In this link there are some wonderful night time scenes (#4,6,7,9,10,11,13). I'm wondering how the photographer got the exposure right. In my experience my camera metering will overexpose everything once it gets darker.

Would the photographer have used a manual setting and just hope it was right, or are there some metering settings that work in low light conditions?

What are the options?


5 Answers 5


In my experience my camera metering will overexpose everything once it gets darker.

There are a number of things you can do about that:

  1. Make sure the meter is looking at the part of the scene that you're most interested in, not the whole scene. To do that, switch your camera to the spot-metering mode, so that the meter only looks at a small part of the scene.

  2. Learn to use your camera's exposure lock feature. Typically, the spot metering mode reads the exposure at the viewfinder's center spot; if you want to meter from some other part of the view, a good way to do it is to put the center spot on that part of the scene, lock in the exposure, and then recompose the shot.

  3. Use exposure compensation. When you're using the "evaluative" or "matrix" metering mode to read the whole scene, your camera tries to adjust the exposure so that the average exposure falls within an acceptable range. Nighttime shots tend to have large dark areas, and your camera tries to compensate for those by increasing the exposure. The result is that the areas you care about become overexposed. Exposure compensation lets you tell the metering system to reduce (or increase) the overall exposure. It's like you telling the camera "I know this is a dark scene, that's what I want, so please don't try to compensate so much."

  4. Shoot in manual mode. You can still use the meter in manual mode to help you determine what the right exposure should be, but you're also free to ignore it. This frees you from having to AE lock, and you don't have to think about how the metering system will interpret the scene. It's very common to take a number of shots in the same lighting conditions, and at those times you can take a few test shots to get the exposure dialed in the way you want it and then just leave it alone.

Shot #18, where an in-focus woman in a black leather jacket is silhouetted against an out-of-focus bright crowd, is a good example of how the camera's metering controls can help you get a great shot that simple evaluative metering and automatic exposure would never create by themselves. The woman creates a large dark area right in the center of the image. She's not really underexposed, she's just exposed the way the photographer wanted. That shot could have been taken in manual mode using the spot meter to help the photographer check the exposure level of both the woman and the crowd. Or it could have been taken in an automatic mode using the spot meter and AE lock to get the crowd exposure right. Or it could have been taken in AE mode metering just the woman, but using exposure compensation to dial down the exposure level.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Accepted this as the answer to my question as it gives a nice concise list of options to start working with. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rene
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 7:10

There is a lot more going on in these shots besides exposure that make them so well done. Even though the overall environment was typically dark, the photographer, Jessica Rinaldi (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016), managed to see the light that was present in the scene and then used it to her advantage. The composition of each frames shows very good awareness of the direction the light is coming from and how it is illuminating her subjects.

The color balance and saturation (not too much, but just enough) is phenomenal. Sometimes I think getting the color right is even more important than the exposure in the sense that you can miss the exposure a bit but if the color is right it still works. Contrast control is also important for such shots, particularly being able to avoid allowing the difference between the very bright light sources and the dark shadows from becoming too harsh.

Finally, as much as we love to say "gear doesn't matter," having the best tools at our disposal can make a big difference in some situations. Full frame sensors, fast glass, and RGB+IR metering can all make a huge difference in very challenging light such as this. It doesn't mean you can't get such good results without these things, but the best tools make it easier and quicker to get there. Instead of having to dial in a specific color temperature and white balance compensation when using a monochromatic light meter, with a multi-color exposure meter we can just leave the WB set to "Auto" and get very good results both in terms of color and exposure.

Now, on to exposure.

The vast majority of photojournalists I know would have used manual exposure for most of the images you referenced. How they would have arrived at those manual settings would have probably been more varied than the number of photojournalists asked. That is, there are many ways to get there, and sometime some of us use more than one method in such situations.

For the darkest night shots, it's almost always trial and error. You set an acceptable shutter speed, an acceptable aperture, and then you play with the ISO until you get what you want. If you're waiting for a key moment, you dial in the exposure using whatever is available under the same light that you anticipate the thing you're waiting on is going to happen. But there really aren't any images in the ones you listed that are that dark. There's always some light shining on the subjects, it's just that the areas surrounding them may be dark.

As there is more and more light in the scene, various forms of metering, combined with exposure compensation, become more effective. I like Canon's Evaluative Metering, probably because it's what I most often use and can very often look at a scene and understand how much exposure compensation will be needed to get it to do what I want. In dark environments with brightly illuminated subjects I'm not afraid to dial in -2 to -3 stops of EC or to set settings manually that leave the meter showing -2 to -3. For someone else, using Center Weighted Averaging or Spot/Partial Metering may work better for them. I think the key is to try and use one method consistently enough until you gain enough experience with that method to see with your eyes the way the meter will see the light in the scene. It is also key to be able to understand when your preferred method is probably not the best way to approach a specific scene and be able to change to one that will be.

The shot of the two folks using their iPhones (#11), for example. Spot meter on the nearest face with about +2/3 to +1 EC and you're done. Try doing that shot with Evaluative/Matrix metering and it gets a lot more difficult.

The night scenes with strong artificial light sources illuminating major parts of the scene (like #9 of the lights reflecting off the side of the white bus) are the kinds of shots where evaluative or center weighted metering, even when shooting in manual mode is very useful.

Of those referenced, the hardest shot for me would be #13, the one of the lady with posters that she was preparing to distribute that was taken early in the morning. The light changes rapidly in the last few moments before dawn. But even in that one there is a strong, presumably constant, light source to camera left that seems to be the basis for the exposure setting selected.

Few of the images you referenced were fleeting moments in the sense that very similar shots could not have been taken before the ones that wound up being published. All of the shots taken on the bus enroute at night were of activities that presumably lasted for at least a few minutes. So a photographer would very likely have a chance to dial the exposure in for such scenes. The more experience one has shooting in such situations and the more familiar one is with the way the camera in one's hands will act in such light, the easier it will be to hit it right off the bat.

From a comment by the OP to another answer:

...the images in question are more action type shots. They look like they are 1/250 or so. You take the picture or the moment is gone. The question is how to get the exposure right when there is no time to practise and set up.

There's always set up required to get a good image. Always. It might have been several hours before when you set up your camera before you left the office knowing what kind of shooting you were going to be doing and in what kind of light you were going to be doing it. It might have been half an hour earlier when dusk ended and it was just you and your fellow bus mates under the glow of the reading lights and the darkness outside. It might have been a few minutes before the karaoke shot when you swapped seats so that you could have a clear view of the ladies getting ready to crank up the music. It might have been a few seconds before you raised your camera to your eye, or even after, when you changed metering modes and dialed in EC to get the shot of the two travelers illuminated by the screens of their iPhones.

In some ways, the more fleeting the moment is the more you need to prepare and set up beforehand. Take sports. Sports is about as extreme as it gets in terms of "... you take the picture or the moment is gone." But you are always looking at the light during breaks in the action as it changes as the sun sets and the artificial lights become your primary light source. You're always looking at the game and trying to predict what is likely to happen next and putting yourself in the right spot with the right lens pointed in the right direction to catch it when it does happen. You're alway thinking ahead, even while shooting as the players are racing towards you, as to when is the best moment to pull the camera with your long telephoto away from your eye and pull your wide angle body up (the one you've already made sure was properly set up) just in time to squeeze off a few frames from chest level as they pass you.


Indeed, cameras are made to behave like that when exposing automatically since they do not know if the photo should be dark or not.

Suppose you took a photo of a black cat in some dark shadows. Automatic exposure would render it as a grey cat on a grey patch. Now, if you see a white bear surrounded by snow and you too a shot of it again, you would get a grey bear on a grey patch. This is the principle of auto exposure, it measures light and render the image so that on average, it has a mid-tone because it is assumed that the world on average is mid-tone. Cameras have sophisticated ways of calculating the average now, with many segments each weighed differently and based on position and color but the principle remains.

Now, as the photographer, you have additional information. You know when a scene is dark or bright. So, all you have to do is set EC accordingly. Increase EC to get the scene brighter and decrease it to make it darker. With practice, I can pretty much guess how much EC my camera needs in different situations. In the digital era, things are easy, take a test shot and repeat after adjusting EC again. For journalistic photos, you have to be really quick with a fast camera and still the ratio of shots taken to shots published can be 100:1. Some photographers will bracket everything just in case. A 3-frame bracket takes a 1/3s if your camera shoots at 9 FPS, assuming a long shutter-speed is not needed.

Some cameras have additional features to get exposure right. Nikon's Highlight Weighed metering is very good at avoiding over-exposure. Olympus has a Highlight Spot metering mode which lets you meter by aiming the camera at a highlight (rather than a mid-tone as traditional Spot metering). This is much easier since finding a very bright spot in a scene is easier than finding which area is mid-tone. Sony and Canon Live-View provide very good simulation of exposure, so you can adjust EC until the view is good, without taking test shots in between.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Canon also has Highlight Tone Priority which is pretty good at avoiding overexposure of highlights. The 1D X series also utilizes an RGBir metering system coupled with enough processing power to take advantage of a very extensive internal library of exposure scenarios. Jessica Rinaldi is known to use the Canon 1D X. But if you study the images referenced in the OP you can see that she allowed the highlights to be overexposed at times in order to get her main subjects at the exposure level she wanted. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 6:20

The workflow I personally use is:

  1. In Aperture mode I set lens wide open (for example f4)
  2. Then set ISO to Auto
  3. Make a shoot
  4. Check shutter speed and ISO (for example speed 1 second and ISO 6400)
  5. Count how many stops I have over ISO 100 based on the ISO from image and aperture I want to use. I want to set aperture to f8 so i have 2 stops from aperture. I want ISO 100, so here I have 6 more stops. In sum I have 8 stops to compensate
  6. Set ISO to 100 (or your value)
  7. Set aperture to f8
  8. Set speed to 256 seconds (1 second, 8 stops)
  9. Do the shoot
  10. Check the shoot and if required make some tuning

P.S. Do not forget camera want to make shoot to be 18% gray so set 1 or 2 stops down to make it dark :)

P.P.S. For action shoots I will set aperture on desired value (usually wide open), speed to desired for the purpose (stop action for example) and ISO to auto and eventually exposure compensation to be sure the scene look dark (as it is in the night)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, the images in question are more action type shots. They look like they are 1/250 or so. You take the picture or the moment is gone. The question is how to get the exposure right when there is no time to practise and set up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rene
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will add my way for action shoots in the answer \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:37

For those of you who haven't seen them, Kodak and Nikon (and presumably others) published exposure guides for various film speeds and scenes. If you look around, you can probably find one. I've used those for years as a starting point for manual exposure. The info still applies to modern digital cameras.


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