Behind the Lens: Tips to limit overexposure

Two of the greatest advancements in photography have been automatic exposure and automatic focus.

Both features enable the photographer to get acceptable images by simply directing their camera at a subject and pressing the shutter button. This minimal operator interaction led to a whole category of compact consumer cameras, known as point-and-shoots.

Unfortunately, simplifying the picture-taking process has led to some common operator errors. Over the next several columns I will address a few of these issues and describe some solutions.

Performers and stage lighting

In automatic exposure mode, a fairly large area at the center of a camera meter senses reflected light from a scene and seeks a balanced exposure based on all the light, or lack thereof, present. Sometimes it works; sometimes it fails miserably — sort of like a Congressional compromise.

In the case of photographing a stage performance, you often have small, distant figures in bright spotlights standing in front of large, black backdrops. To the eye the scene appears fine and legible. To the camera meter it appears out of balance with too much dark subject matter filling the frame.


Capturing fans at last year’s Late Night in the Phog, photographer Nick Krug had to be careful to expose for the faces of the fans in a bright spotlight instead of for the dark background taking up most of the scene. A camera on autoexposure would have left the fans overexposed. To avoid this, photographers need switch to manual exposure or try some different metering techniques to find the appropriate exposure.

Sensing there is a lack of illumination in the scene, the camera corrects for the imbalance and increases the exposure. The result is an overexposed photograph. The lit performers look washed out, and black backgrounds become shades of gray.

To capture the scene as you visualize it, try one of the tips below. Most point-and-shoot cameras allow users to lock the exposure by pressing down halfway on the shutter button. This enables you to take meter readings off important subject matter and then reframe before taking your picture.

Familiarizing yourself with this technique will help with the following tips:

Go manual — Set your camera to manual (M) and reduce the suggested automatic exposure by setting a higher shutter speed or a smaller aperture. Review images and continue to adjust to your liking.

Exposure compensation — If you have an exposure compensation dial on your camera or in your menu, adjust it down to -1, -2, etc. This reduces the exposure. You can leave your camera in auto-exposure with this setting — just remember to return to 0 when finished photographing that scene.

Spot metering — Look for a spot-metering icon in your menu or on the camera. It can look like a circle with a small dot in the center. Spot metering concentrates the meter’s light sensitivity to a narrow point.

Aim the point at an illuminated actor, lock down your exposure, reframe your shot if you need to and take your photograph.

Another way to accomplish this is to zoom in with your telephoto lens to meter, lock your exposure, then zoom back out for your photograph.

Trick your meter — If available, point your meter at something bright near you, lock your exposure and then reframe on the stage scene. You’ve fooled your camera into reducing its exposure.

Get close — The greater the disparity between dark background and lit performers, the more difficult the exposure.

If you can get closer to performers so they become a larger part of the image area, the camera’s meter will do a more accurate job of determining a balanced exposure.


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