Should You Expose for Highlights or Shadows When Shooting Photos Outdoors? (VIDEO)

Back when we all used film, the proper way to meter a scene had a lot to do with whether we were shooting slides or prints. The general rule of thumb was to expose for highlights with transparency film, and expose for shadows with negative film. But what’s the best approach when using digital cameras?

In the interesting video below, portrait photographer Vanessa Joy addresses this question during an outdoor available-light family photo shoot. The answer she provides is based upon avoiding blown-out highlights and crushed shadows, while achieving an even exposure with natural light.

Joy’s methodology is simple and straightforward, and it’s an interesting exercise you can try yourself with various types of scenes. The idea is to make one image exposing for the highlights, and another favoring the shadows. As you’ll see, the difference is readily apparent.

Of course, there’s no one “perfect” exposure, because the approach you take depends upon the mood and feeling you’re trying to create. And if you decide to use flash or reflectors to augment ambient light, the conclusions here don’t quite apply.

After watching this seven-minute tutorial, you’ll know where to start when metering a scene, and have a much better idea of how to bias an exposure for the effect you desire. Joy also provides a list of the camera and lenses she uses, in the description beneath the video.

So take a look at her images and how she edits them in Lightroom, and see if you agree with the choices she makes. Then head over to Joy’s YouTube channel for more helpful portrait photography advice.

And don’t miss another tutorial we featured recently, demonstrating how to shoot amazing portrait photographs with affordable, simple gear.