Expose for the Sky

Written by:

A reader recently asked,

“I’ve read a lot of photography articles where they say to “expose for the background” or “meter for the subject”, then “recompose and shoot”. When I do that, it still doesn’t work! My camera just adjusts the exposure for whatever I’m focusing on. For instance, if I want to take a photo of my daughter standing in front of a pretty sunset, I position my focus point on the sky and press the shutter button halfway down, then recompose to correctly position my daughter and take the picture. When I do this my daughter looks fine but the sky is too bright. What am I doing wrong?” — Becky from Annapolis

This is a great question, and the answer isn’t necessarily intuitive for folks just starting out in photography.

So, Becky, this is what you do! (Well, this is how I do it, anyway.)

1. Use your camera in full auto or aperture priority mode.
2. Put your camera on spot meter mode.
3. Point the focus point on the area you want properly exposed – in your case, the sky.
4a. Take a photo and look at it on the back of your camera. If the exposure of the sky looks the way you want it, look at the ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed indicated. Set your camera to manual mode and use that ISO, aperture and shutter speed (if you’re using aperture priority and a set ISO, you’d only have to change the shutter speed to what is recommended for proper exposure).
Or…
4b. Press the shutter halfway down, and note the exposure meter that you see when looking through the viewfinder of the camera. Set your camera to manual mode and use the ISO, aperture and shutter speed indicated (again, if you’re using aperture priority and a set ISO, you’d only have to change the shutter speed to what is recommended for proper exposure).
5. Now when you take the photo, using the settings recommended by your camera’s TTL metering, the sky will be properly exposed.

The photographer used an aperture of f/16, an ISO of 200 and a shutter speed of 1/800th to achieve this shot. From what we know of the exposure triangle, this makes sense. The aperture would be too small and the shutter speed too fast to properly expose the subjects, but they’re just perfect to properly expose the bright sky.

You’ll notice that this means the subject is underexposed, probably even a silhouette (and sometimes that’s what we’re going for). That’s very easy to change using your camera’s pop-up flash or an external flash such as a speedlight.

For instance, take a look at this photo:

According to the photographer’s notes on this photo, he exposed the sky using f/3.2, 1/6400, ISO 400. Then he added an SB-900 speedlight as a fill flash to illuminate the couple. The result is a dramatic and properly exposed sky that compliments the properly exposed couple. Because the camera was used in manual mode the settings did not adjust to expose for the flash, so the sky looks the same even though additional light was introduced into the image.

You may find that you’ll need to lower the power of your flash in order to avoid overexposing the subject. But once you have everything dialed in, you can shoot away! It just takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve done this process a few times making the adjustments takes very little time at all.

Even better, if you have a light meter you can meter the flash and make adjustments until it matches the exposure of the sky.

What process do you use to achieve this effect? Have you tried this out with great results? We’d love to see your photos and hear your comments on our Facebook Page or in our Flickr Group!

As always, if you have any questions about anything related to photography, please feel free to drop us a line at info@beyondmegapixels.com and either Steve or myself will respond!

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “Noosa Main Beach” by Christian Haugen on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Tyler and Tanisha” by Sean McGrath on Flickr Creative Commons.

Previous Post:

  • Genesis Jim

    Very helpful post. Thank you!

  • Brunop

    Understanding the manual steps behind the correct exposure is important but I think you should also tell about the exposure lock button that some (all?) dslr have.
    The nikon d5000 far example has the ae/af lock button next to the shutter, and that can be configured to lock the exposure, focus or both while pressed so you can recompose the picture.
    As that is an entry level camera I think that others will have something similar.

  • Brunop

    Understanding the manual steps behind the correct exposure is important but I think you should also tell about the exposure lock button that some (all?) dslr have.
    The nikon d5000 far example has the ae/af lock button next to the shutter, and that can be configured to lock the exposure, focus or both while pressed so you can recompose the picture.
    As that is an entry level camera I think that others will have something similar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drecart Derek Byrne

    Most people won’t be able to High Speed Sync their lights, 1/200 is about as quick a shutter I can go. How you end up lighting the subject could be your personal style/choice in lighting but flash off camera recommended.

  • s a m e e r

    I would appreciate if any one
    of you could help me out in finalizing another flash gun for my CLS set up. I
    currently own a D7000 and a SB 700. I’m looking forward to buy another flash
    gun to be used together with my current set up of D7000 and SB700. I enjoy
    doing portraits both, outdoors and indoors. However, I enjoy outdoors more due
    to interesting backgrounds and playing with the ambient light at golden hours.

    Now, coming to the question. Can you please help me decide which
    second flash gun should I buy? *as i said i already own a SB 700* Should I go
    for SB-910 OR another SB 700? Later on, probably after 6-8 months I’ll add on
    the third flash gun too but right now which one should i go for my second flash
    speed light?

    Please post me your answer and if possible backed up by some
    reasoning.

    Thank you and have a great day! :)