As an on-location, natural light photographer, I shoot in various lighting situations.

Most of the time during my sessions, the lighting will change as the sun hides behind the clouds, cloud coverage disappears, and storms begin to roll in.

I’m here to help you understand how to change your exposure settings quickly in manual mode during those situations. I recently did a ‘Pointe Ballerina’ shoot and it’s the perfect example of changing light conditions!

What you should know about manual mode.

Manual gives you freedom – freedom to make mistakes, freedom to bend the “rules” of photography, and gives the freedom to excel in your art.

So, what’s the difference between manual mode and any other mode on your DSLR? Great question!

You will find that if you choose any other mode aside from manual, your DSLR will automatically choose settings for you (keep in mind, there is exposure compensation options on these modes but we’re not going to get into that today). To better explain this, let’s take a look at the modes on a DSLR:

  • Program: shutter speed and aperture both chosen by the camera.
  • Shutter-Priority Automatic: shutter speed chosen by photographer and aperture chosen by the camera.
  • Aperture-Priority Automatic: shutter speed chosen by camera and aperture chosen by the photographer.
  • Manual: both shutter speed and aperture chosen by the photographer.

If you have ever had issues getting a shot in low light or harsh light, then you NEED to learn Manual.

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

The scenario.

Imagine this, you’re in the midst of a session during midday and the subject is sitting in the center of a bridge. You’ve got your ISO around 160, shutter speed at 1/320 and you’ve got that buttery bokeh at f/2. You’re in an open area under no shade but you have had some cloud coverage so far.

You nailed your first photo. But then, the sun comes out from behind those fluffy clouds. NO!

You take a shot and look at the back of your camera. Your histogram is blown and the photo on your LCD screen suggests you’re taking a ghosts’ portrait.

You find yourself frantically searching the sky for more clouds coming and there are none anytime soon. What do you do? Move to the shade? Perhaps. However, you’ve only got one shot in that pose. Now what?

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

The solution.

First things first, locate that big ball of harsh rays that just ruined your shot.

If you see that the sun will only be out of cloud coverage for a moment, it’s okay to tell your subject that you need to wait on the clouds. They always understand.

If you see that the sun will be out for a while then it’s time to relocate. Move your subject so that the sun is filtered and not so intense on your subject, trees and buildings work well for this.

If you don’t have an open shade options to relocate to and must stay out in the open and deal with the harsh sun, there’s a few things you can do to make the situation easier.

  1. Have your subject look up toward the sky as much as possible. This keeps your subject from having shadows around their eyes.
  2. Position yourself higher than your subject and shoot slightly down at them. This forces them to look up to make eye contact with you, again eliminating the pesky shadows around the eyes.
  3. Use a scrim to filter the light. For this, you will need either a stand to attach the scrim to or an assistant to hold it (if your client brought a friend, they’re usually happy to help).
  4. Use off camera flash to overpower the sun.

For your settings when the sun is moving in and out of cloud coverage, the easiest thing to do is to set your aperture and ISO and then leave them alone. This allows you to simply adjust your shutter speed as needed, make it faster when the sun is brightest and slow it down when the clouds provide some coverage. Remember to set your ISO at a point that will keep your shutter above 1/125 or so regardless of light in order to prevent motion blur.

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

Tips for shooting in changing light.

With the cloud coverage ever changing, to avoid making a mistake that you cannot fix in post-processing, shoot in RAW. You have much more versatility with RAW images versus jpeg images.

Every day, every situation, every location, every lens, and every set of clients will yield different results. Ultimately, you will find yourself adjusting your settings a lot during a session. Just remember that even if you go back to the same location and shoot another subject later, your settings will differ.

If you are shooting in harsh sunlight with a wide Aperture, be patient with yourself and take your time finding your focus. It will be harder to focus in this situation but you can do it. Also watch out for chromatic abberation which is more common in brighter situations due to the extra contrast between light and shadows.

Consider all your metering mode options. Spot metering is a great choice for this situation and you can learn more about that here.

Need help knowing how to change your exposure settings quickly as the light changes? I'm here to help!

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