Digital Wildlife Photography Tutorial - Getting The Correct Exposure

A digital photograph’s exposure is affected by its shutter speed, aperture, ISO rating, sensor ISO rating, and the amount of light present in the scene. A wrong direction can ruin an otherwise excellent wildlife shot.

Digital cameras all have an automatic exposure setting. This may make it seem like exposure should be left to the camera. While it is true that your camera can produce correctly exposed shots in certain situations, there are many other situations where it won’t.

Automatic exposure systems are only effective when the scene and subject animal have a lot of mid-tones. Automatic exposure takes the entire set and averages it, giving an exposure equivalent to if it were a uniform mid-tone grey. Because almost all real-world scenes are not purely mid-tone gray, it is possible for your wildlife photos to be incorrectly exposed if your camera only uses the default exposure settings.

Scenes with mainly pale colors will be underexposed, such as the snowy scene of a pale animal. Locations with very dark colors will be overexposed. Also, it is possible for pale animals to be exposed to dark backgrounds, and darker animals may be underexposed against pale backgrounds. White areas of animals with pied markings, such as magpies or puffins, will often be overexposed. It is essential to adjust the default settings of your camera to properly expose wildlife photos.

Exposure settings

Three main light metering modes are available for DSLR and consumer cameras:

Multi-Segment, or Matrix, is the default exposure mode for a camera. This allows you to divide the image into multiple segments and then average the exposure across the entire scene. This mode is excellent for framing close-ups and larger shots of scenes with mainly mid-tones. However, it will often result in incorrectly exposed images if the set contains significant amounts of dark or extreme light.
Spot Metering is a mode where the camera’s exposure value is determined by a single point within the image. This point is usually the center of an idea but can be adjusted with most cameras. This mode is helpful for wildlife photography, as it can often allow you to get the correct exposure for your subject animal. Spot metering must be done with care, as light readings can differ depending on where the camera is pointed. It is therefore essential to pick a point that has a mid-tone.
Centre-Weighted is a similar setting to multi-segment meters. However, in this mode, more weight is given to the center of the image during the averaging process. This means that the camera will try to expose the correct center of an image. This setting is great for wildlife photography, as it is not sensitive to changes in brightness like spot metering. However, center-weighted meters can still produce an incorrect exposure if there are extremes in light and dark.
Suppose your camera’s metering is not producing the best results for a particular scene (e.g., If your subject is extremely light or dark, you can adjust the exposure using the manual EV Compensation (Exposure Value Compensation) setting. A spot-metered or center-weighted photo of a white swan will likely be underexposed. This is because the camera tries for a mid-tone gray to match the swan’s plumage. You can get a photograph where the swan’s plumage has been adequately exposed by setting your camera to a positive EV compensation (it may take some trial and error to determine the right amount).

The exposure bracketing function of your camera is another way to ensure the correct exposure. The camera will take three photos at different exposure settings. One at the recommended direction, one slightly underexposed, and one somewhat overexposed. This increases the chances that the correct exposure is achieved. Bracketing requires multiple exposures and is not suitable for photographing animals in action. The animal will likely move between exposures, making each bracketed shot unique. Unless you’re fortunate, however, the best-exposed shot may not be the one with the animal in its best position.

Examining for Correct Exposure

It is tempting to check the exposure of your picture by looking at it on your screen. Although this can give you a rough idea of the exposure, it’s not reliable because the brightness of a screen can change, and ambient lighting can have an impact on how the image looks. The histogram of your camera is a far better way to assess exposure. A histogram is a graph that shows the distribution of tones in an image from light to dark. A bell-shaped histogram is best for most photos. However, this may not be the case for images with significant dark or light areas.

A camera’s image playback mode allows you to see the overexposed areas of an image. A region of an image that is massively overexposed is one that is so exposed it is almost white. This is called clipping or burning out.

Digital photography should not be overexposed to the point that large portions of an image are cut. All information in the clipped area of an image will be lost. Photoshop cannot recover this information. Clipping large areas of detail is a bad idea.

Because of the problems with clipping, it is safer to slightly underexpose digital images than to overexpose them. This will preserve more detail in the highlights. Photoshop can quickly correct underexposed images. However, images that are significantly underexposed will result in a grainy texture known as ‘noise.’ Photoshop can correct slight overexposure, but only if clipping has not occurred.