Getting exposure right

Sam Bailey is a freelance shooting producer/director who has worked on Coast, Countryfile and The One Show. Here he shares his tips for getting exposure right when self-shooting. Exposure describes how light or dark your footage is. It is controlled using the iris.

Trust your viewfinder
Check that your viewfinder is set up correctly. Every camera is different so make sure you know how to adjust your colour bars and blacks. Once they’re correct, you should be able to trust that what you see in your viewfinder is what you’ll see on your rushes. If you don’t do this, there’s a risk that you could be dramatically over or under-exposing.

Setting your exposure
Exposure should be set manually using the iris ring. However, it can be difficult to judge when something is perfectly exposed. Rock the iris ring back and forth between different f stops while looking carefully at your shot in detail. By comparing different exposures you’ll be able to judge which one is correct. You should be able to see detail everywhere in your shot, and nothing should look too bright or too dark.

"It is better to be under rather than over-exposed." – Sam Bailey

If you’re in a rush, you can use your cameras ‘push auto iris’ button to help you. This roughly sets your exposure. However, on most small cameras, there is a risk of over-exposed shots when using this function. So don’t rely on it, and trust your eyes and your viewfinder.

Zebras can be used to help you with exposure too. They are a camera feature that highlights over exposed areas. But levels can be changed in the camera menu, so only rely on them if you have set them yourself and understand what they mean.

Better to be under than over
You should be striving for the best exposure with every shot. However, sometimes a compromise has to be made, especially when filming fast-paced actuality out on location. It’s better to be slightly under-exposed and too dark than over-exposed and too bright. This is because most shots can be brightened up in the edit. Over-exposing bleaches out detail in your shots, and this can’t usually be retrieved in post production.

Dealing with contrast
Frustratingly, cameras are not as good as our own eyes in dealing with contrast – the difference between light and dark. Classic examples are someone standing in front of a bright window, or someone in the back of a cab, where our eyes have no difficulty in resolving the contrast but cameras can’t do so. You can either expose correctly for the background or foreground, but not both.

Where possible, take control of the situation and film away from high contrast situations. In the case of the window example, you could simply move the person you’re filming away from the window. Even putting the window to the side of them rather than directly behind them will dramatically reduce your exposure problems. Reducing your shot size so that there is less background in your shot can be another solution. Alternatively, you could introduce another light source, such as a top light, or simply close the curtains. Both options reduce the contrast between the different areas of your shot, and remove your exposure problem.