Exposure Compensation (when photography is a beach)

Interviewer: So what’s with the title of your post?

Me: I guess it’s a play on the fact that photographing on the beach can be a tricky business. It’s like photographing snow. You have all that glare and reflected light from the sand and the water, and you can’t rely on the rear display on your camera to tell if you’ve got the exposure right. And when your subjects are a pair of two-year olds, taking off in all directions, into the light, away from the light, with the rocks and sea and white sands as changing backgrounds, you’ve got your hands full trying to frame, compose and expose correctly.

Interviewer: I take it you’re talking about your family get-together in April?

Me: Yep. I am. My son and his family were visiting from London, my daughter and her son joined us from Johannesburg, and we all converged on this rather lovely AirBnB on the hillside above Simonstown, about 40km from Cape Town, with the naval harbour and views over False Bay stretched out below us.

Boulders Beach, on the Cape Point side of town, is famous not only for its calm blue waters and pristine sands, tucked between the sheltering rocks that give it its name, but also for its African penguins, which are perfectly likely to pop up out of the water beside you, and waddle like plump little businessmen in their dark suits and starched white shirts up the stairs towards the houses beyond, homeward-bound after a hard day at the office.

Kids love nothing more than sand and water, and the beach is the best playground of them all. So off we went, one bright, blue, sunny morning, to play with the grandchildren. Grandad, of course, thought this was a marvellous opportunity to take some photographs, so along came the Nikon D500, with the choice of the 17-55mm lens (24-70mm equivalent) that I explained the last time we spoke.

I knew, of course, that the light reflecting from the sparkling sea and the bright white sands was enough to bamboozle the light-meter in my camera, reducing everything to a muddy mid-tone unless I compensated. So I opened up by two or three stops, and most of my images were perfectly exposed. I’m quite pleased, to be honest, with the black-and-white portraits at the top of this post.

But there was one series of images, of the grandchildren playing together in the sand, where I’d closed down a bit, to only one additional stop, and the results were entirely predictable – though obviously I failed to predict this correctly at the time. The whole series of half a dozen or so images were all drab and underexposed. And although I could correct this in post-production, the resulting images were too noisy for my taste, so in the end I decided not to use – by which I mean share – them.

Interviewer: You say that you knew you needed to open up by two or three stops, to avoid underexposing – and the exposures you made when opened up by this amount were pretty much spot-on. So how come you under-exposed this particular sequence of images?

Me: It’s pretty simple, really. I made the mistake of looking at the rear screen to judge the exposure, instead of checking the histogram. The view on the screen is not an accurate representation of your exposure at the best of times, and practically useless under very bright or contrasty or extreme conditions. The only reliable way of checking your exposure is to read your histogram.

Interviewer: So why didn’t you do this?

Me: I guess I forgot. But there’s more to it than that. It comes back to preparation. I knew we were going to the beach, I knew it was a bright and sunny day, that there would be a lot of reflected light, and I knew I would have to open up by a couple of stops. But I didn’t take it further – I didn’t stop to think that I would need to check the histogram to ensure I had judged the exposure compensation correctly. So I ended up with some of my pictures – fortunately only a few – underexposed.

Interviewer: The obvious question is, how come you forgot about the histogram?

Me: It has to do, I think, with practice and familiarity. For a pro, this sort of thing should be intuitive. But in my case, and in the case of many amateur photographers I imagine, I might go for weeks without handling a camera, so some aspects of your camera’s capabilities – beyond the obvious shutter and aperture controls – become less intuitive than they should be, and you have to stop and think about them.

Before you start shooting, you have to take a moment to think about what it is you are photographing, what kind of images you want to make – high key, saturated, black and white etcetera – and what kinds of conditions you will be shooting in.

In this case, I was distracted by the subject matter – I wanted to capture the grandchildren running around, I was trying to keep them in focus, and I was trying to think – to the extent that I could, with everything in motion – about composition. It’s a lot to think about, which makes it all the more important to have thought through your strategy before you get started.

As I’ve said, though, it wasn’t all wasted effort. I got an amusing series of my grandson Tom charging into the sea and taking a purler, and a couple of portraits – you saw them earlier – which I thought would work rather well in black and white. And I’m pleased with the results.

Interviewer: We should talk, some time, about choosing black and white. When do you do this, and why?

Me: Absolutely.