Below are some miscellaneous notes on making good exposures (and other random tips and tricks), not to be confused with making good photographs. Please keep in mind what Ansel Adams once said: "There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy idea." In other words, it's a noble goal to strive for a high-quality image, but quality alone won't make your image a good photograph.

I've always been interested in technique and have gotten a lot of good advice from a number of sources. I'm not trying to gather all those tips in one place, but rather, I would like to write the kind of guide that I wish I had available when I started out. (I wish that what's here were such a guide, but it's not.) For me, some tips are more important or relevant than others, and some advice I've read seems to be simply wrong.


I use a handheld meter most of the time (a Gossen Luna-Star) and rely on an incident reading as a starting point. This takes most of the guesswork out of deciding what part of your subject is "middle gray." If you don't own a light meter, don't despair. If your fussy, you can purchase a gray card which will meter middle gray. Hold the card in the same light as the subject and take a reading at an oblique angle to the card (to mitigate the effects of glare). Be sure to hold the card close enough to the camera so that the card fills the entire frame in the viewfinder. That insures that the meter will not be fooled by seeing anything other than middle gray. Matrix meters are very sophisticated and for all I know may misread the gray card as something else. Good luck. There are also many common subjects that experience will teach the reflectance of. For example, the palm of my (Causcasian) hand is exactly one stop above middle gray. I can take a reading off of it and open up one stop.

I don't think you need a spot meter unless you are doing serious, precise Zone System work. In that case, I think a meter with a narrow acceptance angle would be best (one degree).

If you want to find out how accurately you are exposing your film, you should shoot slide film. With slides, what you shoot is what you get; there is no printing process to salvage an incorrectly exposed shot.

Another reason to shoot slides is that slides can capture a much narrower Subject Brightness Range than negative film. I wouldn't count on capturing more than five stops. Many scenes have an SBR greater than five stops, so you will have to compromise somehow, although it's probably best to avoid such scenes if you can. Two techniques can compress the SBR: fill flash and neutral density filters. Fill flash can be used to add light to the darkest parts of the scene. A neutral density filter can be positioned in front of the lens to cut down the light from the brightest part of the scene. By adding light to the shadows and removing light from the highlights, the SBR can be compressed enough to fit within a five-stop range.

Compensated "Sunny f/16" Rule

I developed my own rule of thumb for exposing in bright sunlight. The "sunny f/16" works pretty well for a subject in full sun, but only for those parts of a scene that are front-lit by the full sun. Any part that is in shadow will receive three to four stops less light. That means there will be very little detail in these areas. My rule of thumb simply involves cheating a bit by opening up from the sunny f/16 exposure, trading a little overexposure in the front-lit areas for more detail in the shadows. The amount to open up depends on how important the shadow detail is and how bright the front-lit subject is. An example would be a person with a wide-brimmed hat wearing a white shirt. Ouch! Their face is in shadow and a sunny f/16 exposure will render even pale Caucasian skin too dark. On the other hand, if you open up to bring detail into the face, then you risk overexposing the white shirt. I found that you can get away with at least a half stop and up to a full stop. That will bring detail into the face without losing too much detail in the shirt. I've rarely been in such a situation, however. Typically, no part of the sunlit subject will be much brighter than a medium tone, so you can open up more than a stop without the sunlit subject looking too "light" or overexposed.

I ran a test recently when one morning I was struck by the brightness of the morning sun reflecting off my neighbor's white siding. I took an incident reading in full sun and another in the full shade of our house, then took a series of shots opening up a half-stop each time. I wanted to see what exposure provided the best compromise in this situation. The two incident readings were four stops apart. The first shot at the sunny f/16 exposure had no detail in the shadow area. Not surprising. As the aperture increased and shadow detail increased, I was surprised at how well the Fuji Astia film handled the overexposure. The two best compromise exposures for this scene were at 1-1/2 and 2 stops overexposed. At 1-1/2 stops over, the lightest areas still had basically the same amount of detail as they had at the correct exposure while the shadow area had detail but looked decidedly "dark." At 2 stops over, the lightest areas were beginning to suffer but were still acceptable, while the darkest areas looked naturally "in shadow" as opposed to "dark." For this scene, I would have chosen 2 stops over. For a scene without white areas, a 2-1/2 to 3 stop overexposure would be better. In the sample scene, the areas that weren't bright white still looked natural, while adding significant detail to the shadow area.

For scenes that are basically in shadow but are "sun-dappled" (very typical in the summer time), I would recommend metering in the shade and then closing down one stop.


Lighting is the most important aspect of photography. You can make an interesting image of anything if it's well-lit. I own a single electronic flash (a Vivitar 285 HV) and have been obsessed with making my flash photographs look as if I didn't use a flash. I also am interested in learning how take the kind of slick product shots you see in see in good catalogs (MoMA for example). The book that unlocked the secret for me is called "Light Science and Magic." The examples in the book all require lighting equipment that I can only dream of owning, but the principles apply to any kind of equipment. The one thing I learned is that big light is good light. When light doesn't emit from a point source (such as a flash), but comes from a large area, then it creates soft shadows and good modeling. To achieve this effect, I usually bounce the flash off the ceiling (more on that soon), but I wanted something a little more controlled than that. I built a softbox by taping together some large pieces of foam core with tracing paper as my diffusion material on the front. The pictures below are from my first test.

The bare flash is at about a 45-degree angle to the subject (me). Note the harsh shadows. Ouch!

Here the flash is inside the homemade softbox. It looks almost professional.


Filters for Black and White

Someday I would like to make a comprehensive test of the usefulness of various black-and-white filters, at least for my own photography. I became interested in using yellow, orange, and red filters for two main reasons. One was to increase the contrast of clouds in landscapes (all these filters darken the blue sky), and the other was that I had heard that these filters can help minimize facial blemishes because they lighten blemishes (at least on Caucasian skin) which are reddish. I haven't used them enough for either of these applications to come to any firm conclusion about their effectiveness, but I have made a number of comparisons using a yellow filter (Nikon Y48) and in virtually every case, I've preferred the photo made with the filter to one without. I have a yellow or yellow-green filter on the lens most of the time.

Filters for Color

I became very interested in color filters the first time I used daylight film in tungsten light. I love the golden glow of late-afternoon sun on daylight film, but I sure didn't like the orange cast I got from tungsten light. I read that a blue filter would neutralize the cast, so I got two: a B+W KB15 and KB20. They did remove much of the cast, but I felt I couldn't predict the effect they were going to have. Since they also eat up over a stop of light, I have pretty much abandoned using them in favor of flash. At least flash light is balanced for daylight film!

One of my tests was made at a friend's house last Christmas. I was struck by the peaceful effect the glow of their Christmas lights made as the only illumination in the darkened room. I took four shots, one unfiltered, one with each filter, and a final one with the two filters stacked. I didn't include the photo taken with the stacked filters, because it was so overcorrected it looked blue, as you'd expect with that much filtration. After reviewing the results, I'm thinking a weaker blue filter may be just the thing. All shots taken with a Nikon F3HP with 35mm 1.4 AIS lens. I used Fuji Astia slide film rated at ISO 100, but made no allowances for reciprocity failure.


Christmas lights, unfiltered

Taken with no filtration. The exposure (8 seconds at f/8) was determined with an incident meter reading, which was pretty consistent throughout the room. There is a pronounced orange cast, but it suits the mood of the subject.

Christmas lights, with B+W KB15 filter

The same scene with a B+W KB15 filter, a color-correction filter designed for correcting artificial light of around 3000 K. This version of the scene looks quite natural, although I miss some of the warmth of the unfiltered shot.

Christmas lights, with B+W KB20 filter

The same scene with a B+W KB20, an even stronger filter. The manufacturer describes the filter thus: "Depending on the percentage of red, conventional household bulbs require extreme color temperature conversion." This version is so "extremely" corrected it's practically black and white! It leaves me "cold" however. :-) It's also underexposed. Must have been all that egg nog.


There's no great trick to shooting fireworks (other than a healthy dose of luck!), but there are a few minimum requirements. You need a camera where you can control exposure manually, and you need a tripod. I tried shooting fireworks handheld, but the results were disappointing. If you don't have a tripod, don't shoot fireworks; it's not worth wasting film.

I think of a fireworks exposure as being very similar to a flash exposure. In other words, the exposure is controlled mostly by the aperture chosen, rather than the shutter speed. You use a long shutter speed not because there isn't enough light, but because you want to capture the life cycle of each shot from the rocket streaking into the sky to the burst. I think a good aperture would be about f/8 or even f/11 (for ISO 100 film). It's important that you don't overexpose the film, because the rich colors of the fireworks will blow out to white. There's plenty of light, and a smaller aperture will only enhance the colors.

In the Summer of 2001, I took some pictures of a fireworks display during Oil Heritage Week in Oil City, Pennsylvania. I was situated quite close to the launching area on the fourth floor balcony a hotel. I set up the tripod at a comfortable height and used a 35mm lens because I was so close. With this focal length, bursts comfortably filled the frame. Most of the time, my technique involved panning the camera to follow the rocket's path, anticipating where the explosion would occur and then locking down the camera and opening the shutter using the "Bulb" setting. I held the shutter open long enough to capture the spreading starbursts and then released the shutter. Sometimes, I would aim the camera at the sky and open the shutter as the rocket was launched in order to catch the rocket trail as well as the burst. For some real expert advice, see Smithsonian Photographers Shoot Fireworks. Good luck!


Oil City Fireworks

This was the best shot from that evening. It's not bad, but one thing that's missing is context. You may want to include some of the surrounding buildings and landscape if they are well-lit and interesting enough.

Also in PhotographyRandom musings on photography by an enthusiastic amateur.