Getting Acquainted: Tools for Tricky Light

Light can make or break a photo--and getting the lighting right is often a challenge. Tools like exposure compensation, metering, ISO and white balance can help. Here are a few basics for using these tools.
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

The word photography literately means “writing with light.” But working with unusual or tricky lighting is one of the most challenging aspects to master with the camera. Backlit subjects, reflective surfaces and low light settings are just a few things that can throw off a shot. Even the most basic digital cameras have a few tools for mastering difficult lighting, however, like exposure compensation, metering, ISO and white balance.

Tricky Light: Exposure

Outside of using manual modes, there are a few tools that even basic point and shoot cameras have to achieve the proper exposure, or the right amount of light in an image. Exposure compensation allows the photographer to adjust the exposure from what the camera determines to be optimal. Dialing the exposure compensation (or Exposure Value, EV) up or down will result in brighter or darker images. The EV option is generally located in the shooting menu, though some models may have shortcut keys for making adjustments. Using exposure compensation is essential for tricky scenarios, like snow, that affect the light and how the camera reads the light.

Experiment with EV when an image appears too light or too dark on the screen. EV can also be used when a certain camera has a tendency to make photos a bit too dark or a bit too light.

Tricky Light: Metering

A camera's light meter is what allows for modes like auto—the meter measures the available light in order for the camera to select the right settings. Metering options let the photographer choose how the camera's meter reads the available lighting by selecting the parts of the image that should be used to determine exposure.

Most cameras allow the photographer to select from matrix (sometimes called multi), center-weighted, or spot metering. Matrix is the default. Using this setting, the camera uses multiple points of the image to determine the proper exposure settings. Center-weighted metering uses a smaller region in the center of the image. With spot metering, most camera models allow the user to indicate a small spot that should be used to determine the right exposure settings.

Using different metering options is essential for mastering tricky shots. Center-weighted is useful for shooting backlit subjects in the center of the frame. Spot metering can achieve a more even exposure when the subject only takes up a small portion of the photo.

Tricky Light: ISO

ISO is a term originally used to indicate the light sensitivity of film; in a digital camera, ISO allows the photographer to adjust the sensitivity of the sensor. Higher ISOs allow for faster shutter speeds and narrower apertures, but higher ISOs also cause grain or noise in the image. Different cameras vary in their handling of high ISOs, some make the image appear extremely grainy while others have only a small amount of noise.

In most photos with good lighting, it's generally viewed as best to use a low ISO. Higher ISOs are better for faster speeds in not-so-ideal light, such as indoor sports, but the trade off is a noisier image. Determine what is more important to the image, speed (or sometimes small apertures) or clarity, along with how well your camera handles high ISOs, to choose an ISO setting.

Tricky Light: White Balance

Different light sources can cause the colors in digital photographs to fluctuate, which can give the image an overall yellow or blue hue. Adjusting the white balance helps the camera to get the colors right by defining what in the image should be white.

There are three main white balance options: auto, preset and custom. Auto allows the camera to detect the proper settings, but like any automatic setting, the results aren't always perfect. Presets work by selecting the type of light source, like sun or florescent, to help the camera get the white balance right.

Custom settings allow the photographer to get the white balance perfect for every shot. To set the custom white balance, take a picture of something white—camera gear stores sell white balance and color cards just for this purpose—in the same lighting or area that you want to take the photo in. Fill the entire frame with the white object if possible. Head to the menu and find the white balance options, then select the custom (also called Preset Manual). The camera will then prompt you to select an image; choose the image of the white object you just shot. The camera then uses the white photo to define pure white, and adjusts all the other colors accordingly.

Along with using manual modes, exposure compensation, metering, ISO and white balance can lead to better photos despite challenging lighting scenarios. These features are available on most cameras, not just the advanced cameras with manual mode options, and can help improve shots even from point and shoot users.

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