Street photography camera settings: under-exposure

People often ask me about street photography camera settings. When we were starting out in photography we were almost certainly taught to take great care to expose correctly – it’s one of those photography ‘rules’ which should never be broken. However, as we become more experienced we start to experiment, often to the point where rule-breaking is almost a necessity. And, for me, ‘exposing correctly’ is one of those rules which was just made to be broken.

My street photography camera settings are pretty straightforward: aperture priority, F/8, ISO 1200 and manual focus (using zone focusing – see my previous article about zone focusing for street photography here). That combination works perfectly about 90% of the time. But what about the other 10%? How do I make changes very quickly? How can I fine-tune my exposure? It’s very easy: I tweak the exposure compensation.

Which brings me to the point of this article. In strong light – especially in the summer months – a touch of deliberate under-exposure will help keep detail in the highlights, will intensify the shadows and will saturate the colours. The technique has more impact in colour but it also works to a certain extent in monochrome. So, I always have the exposure compensation dial at the front of my mind. Provided that the sun is somewhere (though not necessarily directly) behind me I will often consider dialing-in between one and two stop of under-exposure.

I spent much of last month shooting in the strong and mellow light of Venice* and, during the day, I was consistently under-exposing by an average of around 1.5 stops. After looking at many of those images, ‘correctly’ exposed frames just looked washed-out.

Make the exposure compensation dial your friend. This is much easier if your camera has a physical exposure compensation dial on the top plate – like my Fuji X70 or X-Pro2 – but it’s almost as easily done via a button or even through the menu; it will become quicker with practice and in a modern camera you can probably assign the exposure compensation function to a dial.

Sometimes, when you’re shooting towards the light, you’ll need to put some detail into to the shadowy areas. When this is the case simply reverse the logic and dial-in a stop or so of over-exposure. Again, the exposure compensation dial is your fine-tuning tool and you can leave the rest of your camera settings untouched for fast and spontaneous shooting.

The technique works well in travel photography as well as street photography. It takes a little practice and judgement to know when to apply this technique – and by how much – but do give it a try and you won’t be disappointed.

* If you’re interested in one-to-one workshops in Venice please get in touch – I run them throughout the year.

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