How to select an Ideal Exposure

Let face it, there is no such think as a perfect exposure due to unpredictable nature of landscape photography. Sure, you can get close sometimes, but more often than not, you have to make tradeoffs in order to do so. By using your knowledge of histograms and filters, however, you can achieve an exposure that is just about ideal.

Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

So, when I see breathtaking images like this one, my first question is usually something like:

How did the photographer choose such a perfect exposure for this scene? Or is it heavily Photoshopped?

Backlit images like this one are almost always difficult to expose. You have to deal with an extreme dynamic range of light, and that makes it extremely difficult to capture accurate colors and details in every part of the image. When I shot this photo, I used a combination of information from my histogram and GND filters to get as close to a perfect exposure as possible.

  • Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

    Under Exposed Scene – Yellowstone National Park, WY (USA)

  • Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

    Over Exposed Scene – Yellowstone National Park, WY (USA)

When I first started shooting this scene, I intentionally underexposed the image, as you can see on the left. I knew that I could process the image later and recover the shadow details in Photoshop; however, the resulting image would be too noisy. Instead of choosing this approach, I decided to keep a close eye on my histogram and adjust my exposure until the shadow areas had sufficient detail and the highlights were not completely blown out, as seen in the image on the right. The result was much better. Now I was closer to the image I wanted, but the the colors in the sky and the details in the highlights were still pretty washed out. To get my exposure closer to perfection, my next step was to add a simple GND filter. So how could I determine which type of GND filter to use?

  • Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

    1-Stop Soft GND Filter, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

  • Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

    2-Stop Soft GND Filter, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

Once again, I had to make a tradeoff. The first image was taken with a 1-stop soft GND filter. As you can see, the exposure for the sky looks nearly perfect; however, the highlights are still a bit overexposed, washing out some of the details. My first instinct was to use a stronger GND filter to restore the highlight details, but by using a 2-stop GND filter, the sky and the mountains got unnaturally dark. Ultimately, I decided to go with a 1-stop filter and apply minor tweaks in post-processing.

So, my ideal exposure for this scene was achieved by using my knowledge of histograms and the right GND filter. To help you master these skills for yourself and finally leave the guesswork out of choosing an exposure, we are offering our Histogram Exposed Course. This course takes you into the field with us, where we will teach you how to read and use the histogram on the back of your camera step by step. It also includes real-life case studies that will show you how to follow our simple, 4-step workflow so you can start exposing your own images with confidence.

Coming up next, we’ll talk about how to use Adobe Camera Raw to take your processing to the next level. To be continued: How to select Post Processing Parameters

check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

  • Spot on Exposure Tutorial Cover

    Spot on Exposure Tutorial

  • Photography Histogram Tutorial Cover

    Histogram Exposed Tutorial

  • Exposure Bracketing Tutorial for Landscape Photography Cover

    Bracketing Exposed Tutorials

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams