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Photography Exposure Wheel | Sample Photographs | ISO Settings

Sample Photographs for Outdoor Exposure Settings

Ken Milburn is a DesignMentor instructor, a professional photographer and author.  He collaborated with DesignMentor Training to develop the Photography Exposure Wheel and instructors Digital Photography II,
one of three courses the Digital Photography Portfolio-Builder program.

Below, Ken has selected several photos that represent different outdoor photography conditions.
All photo’s are courtesy of iStockphoto.

Select conditions:        
Bright Snow | Bright Midday Sun | Bright Hazy Sun | Bright Shade
Cloudy | Heavy Overcast | Setting Sun | Twilight

Bright Snow


Snowy Mountain. This reading assumes that the Sun isn’t covered by clouds and that much of the ground is covered with stark white snow, sand, or another highly-reflective surface. In the scene above, the Sun is behind a cloud, but the light is still quite bright, so the exposure on the chart will probably still be okay. If you’re shooting a similar scene, it would be a good idea to cover the possibilities by shooting another shot about one-half stop brighter and checking the preview LCD to see which exposure works best.


Winter’s Lace.  In this photo, the subject is still quite bright, despite the fact that the sky is clouded. In this case, it’s a good idea to expose for Bright Midday Sun. That’s because snow is always bright, because it’s stark white and because its crystaline makeup makes it even more reflective. In addition to the usual landscape photo that you see in these two illustrations, bright snow (or white sand) can also be a terrific circumstance for shooting portraits and close-up of subjects that require a lot of fill light.

Bright Midday Sun


Midday Sun. The picture above typifies the problem with bright midday sun: The light is so bright and there’s such a big difference in the brightness of highlights and the darkness of shadows that becomes hard to make any part of the image look it’s best. If you must shoot in this type of lighting, it’s a very good idea to use either a reflector or your camera’s built-in flash for fill. If you have time, it’s also a very good idea to bracket the shot so that you can decide after the fact whether highlight or shadow detail are the most important parts of the picture.


Grain Processing. High over-all contrast can be less of a problem in more scenic-type photos. Note the sharp detail in the blades of grass. The deep shadows aren’t as objectionable because they’re further away.  This is a good thing because it’s hard to use reflectors or fill flash on objects that are at such a distance from the camera.

Bright Hazy Sun


Poolbeg Towers, Dublin. Bright Hazy sun is a condition that is rare, but which can be very nice. Even flat, boring spaces take on more depth, the brightness range between shadows and highlights requires little or no fill or exposure compensation. On the other side, there’s no directionality in the lighting that gives “shape” to the forms in the picture.


Lakeview. When it comes to exposure settings, the good thing about bright, hazy sun is that it is still relatively bright. As a result, you can get plenty of depth-of-field without having to worry much about camera shake. Note: If you want more detail in the distance, use a UV filter. You might also want to stop down slightly in order to compensate for the reflection of the sun from the particles in the haze.

Bright Shade


Fall Leaf and Mushroom. When it comes to still-lifes, portraits, and other close-ups, bright shade is the most complimentary outdoor lighting situation. Shadows are soft and open. The lines that come from cast shadows are softer and more flattering…especially to faces.


Young Woman. One of the best ways to get open shade is to find a tall object, such as a building, that casts a long shadow. It’s important that there not be another tall object in front of the subject that absorbs light…such as another building.



Clouds and Sky. One of the hardest situations to understand is the difference between cloudy and overcast lighting. A cloudy sky such as that shown above generally still lets a lot of direct sunlight through, even if the Sun is partially obscured.


Cottage in Kerry. The quality of light tends to be much softer than direct Sunlight, but not as soft as either open shade or overcast. Note: if there are only a few clouds and, especially, if the Sun is completely out in the open, you should be using the settings for bright midday Sun.

Heavy Overcast


Clouds above Garden. Heavy Overcast means that, with the possible exception of a patch or two, you can’t even see the sky. This is the first circumstance in which you almost certainly want to think about using a tripod. The alternative is to kick up your ISO setting, but that comes at the risk of getting noise (grain) in the image.


Petrochemical Industry. I love overcast days because shadows just aren’t a problem. They’re especially nice when you’re shooting people or products. The light is soft and flattering and “interesting” skies aren’t usually a requirement.

Setting Sun


Beautiful sunset with tree in front. You’ll notice that both these photographs show a lot of detail in the sky. That’s because that’s most often what you are going to want to exposure for at sunset. You want to see detail in the Sun and in the clouds.


Tropical Silhouettes. When you’re properly exposing a sunset, objects in the foreground will almost always be in silhouette. If you want detail in the foreground, you’re going to need an external flash or large reflector for fill…or you’re going to have to give up the detail in the sky. Of course, since you’re shooting digitally, you can always combine two different exposures.

Twighlight / Evening


Cologne Cathedral. The Twighlight exposure setting assumes that the Sun has set, but that there’s still some light in the sky. At the same time, lights have begun to be turned on. So what you’re going to get is detail wherever the nightime lights are lighting their surroundings and some detail in the sky. The rest will be in silhouette.


Snow City by Night. It is a very good idea to bracket this basic exposure setting whenever you have the time. That way, you will be able to choose the exact exposure that gives you detail in the brightness range that’s most important to your vision of what you want to communicate in the image. For instance, although the image above is shot at twighlight, the sky is quite overcast and there’s snow on the ground. So the basic exposure for this setting still pertains.

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