The three elements of the exposure triangle are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. But how do we know how to balance these settings and expose the image just right? Fortunately, every DSLR camera comes with a light meter, which can be found in the viewfinder. When I first started learning more about the concept of exposure, I started using this little indicator, and it has certainly been a very helpful tool when finding the correct exposure. If all the settings are adjusted to make the pointer fall exactly in the middle of the line, the image is correctly exposed, right? If only the answer were so simple. For nearly every picture you take, there are six different combinations of aperture and shutter speed that deliver almost the exact same result in terms of lighting. However, only one of these is the best one. Photographers call this “creatively correct exposure.”
I only truly understood what it meant to find the most creatively correct exposure when I went out one night to take pictures of a fireworks show. Because of low-light conditions and their sheer unpredictability, fireworks tend to be devilishly tricky to frame and expose correctly. My general nighttime presets started with a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/50 second and an aperture of ƒ/5.6.
Typically, my shots tended to look like this, which aren’t bad, but they lack personality when in focus. So, I decided to solve my issue of blandness and deliberately make the images blurry.
I began noticing some more improvements. The intentional blur helped make the colors stand out more and appear more vibrant, instead of focusing in on the minute flecks of color in the sky. While this helped for a dozen more shots, I started noticing how almost all of them looked uniform. Because 1/50 second still somewhat sits within the threshold of time-stopping shutter speeds, I was only able to capture specks of light. Furthermore, because fireworks almost always explode in spherical shapes, these specks were organized in neat circles within each shot. In a final effort to make the most interesting shots I could before the show ended, I decided to take a huge risk; I set my shutter speed to 1 second. Under normal circumstances I would highly discourage such a slow shutter speed for night photography without a tripod, since unavoidable shaking can cause the image to “ghost” in a very displeasing way.
But suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me, and I accidentally discovered the creatively correct way to expose fireworks. With the slower shutter speed, those neatly organized specks of light became bright swirling tendrils in the sky, allowing the light sensor to pick up the full extent of those split-second bursts of energy and rendering the shots far more dynamic. Luckily, I managed to figure this out before the fireworks show ended.
Learning how to capture creatively correct exposure can be quite a daunting task with the constant tweaking of the settings, trying, and failing. Sometimes, it may even feel discouraging or frustrating to find the best exposure. Even I have felt the crushing disappointment of finding a cool shot that simply fell flat due to an uninteresting choice in exposure because I put too much faith in the light meter. Thinking beyond the light meter takes a lot of time and effort, but doing it will eventually pay off. The best exposure won’t appear on the first try in the majority of cases, so perfecting exposure requires a lot of patience, practice, and sometimes courage to step out of your comfort zone. Plus, learning from failure certainly helps to bring you closer to the answer.