What makes the nearly proverbial ‘good exposure’? Does it mean that all tones are within the range of your sensor? Does it mean that all shadows are filled appropriately? Does it mean the histogram is forming that beloved bell curve in the middle? Does it mean you need to shoot a five frame sequence and combine them to get all the available light from a scene? Is there only one good exposure for a given scene?
I often get asked, "What settings should I be using?" by photographers I shoot with and even work with. This malformed question is the source of much stress on both sides of it. I am unable to answer, and my counterpart is unable to proceed with their shot. It doesn’t have to be, and a small shift in thinking can make the whole idea a little bit easier to digest, more fluid and more creative.
Let us look first at what a ‘good exposure’ is. A good exposure, at least in my mind, is one which communicates the mood I was attempting to create. It is as simple as intention. If I meant to blow out that sky, then that’s fine by me. My shadows may have blocked up, but that’s how I wanted them.
Case in Point #1: Exposing the Highlights
With this shot, I wanted a stark, harsh feeling. Exposing for the shadows would leave anything hit by light devoid of detail and lose the gritty detail. However, exposing dark enough to leave some detail in the brighter areas of the picture lends itself to creating a moody, slightly mysterious atmosphere.
Case in Point #2: Expose the Shadows
This shot was the exact opposite, I wanted the darker parts of the scene exposed brightly, and the rest of the scene really didn’t matter as much. The blown highlights also give the expansive feeling I wanted to display with the series of shots I made that day.
These two shots are stark opposites in terms of exposure, and are far from the full spectrum of choices we can make regarding our exposures. However, I hope that they illustrate the point that the only good exposure is the one you intend to make.
Although the original question itself is not completely off track, but would be better asked as "What settings should I use to create the image I have in mind?"