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Living with Photography: Resolving Exposure

By Norman Chan

Making faces look good in an auditorium or stage setting is not easy!

As an amateur photographer, artificial lighting is daunting. Knowing not only how strong of a light to use, but what type of illumination, where to place lights, and how to properly defuse and color them for both studio and outdoor environments is something that requires study, equipment, and practice. It's not easy. But I've been reading a lot of David Hobby's posts and guides lately on Strobist, which is an excellent resource for photographers. So without a lot of experience shooting with artificial lighting that I control, I practice and mostly make due with lighting that I don't control. That's why I really like shooting with natural light, which is never fixed, either. There's a big difference between how a subject looks mid-day and during the golden hour, and it's a lot of fun to experiment with the contraints of a slowly moving light source and adapting with diffusion provided by windows, clouds, and the Earth's atmosphere. I highly recommend trying to shoot at least one photo a day during the golden hour if you have the chance.

What's tougher is shooting photos with indoor lighting you can't control, whether it's at someone's house or in a large convention hall. For technology coverage, we have to shoot products in dimly-lit meeting rooms, under garish fluorescent lights, and worst of all, on stage in an auditorium. Keynote and stage photography is a unique challenge because of the concentration of lights in an otherwise dark room, where people and products are lit for the benefit of the audience in the room and video cameras, but not necessarily still photography. I had a few opportunities in the past week to experiment with stage photography with my 6D, and the practice was illuminating.

Let's start with a photo I took last year that I really liked.

The below photo was taken at CES 2012 (over a year ago!), and I listed it as one of my favorite photos from that year. I liked it because I was in a unique situation in close proximity to three CEOs of major tech companies, together announcing a product that was critical to each of their respective companies' mobile businesses. The photo also showcases the difficulty of shooting these kind of stage events. The center of the stage, where the three men are standing, is extremely brightly lit, and done so from above. That's why, even with exposure compensation clocked down 2/3 of a stop, the tops of their heads are overexposed and look so shiny. In retrospect, the highlights are way overblown and there's a lot of shadow detail left on the table. But what did I know back then? I was just really happy to get this clear shot.

The deficiencies in the photo were primarily caused by me shooting in JPEG and also my camera's metering settings. Metering is the way by which a camera determines the exposure of a photo. That is, how bright the camera thinks the scene is you're trying to shoot. In the analog days, photographers used physical light meters to evaluate the brightness of a spot in the scene and adjust the camera's settings to match that. Digital cameras have light meters built in, but still have different methods of figuring out the brightness of a scene.

I won't go too in-depth about metering modes today--you can read about them on Wikipedia--since I've really only used the Evaluative Metering setting on my cameras. Otherwise known as multi-zone metering, this is a "smart" mode that relies on the some processing on the camera's part to figure out the exposure. Evaluative metering techniques differ from camera to camera, but the gist is that the processor splits a scene up into different zones and uses an algorithm to weight the light of those zones, factoring in the focus point and other scene. Cameras even reference the light data from a scene with a database of thousands of pre-programmed scenes to try and find a match.

With evaluative metering for on-stage photos, I still find that dialing exposure compensation (again, relevant to shooting in Aperture Priority) back by a full stop helps tremendously in reducing those blown out highlights. This also allows the camera to increase the shutter speed since it doesn't think it needs to receive as much light, which helps capture sharper images of people and objects in motion. At last weekend's Engadget Expand conference, I spent part of my day sitting in the front row of the presentation room just practicing photographing the people on the stage. And with my 6D's excellent high-ISO image quality, I was comfortable shooting at 320-640 ISO with an aperture of 2.8.

Looking at the photo below, you can see a big difference between it and the one I took at CES last year. Some of that is because I'm shooting with a nicer camera with a nicer lens, but it's also because I'm shooting smarter, too. Even with light shining down on the speakers' heads, their domes don't look overexposed and the skin tones still retain a good amount of warmth and detail.

My Expand event photos were all shot direct to JPEG, which suits the kind of workflow required of event and liveblog photography, where photos have to be processed quickly to upload. Of course, shooting in RAW allows you to manipulate lighting in post-processing much better with more data stored in the file, and I'm happy to report that I've begun practicing with that as well!

Yep, I finally have Lightroom installed, and have been using it to process some photos I took at the San Francisco premiere of Game of Thrones' third season. Again, this was a rare opportunity for me to photograph some of the actors from the show in a very limited timeframe, so I set the camera to very conservative settings to try and get a sharp photo. For the photo of actress Rose Leslie below, I was shooting at f/2.5 with ISO 1250, and again, exposure set a full stop down to maximize shutter speed. And as you can see from how the photo looks in the Lightroom screenshot, her face and hand is still a little overexposed because of the auditorium's lighting.

But wow, a RAW image lets you do so much with a photo. Exposure settings matter much less when working in RAW, since there's enough data to bump up or down a few stops in post. I was also amazed by the highlight and shadow tools that let me soften bright spots and bring out shadow detail in a way that I've never been able to do with JPEGs. And even though it's easy to get overly obsessed and overwhelmed by all the little ways you can develop a photo in Lightroom, I was able to come away with a really satisfying photo after about 10 minutes of tweaking. This is a really enjoyable process, which I'm just dipping my toe into right now. And at the beginning of another learning curve, your suggestions are always welcome.

(click the photo for the true image and color quality)

So what are your tricks for getting the exposure right in your indoor photographs? Do you shoot in RAW and under or over expose? Do you trust your camera's evaluative metering mode? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Finally, here's my favorite photo taken recently, also from the Game of Thrones premiere event. I was rushing to grab my seat before the show started, so I shot with in a bit of a hurry and didn't realize how well it had come out until that night. San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts (you may have seen it in Vertigo or The Rock) is composed of curved paths, large ponds, and towering corinthian columns, which makes it a hot spot for wedding and event photography. It had rained earlier that day and was slightly overcast, which gave the wet ground a nice shimmer and didn't overexpose the costumed performers promoting the event. I also really like how the ruffled red dress compliments the texture and color of the grass behind the woman, and how her face pops from the dark trees behind her head.

Our default JPEG compression muted the colors of the photos, so click it to see how I exported it from Lightroom.

(Also want to remind you that we have a Tested Flickr pool, so if you're on Flickr, join up!)