Common Exposure Problems (And How To Fix Them!)

When you start out in photography you’ll probably come across some exposure issues and problems. In this guide, I’m going to look at some of the most common problems and give you easy ways to fix them. Let’s get started!

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Blurry photos
  • Out of focus subjects
  • Relying on the LCD
  • Whites that aren’t white
  • Underexposed backlit subjects
  • Underexposed shadows and overexposed highlights
  • Colours that look wrong
  • Not keeping an eye on your settings

Blurry photos

There are a few common reasons for blurry photos, caused by the fact your camera is unable to focus accurately on your subject. If you’re shooting in low light the camera’s autofocus can struggle to find focus. In this situation switch to manual focus or shine a torch on the area you’re trying to focus on. Low light also often benefits from the use of a tripod, which will help prevent any camera shake. 

Alternatively, you might be shooting fast moving subjects and getting blurry results. Firstly, you need to use a fast shutter speed to freeze action (generally 1/500th and faster). Switch your camera’s focus mode to continuous (burst) mode so that the camera fires a series of shots and if low light is also a contributing factor, up your ISO settings.

Out of focus subjects

If you’re shooting portraits you’ll often want to use a small depth of field. This keeps your subject pin-sharp but blurs out the background to emphasise and draw attention to the subject. Focusing can be tricky when you’re using a small depth of field. Make sure that you select a single AF point so that you can tell the camera exactly where to focus and remember that a portrait really must have sharp eyes, or it loses all impact. To get your subject in focus, it has to be on the focal plane and the focal plane is going to be small when you’re shooting with a wide aperture. Remember that if you move forwards or backwards by even a step, you’ll need to refocus your shot. 

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Photo by Christopher Campbell | A small depth of field helps to isolate your subject from the background and make them ‘pop’ out, but you need to take care to keep focus on the face and eyes in particular.

Relying on the LCD

LCD screens are great – they give us a view of how our finished shot will look and can help with composition as they’re a lot larger than a viewfinder! But an LCD screen is never 100% accurate, particularly as they can easily be adjusted for preference. Relying on the LCD screen makes photographers lazy and often leads to incorrectly exposed images. For accuracy, always check your exposure meter. This generally runs from -3 to +3 and your exposure will be correct when the line is on 0.

Whites that aren’t white

White can be a problem colour for cameras, causing confusion for your camera. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, cameras have some issues actually seeing white in the first place. And secondly, but more importantly to correcting the issue, camera metering systems work by looking for averages in a scene. The metering system looks for areas of bright and dark so that they can average these out as a midtone. So, if you fill the frame with white or light subjects, the camera will still try to create a midtone, and your photograph will end up looking grey. Fixing this issue is, however, pretty simple. All you need to do is manually dial in positive exposure compensation to set your exposure above the value suggested. Remember that the amount of +EV needed will depend on the amount of white in the photograph.

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Photo by Stijn Te Strake | Whites are always a tricky colour for cameras but exposed correctly can produce eye catching images.
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Underexposed backlit subjects

One of the most common problems for your camera is shooting a subject that’s either darker than its surroundings or lit from behind. Often, in an attempt to meter for the whole scene, the camera will underexpose your subject. The simplest and most efficient way to deal with this is to switch your camera to centre-weighted metering. This instructs the camera to place the greatest emphasis on exposing the centre of your image correctly. Some cameras also allow you to link your active AF point to the spot metering area, although if you use this method remember that spot metering only meters for the centre 5% of the image.

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Photo by Bailey Burton | Use centre-weighted metering for backlit subjects to avoid producing a silhouette!

Underexposed shadows and overexposed highlights

Human eyes work in harmony with our brains to create the images we perceive, with our brain continuously adjusting its colour balance according to the lighting context. Cameras, on the other hand, are measuring the light that hits your sensor and this sensor is dumb. The signals that are recorded need to be adjusted to suit the colour temperature of the light. This means that in high contrast scenes cameras can struggle to capture the entire dynamic range, leading to underexposed shadows and overexposed highlights. 

There are several ways to ensure that you get a correctly exposed scene, without clipped shadows or blown-out highlights. Firstly, you can take a series of shots with one exposed for highlights, one for midtones and one for shadows. These can then be combined – often even in camera, or you can combine them in post production using the HDR setting. Alternatively you can invest in a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. These restrict the light by different numbers of f-stops (they’re usually available in 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 stops) on either the top or bottom half of your image allowing you to balance shadows and highlights more easily. 

Colours that look wrong

If the colours in your image look wrong, it’s most likely down to using the wrong white balance. For example, if you’re shooting indoors without a flashgun most household lighting will be tungsten balanced, which leads to an orange cast on your images. Fluorescent lighting (strip lighting) gives images a rather nasty sickly green tinge! The auto white balance setting is often enough to compensate for colour casts, but artificial lighting can be too much for auto settings to cope with. This is why cameras come with different white balance settings specifically designed to compensate for different lighting situations.

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Photo by Hofmann Natalia | Make sure you use an appropriate white balance if you’re shooting indoors without flash and are just relying on artificial light.

Not keeping an eye on your settings

Not so much of an exposure problem as a common accident, one of the easiest ways to get incorrect exposures is accidentally knocking buttons on your camera such as the mode dial or aperture / shutter speed dials. Fortunately most modern cameras allow you to lock the mode dial and you can also lock your exposure settings in by pressing the AE-L (Auto Exposure Lock) button.

One other trick that’s useful to follow is always setting your camera back to some ‘base’ settings at the end of a shoot. I always put my ISO back to its lowest setting, move my shutter speed to 1/60th (as this is the slowest speed most people can handhold their cameras at) and put my AF point back to the centre. This means that the camera can be grabbed quickly to shoot with.

In Conclusion

Although by no means covering every exposure problem you might come across, this article should give you a good grounding in some of the most common problems and hopefully make your shooting life a little easier. 

Self-Help Quiz

  1. Which focus mode should you use to prevent blurry photos?
  2. Should you use a small or large depth of field for portraits?
  3. Which metering mode should you use for backlit subjects?
  4. Which filter is useful for combating differing exposures in a scene?
  5. What colour cast does tungsten lighting have?

Cover Photo by Math via unsplash

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