I usually take pictures in Aperture Priority mode, it’s what I’m comfortable with. I like to control the depth of field in my pictures and let the camera take care of the shutter speed. For each picture, there is a range of settings that will result in a good picture. F5.6 at 1/120 shutter speed is the same exposure as F6.4 at 1/90 shutter speed. The pictures look different because you’re taking in more light faster at the lower F stop. Getting a sweet exposure, where the capture of light matches up with the exposure settings is a tricky thing. The range of settings that give that natural lighting is narrower than the range for a good shot. I usually can’t get the effect by pushing an exposure in an image editor after the fact, so I have to get it on site. The colors and objects in the picture seem righter or realer to the eye than a documentary picture. The caboose picture on the right is overexposed. I was trying to make the red really pop. I kind of like the effect, but it’s not what I think of as a sweet exposure. The kittens on the left have that natural, indirect light that makes it a sweet exposure, but it’s not just indirect lighting that creates the effect.
When I was taking pictures at Lollypop, I always wanted to create documentary pictures for the website. The pictures that are displayed in the adoption pages are small, so I felt it was important to shoot everything at +1EV, F11 and push towards overexposing the pictures. I wanted to keep the pictures bright, and make it easier for the viewers to see the cats. I relied on the flash to put out a ton of light to cover my exposure choices. I used my flash to manually change the exposures when I wanted to take a second shot for myself. I use an SB-600 speedlight with an infrared link, so I can hold the flash in my left hand while taking pictures with my right. Like the old timey photographers, angling the flash gives more or less light on the subject. On the left is a regular picture I took for the adoption website. On the right, I’m pointing the flash mostly at the volunteer’s back instead of the cat. Even though the camera is set to +1EV, I’m muting the flash(0EV) by pointing it away from the subject. Using a remote flash is the easiest way to change the exposure you get. Once you’re comfortable with the way your camera will react to a given scene, you can leave the settings on the camera alone for the most part, and change the light with the flash.
Getting a sweet exposure without a flash is a little harder. Now, you’re relying on your ability to change your settings or bracket to get the sweet exposure. I don’t usually bracket unless I’m at a fixed location with a tripod. It’s a shortcoming of mine that springs from laziness. I’m working on it. The image on the left is a good example of a miss. It’s a hard picture to get the right exposure on. There is a lot of contrast in the scene. No matter what exposure I used, I had to accept that the sky would be blown out so I could get the pipes at the right exposure. I came within a stop of getting the sweet exposure on the pipes. My thought was to use center weighted metering, combining the values for the dark pipes, and the lighter wall, and let the sky overexpose. What I should have done is use a spot meter on the pipes, and push the EV -1. It’s pretty close to what I did, but the camera is doing different things to get there. In center weighted mode, the camera is using the pipes for 80% of the exposure value, and wall/pipes for 20% of the exposure value. The value that the camera came up with was weighted towards the wall, and I underexposed this image by almost a full stop. With a spot meter, the camera would only be using the pipes to calculate the exposure value, and I could make adjustments for the wall using my EV dial. On the right is an example of a sweet exposure. To me, the holes in the door are realer somehow, and the colors seem more natural. This is a flat, low contrast scene, so the exposure is easier. Center weighting with the spot covering a rust patch lowered the exposure enough to get it into the smaller range of really good exposures. Another way to get there would be to spot meter the blue door, and adjust +EV a half stop or so to cover the rust.