I have a Canon 60D that I use for my primary hobby that is photography, but sometimes the pictures that I took are with the incorrect exposure like this:

Image with an incorrect exposure

So I want to know how I can choose the correct exposure for situations like night, intense light, poor light conditions...

PS: The image is intentionally unfocused because I was playing with styling my photos a bit, not that it's a problem.

  • 6
    The exposure does not look bad to me, for making a nighttime shot look like nighttime. Can you clarify how you would like it to be? Do you want an increased exposure, so everything looks more like it would during the day?
    – coneslayer
    Apr 27, 2011 at 12:36
  • 2
    You may find this question helpful photo.stackexchange.com/questions/4687/….
    – mattdm
    Apr 27, 2011 at 12:40
  • Yeah, that's what I mean. Make the pictures like the reality, at night and at day Apr 27, 2011 at 12:40
  • 2
    I think you're done then, because the above image works. :)
    – mattdm
    Apr 27, 2011 at 13:28
  • As far as I can tell, the picture you have posted is correctly exposed. You also appear to be using your cameras full dynamic range, as you have every tone from pure black to pure white. I'm not sure what more you are expecting.
    – jrista
    Apr 27, 2011 at 19:27

4 Answers 4


There isn't really any "correct exposure". You can expose a picture however you like. Some choices may be more typical, and if you expose photos in a moderate, even way, it will tend to appeal to most people without a thought as to the exposure as an element of the composition. In other cases, you may choose to make the exposure darker or lighter, perhaps making the photograph low key or high key. If this is very strong, it will become a central element of the image; if it's more subtle, the effect may just be subconscious. Or, it may cause some viewers to dislike your choice, which is okay, because hey, it's your photo.

In most compositions, choosing how bright to make the main subject is the most important point. If that's all you care about, and you just want to make it medium brightness, spot metering might do the trick. Usually matrix or evaluative metering will too, with more consideration to the rest of the frame as well. (See When best to use Multi-Zone/Matrix, Spot, or Center-Weight? for more on metering.) Relying on the camera's metering will give you an average-brightness exposure, and you can use EV compensation if you decide you want the image to be brighter or darker than that.

The dynamic range of the whole scene you are photographing is an important thing to think about too. If there's very dark areas, keeping the exposure low will lose detail there; if there's very bright areas, a higher exposure will cause blown highlights. In many common cases, there's enough of both that you can't satisfy both sides given the technical limitations of cameras, so you need to make a decision as to where you will compromise. It's possible to use techniques to compress the range into one image (for example, "HDR"), but that can look unnatural. So, usually, choosing where to keep detail and where it's okay for detail to be lost in shadow or "blown-out" into white is a crucial decision.

In general, a thought process for exposure might be:

  • How bright do I want the subject to be?
  • How bright do I want the overall tone of the image to be?
  • How do I want to deal with highlights and shadows?

and the exposure choice follows from there. Many people find that Ansel Adam's Zone System provides a good framework for this, even in the modern digital age.

And really, I don't feel like my answer here is complete without a plug for a book by one of my favorite authors on photography, Michael Freeman's Perfect Exposure. This book goes beyond the typical what-is-metering, what is aperture, etc. questions (which, by the way, we cover pretty well here under ), and looks carefully at a photographer's mental process for choosing the "correct" exposure for a given photograph to meet a certain intent, with both practical examples and theory.

  • HDR photography would also be a good way to deal with that subject.
    – labnut
    Apr 27, 2011 at 15:37
  • That's what I was alluding to in "compress the range into one image". I can expand on that....
    – mattdm
    Apr 27, 2011 at 15:39

I'm guessing that we're going to run afoul of the term "correct" here, because you're trying to take a nighttime scene and make it appear as if it's daytime, which isn't really a faithful reproduction of ambient conditions.

Artistically, you're absolutely free to do exactly what you're describing, and in some cases, this can turn out really well. Soft, even light (diffused moonlight, maybe) across a scene could work really well for this, I believe.

In order to increase exposure, you could use exposure compensation (probably available in several of your camera's modes), but to really turn night into day, you're probably going to have to go into manual mode and set up a really long exposure. Make sure you're tripod-mounting your camera in order to do this, and slow the shutter speed until you get the effect you're looking for.

In a shot like your example, though, where lighting isn't really diffused at all, but rather, is coming from all those point sources on the horizon, I believe you're going to blow out all those highlights before you really achieve anything that looks like daylight.

  • I agree with all of this. If you have a landscape under a full moon, you can crank up the exposure and get something very much like daylight, because the moon is basically a dim version of the sun. But when you have a bunch of streetlights, etc., in the scene, the results are not so likely to please. But by all means try it and see!
    – coneslayer
    Apr 27, 2011 at 13:16

I am going to give a general answer and propose a modified form of the Zone System which I call the Highlight Zone System. Its goal is to preserve selected highlights faithfully. It is also known as 'expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows'.

  • Set your camera to spot metering.
  • Place the center spot over a highlight that you want to reproduce properly.
  • Lock in the exposure with your AEL button.
  • According to the table below dial in an exposure compensation of +1 to +4 EV to reproduce the highlight in the shade you want.
  • No compensation will make your highlight Zone 5 or mid grey, which is almost certainly not what you want.
  • Recompose and take the photo accordingly.
  • For difficult shots this will be your starting point from which you work by looking at the histogram and making further adjustments.

enter image description here

The principle is that for most, but not all, subjects, faithful reproduction of the highlights is what matters most. In post processing you can adjust dark or mid tones to your taste and the limits imposed by noise.

Ron Bigelow puts it this way:

The human eye selects the brightest point in its view and treats it as pure white. Of course, there are limitations to this. If the brightest point in the eyes' view is very dim or is not even close to white, this effect no longer applies.

All other colors are referenced to the brightest point.

The illustration of dynamic range on my camera, below, illustrates why this matters.
The sensor has a sharp cut off as brightness approaches saturation of the sensor. Thus it is easy to burn out highlights. So we have to expose carefully for the highlights to avoid burning them out and losing detail. enter image description here

Zone System - Wikipedia
A Simplified Zone System for Making Good Exposures - Norman Koren
White Point - Ron Bigelow

  • Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. Do you have a blog or somewhere where you post these results en masse?
    – coneslayer
    Apr 27, 2011 at 14:46
  • @coneslayer, thanks, but it was lost to a moment of utter carelessness.
    – labnut
    Apr 27, 2011 at 15:39

Modern exposure technique, at least outside a high-pressure professional environment, is basically about quick feedback and exposure compensation. That is, let the camera decide, then look at the screen (with the histograms on) and dial in some compensation.

When you've done this for a lot, you start getting a feel for what's happening and develop an awareness for what the camera will do and how you will compensate even before you shoot.

One thing that could help in developing this awareness is to switch off matrix-metering and use a plain center-weighted pattern.

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