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I'm Stacy Muller, and I'm obsessed with getting perfect exposure in my digital photography, but that doesn't mean I want to fiddle with my camera settings more than necessary. I often only have time to capture a fleeting moment, and as important as exposure is, I also need my limited time to focus (no pun intended) on other important aspects of taking a picture, or even better - MAKING a picture. Perfect exposure to me does not just mean an image that doesn't look overall too dark or too light, but it's an image that also looks devoid of OTHER exposure-related problems that are still typical of digital cameras as of 2016, and those problems include many things, but if I had to use one word to describe them all, I'd probably use the word "blotchiness". This is a look that either comes with grain and degraded colour - most typically seen in dark or homogeneously coloured areas, or it comes with overly blown out highlights that can also sometimes be discoloured. Bad exposure is one of the worst and most common problems in photos, or videos for that matter. Sometimes we can nitpick technical problems in an image that not everyone notices, but bad exposure is one problem that draws attention to itself, and that's something I'd like to avoid. I'm assuming you would too.
We wish it could be easy - just the touch of an automatic button - to get perfect all-around exposure in an image using a camera these days. But a fully automatic exposure mode is pretty much guaranteed to betray you. You'll need to adjust exposure at least somewhat - using either a manual exposure mode or what I call a "semi-automatic" mode that you can adjust or correct by dialling in some so-called "exposure compensation".
Let me illustrate the blotchiness problem with my digital camera, and a solution in brief.
I've tried to set up my camera so the image on its monitor looks pretty close to how the scene in front of me looks. The scene I want to capture has tones ranging from very dark to pretty bright, but not so bright that my camera will overly blow out the highlights. My camera records tones from very dark to very light as well, but I'm not happy with how it records the darker tones especially if there are a lot of dark areas. They just look too grainy. So for many scenes part of my recordable range of exposure is not even useful to me. It might help if I bought a better camera with a larger sensor, but that wouldn't necessarily eliminate the problem completely. However there is one thing I do like about my camera, and that is the way it records highlights. Tones that look to my eye to be bright and pure white are reproduced as such by my camera, and by default settings highlights with even brighter tones look more blown out than how my eye sees them, but I know that I can adjust my image to have highlights look more like what my eye sees at least to some extent by adjusting my camera, and to an even larger extent by adjusting my image post-capture on my computer. In other words I can recover my highlights.
I can do this because many of the tones in my scene that I might describe as being brighter than white - even some that are so bright that they might be unpleasant to stare at, are being recorded by my camera even if by default they are only displaying as pure white. Probably a much older camera with a much smaller sensor could not do this, and even our modern digital cameras that have a larger sensor than mine still have a limit before highlights are clipped to their maximum tonal values that for some very high contrast scenes means that we still might not be able to recover all the highlights we want, but the technology has improved here But until it improves a great deal more, we have a problem, and that is that the way many of us are using our digital cameras is that we allow ourselves to expose in the darker range that we might find too grainy to use, while being more particular to try to avoid exposing our scene in a way that shows blown highlights on our camera's monitor, but the thing is that the camera, when it is set up to show us what might seem like a reasonable amount of contrast on its monitor, shows highlights blown out when they are not truly clipped. This means we could conceivably record a scene that has THIS range of contrast...
onto a camera that has the same range of useable, non-grainy contrast…
not as people often do this way for an exposure that looks normal on the camera's monitor
but more like this
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This example will have your camera show you an overexposed image. But is that really a problem if you can adjust it post-capture, reducing the grain? There are other advantages too that stem from the fact that we've allocated a greater tonal range to the dark areas, and really ALL areas, by overexposing them just shy of clipping highlights. This is a great example of maximizing the use of our sensor. Sensor optimization. And it's something I don't think most of us do enough - even if our images won't always look right until we adjust them, so we can't show them to someone else right away. Some scenes on the other hand might look normally exposed with sensor optimization instead of overexposed. In other cases, sensor optimization might give us no other choice than to underexpose our scene in order to avoid clipping highlights. Some highlight blow-out and even some actual clipping causing that blow-out may actually look ok, but too much of this sort of thing is usually less forgivable than having a blotchiness in our darks - which can be mitigated to some extent in some situations I won't get into just now. Except that is to say that if you are shooting a wedding with a white wedding gown, and you have people you want to show your results to without giving yourself time to adjust exposure post-capture, it helps to have a camera with a large fairly new sensor as this at least mitigates the blotchiness in the darks at a normal exposure a little bit and provides good highlight recovery! Suffice it to say, truly clipped highlights can not be as easily repaired as a blotchiness in the darks.
One of the best ways to repair the blotchiness in the darks then is to intentionally overexpose our image if the contrast of the scene allows us to do this without clipping highlights, and then adjust the exposure back to a normal exposure post-capture.
For instance, here we have a photo that we attained by exposing it normally on the camera's monitor.
This may be close to what we want, but we can do better. The mid-tones look properly exposed and highlights look good but look at that blotchiness in the darks. Now here's the improved picture through sensor optimization.
The first of these two images is not completely useless to us mind you.
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Such a normal exposure that we take in our camera can be used as a reference image by which we can adjust the exposure post-capture of any images that were overexposed or underexposed either intentionally or accidentally. Some people might be fine with just adjusting the exposure post-capture by eye, though.
Despite the potential image quality problems I've shown you, I have to be honest. Depending on your camera and the scene you are capturing and how you intend to display your resulting image, an image that was normally exposed in your camera might be enough. Or, as I've already shown you, it might not.
It might not when it is as high a resolution as your computer monitor for displaying it that way, or for displaying a high definition video - even if was scaled down to that resolution. Otherwise you might need to scale down a grainy image even more to reduce its apparent grain.
Or completely avoid capturing an image that is noticeably grainy for the resolution or size at which you want to display it.
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So for taking a reference photo that may or may NOT end up looking good enough for you to use as a final image, you can go back to taking a traditional approach inherited from film to try to get good exposure as you likely have already been doing - making sure that your image does not look too dark or too light on your digital camera's monitor or electronic viewfinder, and hoping that your highlights do not look overly blown out, and that your dark areas do not suffer similarly from a loss of detail or otherwise suffer from discolouration, posterization, banding or too grainy a look. You might be able to avoid one of these problems on your camera's monitor or a few, but typically not all - especially for dark and high contrast scenes. These scenes can be a challenge even for so-called full size or 35mm electronic camera sensors.
Trying to get an exposure that looks good on your camera in any way other than using your eye to compare your camera monitor or EVF to your scene is difficult. It does not always help even if you use a photographic grey card in capturing your image, as your metering system will only make the card look too dark or too light except in ideal lighting conditions. Even if and when things look good on your camera monitor, they might not look so good once the image is blown up in size on a computer monitor or on a print.
You may have heard of some standard advice to spot meter for reflected highlights and open up two stops or whatever fixed amount seems to work best for your camera in one scene in a way that either gives you a normal exposure or prevents your highlights from clipping, or both. This will not always work though as imprecision in the spot metering and varying lighting conditions between scenes play factors here.
So let's try to expose by eye then. I've got a camera with plenty of controls for manual exposure and contrast - with a flatter contrast bringing out more detail in both shadows and highlights. I even have an EVF that I can look in with one eye so I can converge what it sees with what my other eye sees UNFILTERED of the scene … into what I perceive as a 3D image! This allows me to closely compare both images and use my adjustments to try to match the camera up to the exposure and contrast of the scene as my naked eye sees it. Many of the more expensive cameras with larger sensors do not have this ability, but you can pretty much use the EVF or monitor on ANY digital camera to try to adjust your exposure accordingly. You can't do any of those things with a film camera! Nor does film give you the latitude to correct exposure post-capture that digital does, under typical circumstances.
I can properly adjust the so-called exposure triangle settings to expose my image by eye to get what you might call a normal exposure, but I still typically get some of the problems I mentioned no matter how I adjust any of my other settings, and I know it is a good camera with what is considered a decent sized sensor even if it is a quarter size of a full frame one! If my scene is bright enough that it has mid-tones, I'll be confident that I'm getting a normal exposure if the exposure of those mid-tones look right. Pretty much everything else is anchored to the mid-tones - so if I adjust my contrast, the most middle tone stays the same. After I get the normal exposure to look as close to reality as I can I take that picture, using it at the very least as a reference picture. But I'll still want to expose my image in a way that I know for sure is optimizing my sensor. I want try to adjust the overall exposure - counterintuitively allowing myself to lose my normal exposure, but doing so in a way that at least a few of the other problems disappear. I do so with the intention, however, to correct the exposure back to normal post-capture.
Unfortunately you can't yet buy a camera that has software installed on it that automatically optimizes your camera's sensor. The metering system, when set to a matrix or evaluative mode which averages the full frame to a mid-tone or thereabouts, may come close at times. But here is yet another place where we can do better. And I don't mean with an automatic function of the camera that perhaps has some internal smarts in it beyond merely averaging to a mid-tone, nor the optional use of a grey card. These things have usually not proven to do as well as what we can do manually.
The trick is knowing how to do all this, starting with pushing your camera towards being just shy of clipping highlights.
This video, and two e-books I am promoting in it, are all about the one important thing I mentioned before, and that is getting perfect exposure in ALL parts of a digital image. The key to achieving this is, again, through what I call sensor-optimizing techniques. A large part of that is exploiting the high range of dark-to-bright tones that is recordable by the RAW image file format in a way that improves image quality in comparison to a normally-exposed reference photo you would take - preferably through intentional overexposure and post-capture correction that includes highlight recovery. You don't need to use a camera that allows my 3D comparison method for capturing your image with perfect exposure, nor do you need to use the complication of a spot meter for this or for that matter a so-called digital zone system.
There are a few things you should note about attaining a normal exposure as a reference picture, or even a final picture. First, the good news. You don't need the greatest or most expensive camera for this. And even if you DO have a very good camera, and you've managed to set it up to match a scene's exposure with no problems, if the lighting conditions change rather dramatically perhaps just from you moving the camera for another angle, the camera will not adapt to this as well as a human eye does. This is regardless of whether the camera is locked down on a manual exposure setting or allowed to adapt on an automatic setting - although the former options is often more forgivable than the latter one. Even if we came up with a better automatic or manual exposure system or digital zone system to better match the camera settings to the exposure response of the human eye at least to get a good reference photo, perfect exposure is not as much about an empirical measurement as it is about what YOU desire in the various parts of your image, and therefore - YOUR eye.
This video is a starting point for me to present information that I wish someone had shown me when I was first getting into digital photography - or videography for that matter. Still, some of the best and most affordable technologies for doing this kind of work have only just come out. Now is an exciting time for it!
But to make your photos stand out in a good way rather than bad, you might have to try something different than what the regular crowd is doing.
I haven't told you the specifics though - how to set all this stuff up. Most of that is left to the e-book.
Other relevant information and links are included on the page on which this video is embedded.
Thanks for watching!