicator showed just 1 2/3 stops of over-exposure. The 2 1/3 stops off the sky was 2/3 of a stop brighter than the gull image “as framed.”

A Further Explanation

If you meter a large area of consistent tonality and set that exposure manually (with or without any compensation) do understand that as you point your lens anywhere else that the indicator on the analog scale will move up and down to indicate the current level or over- or under-exposure. Your goal is to learn to calculate and set the correct exposure for the subject manually so that you do not have to worry about how different backgrounds or even about how a different composition or a pose will affect the metering (as it would if you were in Av or Tv mode).

Why 2 1/3 stops brighter than the sky?

Why did I choose to add 2 1/3 stops to the meter reading off the light grey sky? Because experience taught me that doing so would yield an image of the gull with the WHITE tones in the RAW file coming into Photoshop with RGB values between 225 and 235. On some cloudy days adding only 2 stops to the meter reading off the sky might be perfect. On other days, you might need to go as high as +2 2/3 stops or even more when working in dense fog. You must learn to work in Manual mode with all black and white birds otherwise the meter will be unduly influenced by large changing areas of black and white and your exposures will be all over the place. And most of those places will be places where do you not want to be….


If you are confused by anything above, please feel free to leave a comment. If you are confused by everything above and want to learn how to get the right exposure quickly and consistently, do consider purchasing the two-book bundle, ABP and ABPII by clicking here. You can learn more about ABP, ABPII, and Digital Basics by clicking here. Whatever you do, you will actually need to study the materials and then practice in order to reduce the learning curve. Putting the books under your pillow just will not work.

The EOS-1D X Autofocus Guide

The EOS-1D X Autofocus Guide, here-in-after the 1D X AF Guide, is a 60-page eBook with 19 screen captures. It includes everything that I know about the 1D X AF system. Instructions on how to use all AF-related buttons, dials, and wheels and my settings for all AF-related Menu Items. But for iTR AF, the 1D X has the same great autofocus system that was introduced with the 5D Mark III. Only better and on steroids.

Of special interest to bird photographers will be my comments and strategies involving Cases 1-6, the custom-Case that I created and use for most of my bird photography (with detailed instructions for setting it up of course), my strategy for Select AF area selection mode (on AF4, the fourth purple menu), and pretty much anything that has to do with 1D X autofocus….

This eBook is written in my customary easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, easy-to-follow style. Few realize the time and effort that goes into creating a guide of only 7,000 words. Do note, however, that writing how-to requires a huge amount of study, writing, re-writing, and fact checking in order to come up with something that is clear and concise. As is usual, I needed lots of help on this guide and as usual, I got it from my friend Rudy Winston, Canon Advisor, Technical Information. Rudy’s knowledge of the various Canon digital camera bodies is encyclopedic and is exceeded only by his helpfulness and generosity.

To order your copy now, click here, call Jim at 863-692-0906, or send a check for $25 to us at BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL, 33855. If the latter, be sure to let us know what you are paying for and include your typed or clearly written e-mail address.

Southwest Florida IPT $600 Late Registration Discount!

If you would like to join us on the Southwest Florida IPT (see below) please call Jim on Monday at 863-692-0906 to register or shoot me an e-mail to save one of the two spots for you.

SW FLA IPT. FEB 16-21, 2013. Introductory slide program: 7pm on 2/15. 6-FULL DAYS: $2999. Co-leaders: Denise Ippolito and Robert Amoruso. Limit: 10/Openings 2 due to two late cancellations

Payment in full is due now

This is my bread and butter IPT; learn the basics and the advanced fine points from the best; escape winter’s icy grip and enjoy tons of tame birds! Subjects will include nesting Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, Mottled Duck, Brown and White Pelican at point-blank range, Snowy & Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Osprey, wintering shorebirds and plovers, gulls and terns, & Burrowing Owl. All ridiculously tame. Roseate Spoonbill, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, American Oystercatcher, and who knows what are possible.

Click here to learn more about this IPT.

Fort DeSoto Morning In-the-Field Workshop

Fort DeSoto In-the-field Workshop: FEB 25. Pre-dawn -10:30am. Limit 16/openings: 5. Includes a great working lunch: $275.

On Monday morning, February 25, Denise Ippolito and I will be co-leading a morning In-the-field Workshop at Fort DeSoto, south of St. Petersburg, FL. We should get to photograph a variety of very tame herons, egrets, gulls, terns, and shorebirds. Spoonbills possible. There will be lots of individual and small group instruction. We will cover exposure and histograms, seeing the situation, creating sharp images, and lots more. Each registrant will have a personalized gear and set-up check. The more questions you ask, the more you will learn.

A great working lunch at the Sea Porch Café on St. Petersburg Beach is included. All are invited to bring a laptop along for image sharing at lunch. After the workshop, all are invited to send us three 1024 wide or 800 tall JPEGs for critiquing. Call 1-863-692-0906 to register or send us a Paypal. Either way, be sure to note that the payment is for the Fort DeSoto In-the-Field Workshop.

Weekend Creative Nature Photography Seminar, Tampa, FL: February 23 & 24, 2013: $149 Limit: 50/Openings: 2

Best to register soon as there are just 2 seats left. The In-the-field Workshop above follows the Weekend Creative Nature Photography Seminar. You are invited to join Denise Ippolito and me on the weekend of February 23-24 on the outskirts of Tampa, FL for a great weekend of fun and learning. Learn to improve your photography skills, your skill at designing images in the field, your creative vision, and your image optimization skills. Sunday critiquing session. Click here for additional details and the complete schedule.


On all blog posts, feel free to e-mail or leave a comment regarding any typos, wrong words, misspellings, omissions, or grammatical errors. Just be right. 🙂

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39 comments to Exposure Confusion and Misconceptions Clarified

  • Henrt

    Could,I take an incident reading and be done with it?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Once you took a incident meter reading, what would you do with it? Most folks who use incident meters have no clue as to how to wind up with the correct exposure for subjects of varying tonalities. So no, you would not just be “done with it.” artie

  • Steve Gantlett

    Hi Artie, Can you explain to my why those clever people at Canon can’t just make it automatic?! If the camera can instantly read ‘blinkies’ and ‘data in the last box’ surely it could be made automatic: ie the camera looks at the amount of light coming in (as it does now) and stops down (or whatever, as it does now), but just to a level to always get data just into the right box?

  • I took multiple Bald Eagle photos yesterday with a 600IS and blew the whites out most of the time. The eagles were flying against a blue sky and only filled about 40% of the photo. I was shooting in Av. Is it just experience as to how you set the exposure comp to not blow out the whites or is there a rule of thumb you use? Do I understand it correctly that the blue sky is to the left of the whites in the histogram and that to properly expose the whiles you would need exposure comp set a negative value… how much depends on experience since the bird is flying? Thanks, James

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      James, James, James. You have invested at least $10K worth of gear, possibly $20K or more. But you have not taken the time to learn about getting the right exposure. Have you studied the free stuff I have written and linked to on using Manual mode? You must work in Manual mode when photographing eagles in flight or otherwise. Why? If you are working in Av mode and the bird is large in the frame, the big, dark body will open up the exposure and cause the WHITEs to be blown out. As long as the light is constant you can take a test image, make sure that you have data in the rightmost histogram box without having any significant blinkies on the bird’s white head, and then set that exposure manually so that you get the right exposure for every image whether or not the bird is large or small in the frame and whether or not the background is light or dark or middle-toned. If there are blinkies on the bird’s head, choose a faster shutter speed to eliminate them. If there is no data in the rightmost histogram box, choose a slower shutter speed or raise the ISO. If the light changes then you need to repeat the process each time that it does.

      Best is to study the stuff on exposure theory in ABP and the Exposure Simplified section in ABP II. Or save $10 by buying the two-book bundle here.

  • James Graham

    By Ev I mean exposure compensation. Basically, in manual mode, I have been framing the shot with the subject in view and exposure compensation at zero. Then (still in manual mode) I bring the meter bar to zero by adjusting either shutter speed, aperture or both (i.e. “nulling the meter”). I take a shot, check the histogram and adjust exposure compensation to move the hisotgram, if necessary. Your way is not only better but easier…a rare combination.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi James,

      Much better to use EC than Ev as EV is often used to quantify brightness levels. I am fine with any way to wind up with data halfway into the rightmost histogram box. It is important to remember that adding 2 stops to the exposure reading of the sky only works on cloudy days, not on sunny ones.

      I would strongly, strongly, strongly advise you to get a copy of ABP II and start studying the section on Exposure Simplified. Strongly :).

  • Troy

    Artie, i’m interested in why you go through the extra stage of metering from the sky first and then setting the viewfinder on your subject? Is it an exposure you set when you get to the general area where the birds are? Or setting down in front of the bird and then going though that stage?

    I typically go straight to the subject in AV mode and use my judgement to set plus or minus EC based on the subject to background tonality difference. Then i make an adjustment from there if needs be and set manual mode from there if needs be also. The vast majority of the time i get it right first go and also i feel a higher chance to get a shot of the subject before the pose i liked changes or even the subject moves away.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      In most situations I know exactly where to go from my base reading, in this case the sky. At times I do it your way. And I am pretty good at getting that right on the first try to. Either way, the idea is to get data halfway into the rightmost histogram box.

  • James Graham

    This is one of your best blogs…congratulations…Two questions:
    You fail to mention the roll of E sub v (Ev) in obtaining the correct exposure. In the past, I’ve metered the subject and cranked the
    Ev dial to “null the exposure”. This obviously is wrong, and I certainly will adopt your excellently-explained procedure,,,but what about Ev?
    Secondly, I’ve purchased all of your ABP publications through the 2011 update, and as Peggy Lee would say, “Is this all there is”?
    I’m particularly interested in anything published that contains Efex Color Pro Info.
    Thanks again for your excellent instruction. I wonder if you actually realize what an outstanding contribution you are making.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thank you sir for your kind words.

      I am confused as to the meaning of this: ” E sub v (Ev).” Please explain. Furthermore, please explain what you mean by “I metered the subject.” And again, not sure as to your reference to Ev. DO you mean ISO?

      The last update of Digital Basics has a section on NIK Color Efex Pro tips. In addition, there have been many free ones on the blog.

      Lastly, I am aware. Thanks again. artie

  • Julian Mole

    Hi Arthur,

    In the section ‘Understanding As Framed’ should it actually read “…the sky registered as 2/3 stops brighter than the gull image “as framed”.” ? Because it currently says 1 2/3 stops.
    I hope so, otherwise my mind is going to implode! 😉

    • Julian Mole

      PS. Did the Ring Billed gull have a second leg?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Julian, Thanks for pointing out my poor writing there. I have fixed it; your brain need not implode. Good catch!

      • Julian Mole

        No problems, glad to help. 🙂

        Regarding the information given above, in the blog post, up to this point I have just followed your advice about photographing ‘Birds In A White Sky’ by taking a reading off the sky and adding 2 to 3 stops without the bird in the frame, and then tweaked after taking a test shot. However I have never really fully understood how this works apart from the fact that the sky is much brighter than the bird (regardless of it’s tonality). Is it purely based on getting the exposure for the bird in the right place or is there more to it? As we are not talking reflective metering as the bird is not in the frame, and it isn’t metering off front lit middle grey (or any tone with compensation) so can’t be incident.)

        In cloudy conditions the light illuminating the sky is pretty much the light illuminating the bird in flight. My goal is to get the right exposure for the gull, which has white tones on it, while avoiding significant blinkies on the sky. What I am doing and teaching here works for birds with white in their plumage. If I were going to photograph a crow in a similar situation I might start with +3 stops off the sky. At times this might result in the whole sky flashing over-exposed so I would have to drop back a bit to say +2 2/3 or even the same +2 1/3 stops that we use for the gull. In general you do not want the whole sky flashing over-exposed. Conversely if we had an all brilliant white bird like a Snowy Egret I would like open up only 2 stops off the sky to avoid over-exposing the snowy…. In general everything we have been talking about has been simplified to make learning easier.

        Let me know if any of the above makes sense 🙂 artie

        • Julian Mole

          Hi Arthur,

          Yes, definitely makes sense thank you. 🙂
          I just thought I’d take the opportunity to ask what was the basis in exposure theory for this method – but ultimately it doesn’t really matter as long as you can apply it correctly to get a good exposure for the bird in question. In other words; You don’t need to have a full understanding of gravitation physics to be good at trampolining! 😉

          • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

            You are right. It does not matter how you get there…. Just keep me off a trampoline.

  • Yep, “exposure by histogram”. I wonder why camera manufacturers don’t provide an automatic mode for it. With current bodies supporting live view, the hardware should be able to compute it.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      I have often thought the same thing. Program the camera to adjust the exposure after the first frame do that there is data halfway into the rightmost histogram box. Actually a bad idea because I’d sell a lot fewer books and eGuides!

  • kati

    Great blog post today, you explained the concepts well, Thanks

  • Leonard Malkin

    Will using an incident light meter make things easier? You’re just interested in light falling on the subject regardless of background.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      IMO, not at all. 99.99% of all the folks whom I ran into using an incident meter had no idea how to use them properly. With digital, things are so simple that I consider them a waste of time. Adjust your exposures so that you have data halfway into the histogram box on the right. It’s that simple.

  • Hi Artie, I WISH I could attend your IPT’s but have never been able to. I just read all your blogs, bulletins and books. THANKS for all of them.
    In my reply (1/28) to your “thinking like a pro” –I say “exposure changed” and “changes the exposure”. However I really meant that the metering changed. Exposure (light coming into the camera) was unchanged from your original metering on the sky.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Yikes. Senility is a terrible thing. I know that an Elinor was with me in Churchill years ago and attended several other IPTs. But I am glad that you have been studying. I think that I might be thinking of Eleanor Briccetti….

  • OK…the temp was actually above freezing here in the black hole, Cleveland, OH.
    So I went out and tried Manual.

    Lets say I take a photo after I zeroed the meter. Check the histo. I
    decided I needed a little more light and opened up my aperture by one

    I’ve only taken one shot, so its kinda easy to remember what I did.

    But you take hundreds during a half day. Yet, when you post images and
    data, you know how many stops you added or subtracted (if any).

    What am I missing…or do you just remember what you did at that point in

    Hope that makes sense.

    Thanks Artie…

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      In most situations I remember to check what I am seeing on the analog scale when I make one or two images in a long series. It is likely that some of the actual readings may vary 1/3 stop either way from what I remember and therefore what I post may be off by 1/3 stop at most. What I am trying to do is to teach the concepts….

  • Faraaz

    You have an uncanny ability to explain things. Thanks. 🙂

  • David Policansky

    Thanks, Artie. I read the exposure chapter in ABP last night and have read this post and the other thread. For me, it’s not an “aha!” thing. Your explaining at Barnegat about how differing backgrounds affect an image of the same bird in the same light was “aha!,” aka “why didn’t I think of that?”, but I think the whole exposure topic takes thought and practice. At least for me. So thanks again. By the way, do you know why camera metering is smart in full sunlight and dumb in lower light?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      You are welcome and yes, I do know 🙂 artie

      • David Policansky

        And will you share that insight?

        • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

          It has to do with the fact that when the sun is at full strength the camera knows–relative to sunny sixteen for a given ISO, that the high incoming reading can only be the result of a brilliant white subject. The meter is programmed to open up in these situations. But when it is not bright and sunny, the camera does not receive the unusually high readings (again, relative to a given ISO) and thus does not “know” that it needs to open up…..