Photo Basics Lesson: How to Check the Exposure

Exposure brightness of DSLR camera LCD
Using the LCD to determine proper exposure

One of the most significant benefits to digital cameras is the LCD screen, which shows you your picture immediately after it was taken.  Unfortunately, the LCD also causes severe problems for photographers.  In this post, I'll explain a few methods for determining if your exposure is correct by looking at the LCD of the camera.

Is the LCD Accurate?

If you look at the photo on your LCD screen and determine the correct exposure from looking at that photo, you can really get into trouble.  Let me give you two examples of how this can cause trouble.

I have recently been using the phenomenal Nikon D7000 after switching over from Canon.  After my first 4 or 5 shoots with the camera, I noticed consistent over-exposure problems.  I even compared the photo on my LCD to what I saw on the calibrated computer monitor and saw dramatic differences in brightness.  To fix this problem, I simply turned down the brightness of the DSLR LCD screen to -1.  Problem solved.  The LCD now matches the computer screen much more closely and I can mostly trust the LCD.

Another example of when it is a poor idea to judge exposure by looking at the LCD is when shooting night photography.  Because it is pure black all around you, night photographers make the common mistake of thinking the exposure is brighter than it really is.  This results in under-exposed night photos.

Using the Histogram

The histogram is a tiny graph that you camera can display.  The histogram shows the brightness levels of the data in the photo.  You can access your histogram on any DSLR manufactured in the last 4 years by pressing the display button to see different display options while reviewing photos via the playback feature.  The lines appearing toward the left of the histogram are dark areas of the photo, and the lines on the right represent the bright areas of the photo. It makes little difference how many lines are where on the photo, but a correct exposure means that none of the lines touch the far right or far left of the photo.  This prevents shadow and highlight clipping.

I rarely use the histogram because it takes too long and takes my focus away from taking photos.  However, I always use the histogram at night to assure that the brightness of the LCD isn't tricking my eyes, and I always use the LCD when I'm using a camera that is new to me.  This prevents me from being tricked by an LCD that is unusually bright or dark.  I also use the histogram when working with flash photography or in other tricky lighting situations.

18 thoughts on “Photo Basics Lesson: How to Check the Exposure”

  1. Some self-proclaimed photography guru said you should always make sure the “mountain” on your histogram is slightly to the right for the best exposure.

    Do you agree with that ?

  2. The proper distribution of densities – the location of the “peak of the mountain” – depends on the subject.

    Picture of a polar bear on the ice should not have the same distribution of tones as the black cat at midnight.

  3. 1. On my D300 it takes 1 button press (selector pad) to show the histogram. It can’t be harder than that on D7000.

    2. Histogram is based on JPEG image, even if you shoot RAW, so it’s not really that accurate unless you use UniWB.

  4. So… When taking night shots, keep the histogram centered to make the night shot look like daylight? I always wonder where to set the camera and the post processing exposure to get a realistic rendition of a night shot. I always shoot in RAW, so I also guess that there is a little more exposure available at each end of the histogram. I nearly always check the histogram (at least once in a series of shots). It takes no extra time that I can tell.

  5. In low light, such as at night, indoors, or under thick cloud cover, you can often get better results by overexposing the scene slightly, such as with an EV +1. As you can see that how level of EV is depend on the dark level; if more dark should use high EV.

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  12. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

  13. Have the same problem with D7000. I found this when upgrading the firmware and indeed turned down the LCD brightness works well

    NIce tip btw 🙂

  14. Thanks for the tips, Jim, although I do not use my histogram and I have never experienced any problems so far. Do you always use your histogram? I know many photographers that do not use their histogram very often.



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