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Photography lesson: the Los Angeles skyline and getting exposure right

I thought this would be an interesting photo to discuss. First, please click here to see a larger version of the photo and after the jump I'll talk about what I could have done better. 

First things first: this isn't a terrible photo. It's an interesting take on putting Los Angeles into perspective -- I wanted to show the nation's second-largest city sits amid hills and mountains and some degree of wilderness. The photo, too, has three interesting elements -- the big cloud, the trees and the brightly-lit buildings. 

But there are problems -- serious problems that prevent this from being a really good photo: 

1. The first comes with the vantage point. I took the photo in Elysian Park from a spot that I thought might be promising. Ultimately, it's not a good spot for a wide-angle shot -- the radio tower looms behind the trees and parts of downtown poke through the trees at left; both are serious distractions. Good idea, bad location.  

2. The even more serious problem: I vastly underexposed the image. Check out the histogram: 

When I first started with my DSLR in 2010 I never bothered with the histogram. Big mistake -- this thing is your friend and you should pay attention to it. 

I'll make this as simple as possible and I'm sure pros will quibble with my wording. Screw them. The left wall of the histogram represents underexposure -- photo is too dark. The right wall is overexposure -- photo is too bright. That's what you need to know. 

Obviously, you don't want too dark or too light in most cases. Look again at my photo's histogram: I underexposed the image. Big time. The more you underexpose, the more digital noise will appear when you try to brighten the image. 

So what was I thinking? It was dusk. The camera was on a tripod at ISO 100, f/8 and eight-second exposure. I figured the photo would be neat if the hillsides immediately in front of me appeared as a silhouette, that is completely darkened. So I only worried about exposing properly for the buildings and the sky. 

But that's where I fucked up. I shot the image in RAW (a smart thing) and after opening it in Lightroom I realized the silhouette didn't look so grand. The brush and distant trees had so little definition it was impossible to tell what they were. I wanted to lighten them, but the photo was so dark that making them brighter introduced a lot of noise. 

I did the best I could, but the photo doesn't quite work. Again, let's return to the reason why I snapped the photo in the first place: I wanted to show the juxtaposition of downtown L.A. and the nearby hills. But if you can't see the hills, then what's the fucking point? 

What could I have done better? I should have changed my settings to get a brighter photo. The histogram shows that I was in no danger of overexposing. I could have kept the shutter open a bit longer, I could have raised my ISO to 200 (the lower the ISO, the less noise -- 200 is still pretty low), I could have opened my aperture to f/5.6.

I gambled that my exposure would work. But it didn't. I didn't follow a basic rule of photography: in tricky lighting situations, try a variety of exposures to cover your bases. It's always easier to get it right in the camera instead of trying to salvage something in your computer. 

Two helpful hints: 

1. When the light is tricky, shoot in RAW -- RAW files have more information than jpeg files and can more easily be manipulated after the fact. 

2. Consult your camera manual on how to display histograms on your camera's playback screen. On my Nikon D5100, it's easy. Hit the menu button and in the 'playback menu' select 'playback display options' and then select 'RGB histogram' and then toggle back up to 'done.' 

My photos are available as prints at very reasonable prices, including mounted options that are ready for hanging. More info here. Please feel free to check out my SmugMug site for all my work.


All photos above are ©Steve Hymon and may not be used elsewhere without my advanced written permission. All rights reserved.

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