In photography, exposure is the amount of light per unit area (the image plane illuminance times the exposure time) reaching a photographic film or electronic image sensor, as determined by shutter speed, lens aperture and scene luminance. Exposure is measured in lux seconds, and can be computed from exposure value (EV) and scene luminance in a specified region.
In photographic jargon, an exposure is a single shutter cycle. For example: a long exposure refers to a single, protracted shutter cycle to capture enough low-intensity light, whereas a multiple exposure involves a series of relatively brief shutter cycles; effectively layering a series of photographs in one image. For the same film speed, the accumulated photometric exposure (Hv) should be similar in both cases.
"Correct" exposure may be defined as an exposure that achieves the effect the photographer intended.
A more technical approach recognises that a photographic film (or sensor) has a physically limited useful exposure range, sometimes called its dynamic range. If, for any part of the photograph, the actual exposure is outside this range, the film cannot record it accurately. In a very simple model, for example, out-of-range values would be recorded as "black" (underexposed) or "white" (overexposed) rather than the precisely graduated shades of colour and tone required to describe "detail". Therefore, the purpose of exposure adjustment (and/or lighting adjustment) is to control the physical amount of light from the subject that is allowed to fall on the film, so that 'significant' areas of shadow and highlight detail do not exceed the film's useful exposure range. This ensures that no 'significant' information is lost during capture.
The photographer may carefully overexpose or underexpose the photograph to eliminate "insignificant" or "unwanted" detail; to make, for example, a white altar cloth appear immaculately clean, or to emulate the heavy, pitiless shadows of film noir. However, it is technically much easier to discard recorded information during post processing than to try to 're-create' unrecorded information.
In a scene with strong or harsh lighting, the ratio between highlight and shadow luminance values may well be larger than the ratio between the film's maximum and minimum useful exposure values. In this case, adjusting the camera's exposure settings (which only applies changes to the whole image, not selectively to parts of the image) only allows the photographer to choose between underexposed shadows or overexposed highlights; it cannot bring both into the useful exposure range at the same time. Methods for dealing with this situation include: using some kind of fill lighting to gently increase the illumination in shadow areas; using a graduated ND filter or gobo to reduce the amount of light coming from the highlight areas; or varying the exposure between multiple, otherwise identical, photographs (exposure bracketing) and then combining them afterwards in some kind of HDRI process.
A photograph may be described as overexposed when it has a loss of highlight detail, that is, when important bright parts of an image are "washed out" or effectively all white, known as "blown-out highlights" or "clipped whites". A photograph may be described as underexposed when it has a loss of shadow detail, that is, when important dark areas are "muddy" or indistinguishable from black, known as "blocked-up shadows" (or sometimes "crushed shadows", "crushed blacks", or "clipped blacks", especially in video). As the adjacent image shows, these terms are technical ones rather than artistic judgments; an overexposed or underexposed image may be "correct" in the sense that it provides the effect that the photographer intended. Exposure_compensation|Intentionally over- or underexposing (relative to a standard or the camera's automatic exposure) is casually referred to as "exposing to the right" or "exposing to the left" respectively, as these shift the histogram of the image to the right or left.
In manual mode, the photographer adjusts the lens aperture and/or shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure. Many photographers choose to control aperture and shutter independently because opening up the aperture increases exposure, but also decreases the depth of field, and a slower shutter increases exposure but also increases the opportunity for motion blur.
"Manual" exposure calculations may be based on some method of light metering with a working knowledge of exposure values, the APEX system and/or the Zone System.
A camera in automatic exposure or autoexposure (usually initialized as AE) mode automatically calculates and adjusts exposure settings to match (as closely as possible) the subject's mid-tone to the mid-tone of the photograph. For most cameras, this means using an on-board TTL exposure meter.
Aperture priority (commonly abbreviated as A, or Av for aperture value) mode gives the photographer manual control of the aperture, whilst the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to achieve the exposure specified by the TTL meter. Shutter priority (often abbreviated as S, or Tv for time value) mode gives manual shutter control, with automatic aperture compensation. In each case, the actual exposure level is still determined by the camera's exposure meter.
The purpose of an exposure meter is to estimate the subject's mid-tone luminance and indicate the camera exposure settings required to record this as a mid-tone. In order to do this it has to make a number of assumptions which, under certain circumstances, will be wrong. If the exposure setting indicated by an exposure meter is taken as the "reference" exposure, the photographer may wish to deliberately overexpose or underexpose in order to compensate for known or anticipated metering inaccuracies.
Cameras with any kind of internal exposure meter usually feature an exposure compensation setting which is intended to allow the photographer to simply offset the exposure level from the internal meter's estimate of appropriate exposure. Frequently calibrated in stops, also known as EV units, a "+1" exposure compensation setting indicates one stop more (twice as much) exposure and "–1" means one stop less (half as much) exposure.
Exposure compensation is particularly useful in combination with auto-exposure mode, as it allows the photographer to bias the exposure level without resorting to full manual exposure and losing the flexibility of auto exposure. On low-end video camcorders, exposure compensation may be the only manual exposure control available.