I'm going to let you in on a secret but first I need you to put your camera away. You see, cameras are becoming smarter and smarter every year as the ability to pack more and more information and programming into their circuits becomes available thanks to the march of progress. I don't want your camera catching whiff of this conversation.
That's because the honest truth is your camera wants you to be average. More precisely, your camera wants your pictures to be average. Let me explain with a bit of backstory.
For the SLR crowd, cameras haven't always had light meters in them. They started out as simple pinholes, graduating up to more and more complex systems, but always relying on the human operating them to figure out the right amount of light to let in via a shutter and aperture (as well as the light sensitivity of chosen film). But then light meters made the move. They were tired of being handheld units, only reporting back the ambient light striking them at one particular spot on the planet, letting a human figure out the rest. They wanted to see what we saw.
And so light meters made their way into SLR cameras and their popularity grew. These meters were simple at first; they would only be able to sample from one spot in the scene and tell us what they measured with the simplest of needles, partially out of view. These meters were different in another way too; unlike the hand held units, they measure the light reflected off of an item.
One metering spot grew to two and four and now we have systems with over 60 different light metering nodes. Along the path the light metering aspect also offered to take over setting our shutter speed and aperture for us. I mean, it's such hard work and the electronic brain of the camera is now so fast, why not?
Why not? Because your camera doesn't know what you want. That's why not.
Your camera's computer brain (today) measures light coming into the body and tries to find an average. It doesn't know what you are exposing for. Is it that bright sun in the corner? Or the jet black Porsche in the foreground? Or the cute white poodle in the driver's seat? It also might have trouble focusing because it isn't quite sure what you want (we can go over that another time, but it hits to the same problem for your camera).
This leads your camera to try to create an average picture. By itself, this isn't such a bad thing. Your camera's sensor can only pick up a certain range of light (around 7-9 stops currently, but growing every year)and it has to decide how to fit a scene beyond its range into that frame. Your eye picks up and your brain can handle about 15 stops of light at a given moment. In this case, your camera is already doomed not to show what you see (which is where HDR comes in to fill the dynamic range gap).
All this is not to say your camera hates you, it doesn't. It just wants to do the best it can and it thinks you want middle of the road average. It will pick highlight and shadow that come across its sensor and attempt to find middle ground. This is often desirable, but not always. Maybe the foreground is more important to you and should be exposed more brightly. Maybe the sunset shouldn't be so harsh in the sky and you don't care if the foreground is dark.
Maybe your camera can't read your mind. I hope it can't. So what do you do with a camera that wants to bring about an average shot every time?
Find and use the exposure compensation, or bias, on your camera. Here's a previous post on DPS describing how this feature works. It is a great tool for popping your camera out of the average rut. It typically works in Program, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes.
Check The Histogram
If your camera has a histogram display, it might be a good time to employ it. You will see average pictures being a nice even mountain. If that isn't getting you the oomph you want, try pushing things one direction or the other. The histogram will tell you how far you can push (dark or light) before you start losing data. Take a look at the histogram at right for the shot up above (taken from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom). This shot was taken as prescribed using the Program mode, evaluative metering and no exposure compensation. There are about 1-2 more stops of room left on the left side of this histogram to bring the exposure to life.
That's right, lose some data. Nothing says you have to have a perfectly exposed image time and time again. Move the limit and focus on what you want. Besides “perfectly exposed image” is an entirely subject phrase and there is no set rule that says you are restricted from having part or most of your image over or underexposed if that is what you like. Experiment.
I don't point people to post processing as a means to fix their woes very often. I'm a firm believer in getting the shot right the first time. But reality is that a computer is helpful when used well. In this case, with the photo above, the camera rendered a fairly flat image. 45 seconds spent in Lightroom gave the photo some life. While it will not win me a prize at the local fair, I wanted to use it to show how much brighter that gray day looked to me, compared to the camera. I also wanted to show that, yes, that's a drenching downpour in the distance and, yes, that little speck under the downpour is Seattle.
Use Spot Or Center -Weighted Metering and AEL
It's time to stand up for what you want and move away from the matrix or evaluative metering your camera has been using. Try out spot or center-weighted metering and point them towards what's most important to you in the scene. Also get accustomed to using your camera's auto exposure lock (AEL) feature to hold the metering while recomposing a shot.
Learn To Read Light And Use Manual Mode
This is something you should have done from the start. I know, 'should' is a strong word in this case. I'm not trying to push doctrine down your throat. I do believe that to be successful (measured to your own person liking) at photography, it is key to be able to see and read light. Nothing says you have to use the metering suggestion of your camera. Every DSLR still has a manual mode where you decide the three key elements: Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. Your camera might flash things at you, telling it thinks you're making mistakes, but take the shot anyway and learn from your mistakes.
You don't deserve to have average shots. But don't blame your camera either. Learn how your camera is ‘thinking' and make adjustments accordingly to bring about the image you want. Average works at times, but if you want to get more life into your pictures, stop listening to your camera's light meter all the time.