Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition

I first read Brian Peterson’s book around two years ago, when I was first beginning to develop a serious interest in photography. It could be described as a technical book, on understanding the camera as a tool to make pictures. I revisit it now with fresh eyes, with more photos under my belt!

Peterson first deals with the use of the aperture, describing what he sees as three modes: ‘isolation’ (wide apertures), ‘storytelling’ (narrow apertures), and ‘who cares’ (middle apertures). This relates to the depth of field achieved in each of the ranges. Peterson reminds us that where DOF considerations are not important for a shot, the ‘who cares’ apertures give ‘critical sharpness and great contrast’ and, therefore should be used. These are useful analogies, even if we choose to use them if a different way that Peterson suggests.

At some point in my practice, I have developed the habit avoiding narrow apertures; perhaps weary of front-to-back sharp images on the internet that show nothing of particular interest, just picturesque scenes in detail. I now need to develop the habit of using this aperture range where appropriate.

Peterson generally uses his camera manually and the shutter to adjust the exposure for his chosen aperture. However, he states, ‘there are two situations in which you should make the shutter speed your first priority: when the scene offers motion or action opportunities, or when you find yourself shooting in low light without a tripod.’ Peterson is a tripod enthusiast, valuing them for the sharpness they help bring to his images.

Peterson explains that once aperture and shutter speed considerations have been made,’the real question isn’t “What should my exposure be?” but “From where do I take my meter reading?”  He goes on to consider various scenarios and options in some detail. Throughout, Peterson’s preference is to use manual mode to adjust the exposure, only using the automatic modes in cases where there is uniform light; he finds this easier than using exposure lock but I guess this is dependent on the design of the camera in use. He mentions how on sunny days, he meters from the blue sky (away from the sun), what he calls ‘brother blue sky’ (also its reflections in water). He also makes use of ‘Mr Green Jeans’ when there is a lot of green in a scene, exposing at -2/3s. The approach uses large areas of reflected light to arrive at an exposure for the scene.

Peterson mentions that while evenly lit subjects are easy to meter, ‘to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, you need highlights and as many professional photographers would agree, a sidelit subject—rather than a frontlit or backlit one—is sure to elicit a much stronger response from viewers, because it better simulates the three-dimensional world they see with their own eyes.’ This may not always be the response we want to elicit in our photography, but it is nonetheless worth noting.

Re-reading this book has made me reflect on the way I use my camera as a tool (a Fuji X-T1). It is straightforward to use in manual mode, but the exposure lock can also be assigned as a switch, rather than press-hold. I perhaps us spot metering too often as a way to fix an exposure in a scene with uneven light, when metering and locking exposure based on an area might be more appropriate. I could then reserve spot metering for inter-locking with small focus points on subjects that are genuinely ‘spots’.

A photo from some exercises using closed apertures and a wide-angle lens is below (Fuji X-T1 xf10-24 at 19mm efl f/22).

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Peterson, B. (2010). Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

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