Exposure – introduction

Pekka Buttler, Dec 2022

exposure | ɪkˈspəʊʒə, ɛkˈspəʊʒə |


Exposure is one of those words which can mean many things. You can die of exposure (to the elements), or you can get sick from exposure (to pathogens), or you can be embarrassed by exposure (of your darkest secrets). Finally, you can get a picture thanks to exposure (of a film or sensor to light).

In photography, talk about exposure typically centres on the amount of light your picture is made up of – whether the picture looks overall too bright or too dark; how the light and dark areas of the shot accentuate (or attenuate) each other; whether those areas of the frame which are the prime interest show sufficient contrast, etc..

In these discussions, there is often an unpronounced preamble: when saying exposure, people are actually talking about correct exposure. Then again, while in some cases there is such a thing as a “correct” exposure (when photography is seen as an attempt to replicate “reality”), in many other cases, a specific type of exposure is harnessed as a tool for expression (when photography is used to convey a specific feeling, or for artistic purposes).

But just as with painters – whether realist, impressionist or expressionist – also the photographer must attend to the finer points of their craft: to be able to harness the expressive capabilities of varying exposures in the final image, the photographer needs to have a grasp of the basic characteristics of the medium. Therefore, just as the painter needs to understand their brush as well as the viscosity of their pigment suspension, the photographer needs to understand light.

Photography literally means ‘drawing with light’, and while we (JAPB) may some day return to the finer points of drawing with light, for now we’ll focus on the absolute basics: exposure – the sheer amount of light. ‘Amount’ may feel relatively simple and straightforward, but when you get down to making pictures, it turns out that exposure is a multifaceted topic, and is at times so technical, even mathematical that it may make your head spin. If so, don’t feel bad about it – you’re not alone.

Exposure is one of those topics which many – both beginners as well as amateur and hobbyist photographers (and even some pro’s) – have real trouble in bending their head around. Should you frequent photo-related discussion forums (whether physical or digital), you’re sure to have encountered a great many questions that clearly show that the issue seems to befuddle even accomplished photographers. Simultaneously, there are those who seem to be able to grasp exposure at a fundamental level, and – as a result – have a hard time understanding how come others are having such a hard time grasping the ‘obvious’.

This is a JAPB special aimed at helping you not only understand but master exposure.
For the sake of humane loading times, the article has been divided into parts:
The components of exposure (and their side-effects)
Working with Exposure (in practice)
Various approaches to exposure automation


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.