By Jim Hamel
Recently, I received a very interesting question from a dPS reader about exposure. The question was, “How much does it matter about getting the exposure right when the photo is taken, as opposed to fixing it later in Lightroom?” It is a really interesting question, and it became even more interesting to me the more I thought about it.
Options for achieving the best exposure
Let’s start off by looking at the possibilities here. There a few different ways you can approach this, and they each have their advantages:
#1 Get it right in camera:
The first way is to make absolutely sure you get it right in camera, without resorting to post-processing software, unless you absolutely have to. Historically, this is the way it was done, largely because changing exposure levels was much more difficult than it is today with digital photography. Any professional photographer worth their salt, would tell you to get it right in camera.
Even today, however, there is still a lot to recommend this strategy. If you don’t use post-processing software, then obviously this is the only answer for you. Further, if you are someone that takes a lot of pictures, and do not want to spend all your time editing them, then this approach still has merit as well. There is just something that feels right about getting it correct in camera. It also avoids surprises later.
#2 Rely on Lightroom:
At the opposite end of the spectrum, is the idea that you should not worry about exposure so much while shooting, and instead get it right in Lightroom. When I say “not worry about it so much,” of course I do not mean you should just haphazardly twist dials to any exposure setting and blast away. Obviously, you need to get the exposure somewhat close to what you want. In addition, you cannot let your highlights get blown out, or your shadows turn pure black. But programs like Lightroom and Photoshop give you a lot of flexibility to deal with exposure settings later. As long as you get it close when you are shooting, you can take your time in front of a computer and get it exactly right.
#3 Do both:
Then, of course, there is a median way. You can try very hard to get the exposure exactly right in camera, and then tweak it later in Lightroom, when you are in front of your computer. In this approach, basically you are just always trying to get it right. You are taking advantage of all your tools. You may get it right in camera, which avoids time in front of the computer later, and avoids any surprises. If not, you can take your time and tweak it later.
To me, as I thought about it, the median way seemed like the right answer, I expect it did to you too. Except the more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t really do that.
My approach to exposure
Instead, I tend more toward the “don’t worry about exposure so much” end of the spectrum. I tend to just get it close, knowing that I am going to fix it later in Lightroom. Am I just being lazy in the field? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
It is just that when I am out shooting, I am usually trying to focus all my attention on composition. I think that is ultimately what matters in creating great photos. For me at least, that topic requires virtually all my mental energy. You have everything from your choice of subject, to how you will be placing things within the frame, to the perspective you want to use, to making everything balance, etc. That’s not to mention shape, leading lines, and other compositional elements. There is just so much to think about. Therefore, the more I can eliminate distractions from anything but composition, the better. I try to keep exposure from intruding on that process too much when I am out shooting.
Further, this approach toward exposure just lends itself to my way of shooting. I’m not someone that sets up on a tripod and stays in one place for a long time. It seems like I’m always on the move, chasing the next shot. My time spent on each shot is pretty limited. Further, while I take a lot of pictures, I edit very few of them, so I don’t mind spending whatever time is necessary, tweaking exposures in Lightroom. I often bracket my pictures as well, which gives me a little leeway for my exposure settings, and means I won’t have an unpleasant surprise later.
Anyway, thinking about how my approach toward photography as a whole affected how I approach exposure, made me realize that your particular method or style of photography probably has a lot to do with your approach to exposure.
Which should you do?
So, how should you approach exposure – by getting it right in camera, or relying more on Lightroom? There is no right answer here, as far as I can tell. As mentioned above, I believe it depends a lot on how you approach photography.
For example, a street shooter who is always on the move, trying to capture fleeting emotions, might not have time to devote toward getting the exposure exactly right. On the other hand, someone who spends a lot of time in one place may have the time. There are a lot of other factors as well.
Therefore, I’ve started a little list of factors that would tend to put you in one camp or the other. Check it out and see which apply to you:
Factors that lean toward getting it right in camera:
- You often stay in one place, and have sufficient time in the field to tweak exposure settings.
- Your subject is fairly static.
- You do not have post-processing software or just do not like to use it.
- You shoot in high volume and the time needed to tweak exposure settings would be too much.
Factors that lean toward increased reliance on Lightroom
- You are a consistent user of post-processing software to enhance your pictures.
- You bracket your pictures.
- Your subject is moving or the moment fleeting.
- You do not edit large volumes of pictures.
Did I miss some factors? Do you have a different take? If so, let me know in the comments below, and tell me – which camp are you in?
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