3 Step Method for Bang On Exposure

You’re never going to learn! Not if you keep letting the camera make decisions for you anyway.

Get off of those auto settings, take control of your camera, and be deliberate about how you want things to happen. You can always go back to the auto settings once you understand how things are working and how to take control back when you need it.

Your camera has a number of methods of evaluating the scene to measure the light and determine what it thinks the best exposure is:

  • “evaluative metering” (sometimes called matrix metering) will analyze the level of brights and dark tones in the whole scene;
  • “center weighted” metering measures the light in the center of the frame;
  • “spot metering” measures the brightness only in one particular spot of the frame that you specify.

If you want to take control, try using spot metering to tell the camera exactly what part of the scene you want to expose for.

For example, say you want to make this image:

Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sunset at Bandon Beach, Oregon.

This sunset scene has a very bright section and a very dark section. A camera cannot possibly expose for both at the same time. The difference is too great for the camera to handle. In this situation you have to choose what is more important, the bright area or the dark area and expose for that.

If you were to expose for the rocks, you would see the details in the rocks, but the sky would be totally white and contain no detail at all. That’s probably not what you want in a sunset.

In this case it would be better to expose for the sky and let the rock go totally black making a silhouette. You can use your spot metering to meter on the sky and get the correct exposure.

You probably know that when you hold your shutter half way down your camera focuses and sets the exposure. But what if you want to expose for the sky but focus on the rock so your silhouette has a sharp line? This is what exposure lock is for.

Check your camera manual to see where the exposure lock button is on your camera. On my camera it is a button on the back with a star next to it. With your camera set to spot metering, you point your camera at the bright sky and set the exposure lock. Then recompose and hold the shutter half way down to focus on the rock and then take the picture.

For me, making most images requires 3 steps in camera. You can’t just point at a scene and press the shutter – that’s what point-and-shoot cameras are for. When you want to take control of your images try this.

1. Decide what you want to expose for: point at the bright sky and set the exposure lock.
2. Decide what you want to focus on: point at the object and hold the shutter half way down to focus on it.
3. Finally, while continuing to hold the shutter half way down, recompose the image to get the composition you want and then press the shutter.

I sometimes call this the “all the time in the world” method for getting the right exposure. It is my preferred method because I like to be deliberate.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter and get
your 2 FREE photography eBooks!

Find out more

Share Button

Are you PASSIONATE about photography?

Want monthly lessons and feedback on your photos? Join Photo Forté, my private photo mentoring club.



  1. Jon Hosford says

    Hi Anne,

    I knew I had an exposure lock (Cannon 60D), but WHY I had an exposure lock and when to use it never made sense.

    In all the books I’ve read, that simple process has never been made as clear as you did in a short blog post. Thank you!

    Really looking forward to your new book.


  2. says

    Excellent post and work!

    I have a question though, when you are in full manual mode, what does the exposure lock do? What are you exactly “locking” if you have full control on the exposure itself? If spot metering is selected, aren’t you able to just view through the view finder and adjust the exposure triangle to the current spot you are looking at and then “re-componse” knowing that them camera won’t change any of those settings for you?

    Maybe I am a little confused and there’s something the camera still does for you even in Manual?

    • says

      Hi Daniel, I think when you are in full manual mode the exposure lock doesn’t do anything because you are setting the exposure manually. I find the exposure lock button a faster way of setting the exposure instead of using manual mode because as soon as you take the shot your camera will re-evaluate the next scene without having to change anything. It’s pretty much two ways to accomplish the same thing. Just like everything in photography, there’s more than one way to reach your goal. Thanks for your question – that was a good one!

  3. says

    At the end of the day, a camera is just a machine. An intricate machine, but that’s all it is. If you don’t tell it what you’d like to achieve it will make assumptions – probably the wrong ones. For auto mode , I always like the phrase ‘automatically less creative’.

    Great post Anne.

  4. Saralyn says

    Hi Anne,
    I have a question. I’m using back button focus, which means on the Nikon D7100, I have to set the AE/AF lock button to AF lock only since there is not a dedicated AF On button. Which use of the AE/AF lock button would you consider to be more important, back focus or AE lock? Apparently I can’t use the button for both purposes.


    • says

      Hi Saralyn, good question! If I had to choose I think I would use the back button for exposure lock because you can always use your shutter button to lock the focus. Just change your focus point to spot focus on the center point. So you would use the back button to lock the exposure, point your camera directly at the main subject in the center and focus, and then while holding the shutter half way down, recompose the shot and shoot. I hope that helps!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge