skip to Main Content
Photography Basics – How To Achieve Optimum Exposure For Different Scenes [Part II]

Photography Basics – How to achieve optimum Exposure for different scenes [Part II]

In the Part I, we learnt about the basics of Exposure. In this part, let us examine how we can find the optimum exposure for various scenarios that we encounter on day to day basis.

How to Achieve Optimum Exposure for a High-key Scene

A high-key scene contains lower dynamic range than a good consumer/pro camera can handle. There will be a uniform distribution of light in the high-key scene.

Foggy, rainy and cloudy days usually lead to high-key scene since most of the scene will be equally lit.

High-key scene usually contains the uniform lighting, yielding to lower Dynamic Range

Consider our 5-stop dynamic range camera for example. Assume that we are photographing a waterfall on a cloudy day. It is a well distributed light and mostly the scene is having two dominant colors, white and green.

If you meter the waterfalls, then the metering may indicate an f/11 as in our example study. So, we have a dynamic range of f/5.6 to f/22.

But as you know, waterfall is the brightest element in the entire scene. There is no subject/object at f/16 and f/22. However, we would have lot of details in the green area or the surroundings. If the shadow regions need a smaller aperture than f/5.6, you will have those region turn to black.

If you happen to expose the scene with f/11 aperture, then you would end up with a darker or an underexposed image.


This is the time, when you have to make a decision as a photographer to utilize the opportunity to come up with an optimum exposure.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For High Key Lighting. Misty mornging scene in Blue Ridge Parkway.

Misty mornging scene in Blue Ridge Parkway yields to a high key lighting. The histogram shows that the dynamic range of the entire scene is limited and can be captured easily.
Note that I have exposed the scene to the right of the histogram

If you decide to expose the waterfalls at f/5.6 by using exposure compensation of +2, then you will get a 4-stop dynamic range (f/2.8 to f/8) to represent the shadow region or the surrounding. This technique is also called as ETTR (Expose To The Right).

In this process, we are opening up the aperture by 2 stops and allowing more light to pass through the lens.


This way you will have a virtually greater dynamic range to represent the entire region in a much more pleasing way leading to an optimum exposure.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For High Key Lighting. Misty mornging scene in Blue Ridge Parkway.

Just by adjusting the levels and slightly increasing the contrast and the color, you can get pleasing results.
Note that the histogram of the developed photograph is well distributed

How to Achieve Optimum Exposure for a Low-key Scene

A low-key scene is exactly opposite to a high-key scene. It has a very high dynamic range than a consumer/pro camera can handle. Mid-day sun yields a low-key scene with lot of highlights and dark shadows creating a very high dynamic range that most of the cameras may not be able to handle.

Low-key scene usually contains the harsh lighting creating deeper shadows yielding to a higher Dynamic Range

Note that low-key scene is not same as HDR (High Dynamic Range) scene. Usually the HDR scene will usually have various luminance levels anywhere from pure black to mid-tones to pure white.

The low-key scene will have shades of blacks and whites at either extremes but rarely have the mid-tones.

Consider our 5-stop dynamic range camera for example. Assume that we are photographing the same waterfall on a sunny day at noon. The light is harsh and casting the shadows at various regions in the surrounding.

If you meter the waterfalls, then the metering may indicate an f/32 and for the surrounding shadow region could require as high an aperture as f/4.  It requires at least 7-stop dynamic range to represent both the waterfalls and surrounding regions with details.

Note that, though the scene has higher dynamic range, there is not much to represent in the mid-tones. We have our main subject, waterfalls, at f/32 and the surrounding may be between f/4 to f/8 but nothing in-between f/8 to f/22.

In such cases, we could consider exposing separately for highlights (waterfalls) and shadow regions (surroundings) so that we can later blend these two exposures in Post-Processing software like Adobe Photoshop.


Note that, sometimes overexposing or underexposing a scene is desirable.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For Low Key Lighting. Yellow flower amidst the darkness.

In this photograph, I have intentionally underexposed the background quite a bit to emphasize the yellow color of the flower. The concept was to show the life amidst sadness or darkness

Sunset and Sunrise times naturally lead to low-key scenes since Sun is always tens of hundreds of time brighter than anything else in the scene.

In case of photographing Sunset or Sunrise, we may have to overexpose the sun to show how powerful the sunlight is.

Whereas, in case of before sunrise or after sunset, we may want to underexpose the surrounding objects to get the silhouette effect to emphasize more on bright and vibrant colors in the sky.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For Low Key Lighting. Sunrise at Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

In this photograph of Sunrise at Lake Superior, I have underexposed the foreground and the middleground to get the silhouette effect. This effect emphasizes the color in the sky

How to Achieve Optimum Exposure for Normal Scenes

Generally, most scenes have the dynamic range that can be covered using the exposure range of the camera.

As described in the Camera Metering Modes article, the camera metering sensor(s) are calibrated to calculate the proper exposure for normal subjects of an average brightness. In most of the normal scenes, the metering sensor should be able to give an indication of the optimum exposure.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For Normal Scene. A Bald Eagle flies across the Lock & Dam 14 in Iowa

By exposing the Bald Eagle scene to the right, I have plenty of details in its feathers. The histogram shows a proper distribution

However, at times, we may opt to slightly underexpose or overexpose a photograph to achieve desired results.

It is almost always good to Expose To The Right (ETTR) of the histogram to retain the greater details in the shadow regions.

In some cases, when the scene contains a mid-toned main subject and a bright background like sky, we might have to underexpose a bit to avoid blowing out the background.

How to Achieve Optimum Exposure for HDR Scenes

Some scenes will have High Dynamic Range (HDR) than what a camera can handle. This is usually true in case of vast landscapes with various objects that have different luminous intensities and color.

In such cases, we have to take multiple exposures and later combine these exposures into a single exposure that has higher dynamic range.High-Dynamic-Range-Scene

Each exposure should be made by following the same principle that we follow in case of normal scenes.

Nature Photography Simplified. Optimum Exposure For High Dynamic Range Image. Lake of Clouds brimming in Autumn, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

The Autumn colors, water and the clouds had a very high dynamic range. I could not fit the entire scene in one photograph. I took three photographs with one for foreground, one for background and middle tones.
The histograms give a clear view of the exposure of each photograph. I have achieved the high dynamic range by comibining the photographs to form one photograph.
Note that there are range of intensities from dark tones to mid tones to brigther tones

In the next article, we discuss about effects of filters on Exposure.

Do you have anything to add? Do you shoot different kind of scenes like low key, high key and HDR? Would you like to bring out any other scenario?

Nature Photography Simplified. Understanding Exposure, Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO eBook. Written by Prathap.Buy Printable version of Understanding Exposure (9-Part Series) for $1.99 USD only! Contact for payment details.



Please follow and like us:


Prathap is a professional nature photographer and founder of Nature Photography Simplified blog. He aims to simplify every photography concept to help beginners and amateur photographers.

Download his highly recommended FREE eBook "Bird Photography – 10 Mistakes and Solutions" which has been instrumental in helping thousands of bird photographers.

Download it right now to jumpstart your bird photography.

This Post Has 22 Comments
  1. Very clearly and easily explained..i am just 2 weeks baby in photography..i found yours website very much useful.. i have understood about exposure matter by yours website and this article is very good…

    Tumba Olle Artilce Kottiddakke Dhanyavadagalu Pratap Sir…

    1. Thank you! Shreenivas. Very glad to know that you are able to understand it.

      Nimmellara preetige nanna dhanyavadagalu 🙂

      1. Welcome Sir 🙂

        I need continuous Guidance and suggestions from you sir.. Even i have sent friend request to you in FB and u have accepted also.. 🙂 I feel happy that ours Kannadiga is famous Photographer and blogger 🙂 thank you 🙂

        1. Thank you for your kind words Shreenivas 🙂 This blog is dedicated to enable everyone to understand the complexities of Photography and DSLR in simple terms. Please stay tuned to learn in a step by step manner.

  2. In the high key scene where there is no “subject/object at f/16 and f/22″‘ don’t you want to expose at f/5.6 so the upper range of the dynamic range is f/11 and the shadows are opened up?

    1. Perfect Karl! Thank you for correcting my mistake. Sincere apologies to you and all. I have corrected it now.
      Just to clarify to all others; if we expose the waterfalls at f/22, as I explained earlier, then we would underexpose the entire scene making it much darker. Because, we are essentially closing down the lens opening by 2 stops!

  3. Hi Prathap, I have the same question as Karl. I believe that an exposure compensation of +2 on f/11 would give an f/5.6 exposure rather than an f/22.

    Look forward to your comment to clarify my confusion.

  4. Well done Prathap, thanks for sorting that out.

    I look forward to your future articles as I usually find your work informative and well written – an inspiration to try new techniques out.

  5. Sorry to say…but I find this way of explaining exposure very confusing…Firstly what mode is one shooting in? Shouldn’t that be made clear.

    Are you assuming that one is shooting in aperture mode or Manual mode? If one is shooting in Manual mode, the issue of exposure compensation doesn’t arise at all…

    On the other hand, in a waterfall scene, what’s your primary consideration….I assume depth of field…so if I’m going to be shooting with a small aperture (f16 or f22) to get more depth (as I want a sharp image through the frame), shouldn’t this be the starting point to illustrate the example.

    1. Please don’t be sorry about it Govindarajan. It is always good to discuss and clarify few things as you have done here.
      My explanation of exposure compensation is generic. In the sense, whether you shoot with Aperture Priority or Manual mode, exposure compensation can be applied. The difference being:
      – You will guide the Camera to apply exposure compensation (by using button or a menu option) in case of Aperture Priority Mode
      – Whereas, you will do it yourself in case of Manual Mode either by changing Aperture or Shutter Speed or ISO to achieve the required compensation

      You may be right in saying you need deep Depth of Field (DOF) for the waterfall scene. However, the DOF is a function of aperture, subject to camera distance, subject to background distance, and focal point. I have intentionally left out on the DOF consideration, since it will complicate the things. I will explain in depth about the DOF in a dedicated article.

      Please feel free to post more questions on this topic if you are not satisfied with my answers. Thank you!

  6. I just turn my blinkies on and avoid the brain strain. If something in the scene is overexposed or underexposed I can decide in a blink, pardon the pun, if it is important to my scene and adjust, or not, accordingly. In the meantime you appear to be extremely knowledgeable and at ease with your photography, a place I would aspire to be some day. I am really enjoying your tutorials.

    1. Dear Max, It is definitely good to turn on the blinkies. They are definitely helpful. At the same time, remember that the blinkies (or overexposed highlights) that are shown on the LCD are considering the JPEG image. There is still some room (approximately 0.5 stop to 1.5 stops extra room) if you are shooting in RAW format. Thanks for bringing it out!
      Thank you for your kind words. I hope you have a great time here!

  7. Dear Prathap, from just a few days behind I am in touch with your blog and liberally given tips and advices especially for beginners. Thank you very much for your good effort. I just advanced to bridge camera (panasonic fz70). Please clarify me that can I make a decent or better photograph by this camera against the very standard photographs of other modest and costly cameras/equipments.

    wish to be in touch with you for many like questions as a interested beginner.

    thanking you

    warm regards


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Booshan. You could make very good photographs with bridge cameras too. I think more than the camera, it is the photographer behind the camera who matters. Pay more attention to light and composition, then work with the limitations of your camera.

      Of course, with right kind of equipment (which are particularly made for the task) you would get better quality photographs. But that alone does not guarantee you any pleasing and strong images.

      Welcome to our group.

  8. Hie Pratap,
    Thanks for spreading your knowledge. I use Canon 1100D dslr with std 18-55mm lens. I want to picture of human’s eye in good resolution. I invested in ring flash and extension tubes (13, 21 & 31mm) Can you suggest me the combination of ISO, aperture etc. I am just a beginner of macro photography.

  9. Hi Prathap,

    I surfed around many blogs regarding beginners tutorial for DSLR photography but not useful and understandable as yours. I am lucky to find your blog. Its awesome and very detailed explanation for the beginners. I want to learn more with you.

    Thank you for this awesome tutorials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Back To Top
×Close search