Balancing Exposure Part 2

Understanding balancing exposure will help you on the path to get out of Auto mode and towards taking your dream shot. In Balancing Exposure Part 1, we looked at the fundamental building blocks of exposure.

1. Shutter — how long you let light in

2. Aperture — how large of an opening you let light through (how much at once)

3. ISO — how sensitive your film or sensor is to light.

Everything Else

There are several challenges when explaining everything else. Everything else depends on…

  • Your environmental light

  • Your creative outcomes including

  • Your scene or subject

  • Your composition

  • Your depth of field

  • Your camera

  • Your lens

In this post, we’ll look at environmental light - hard and making decisions about balancing your exposure from ‘reading the light’.

Environmental Light

No matter where you are, start being aware of the light. The word photography has roots in Greek and means drawing with light.

This is key into becoming a better photographer.

If you are outdoors, is it sunny, shady, or overcast? What time of day? Which season? Is the light sharp, dull, or diffused?

If you are indoors, what kind of lights are in the room – fluros, bulbs, natural light though windows, no light (!).

Lay out a white tea towel or similar. Look at the colour and lightness.

If you are outside in the sunshine at dawn or dusk, your tea towel might have a subdued golden hue or pink hue. The light might appear creamy. If you are outside in the middle of the day, it might be a blinding blue. The light may be sharp.

What happens to the colour and lightness when you bring it inside on an overcast day? Your tea towel may end up grey and dull. Outside, though, it may appear more luminous. The light may appear diffused.


If you are outside on a bright sunny day, the light may appear hard. Shadows are very harsh, and there is a big difference between the lit areas and the dark. This is good light to use for moody and intense portraits or chiseled architecture shots.

I’ve read a zillion articles where the bloggers will write, don’t shoot in hard light. However, when you’re on holiday with family, especially in Europe where nothing opens until after 10.00am sometimes this is all the light you’ve got.

Hard light is good for detail. The stonework below is better shot in hard light. Converting it into mono in post-production can give your pictures intensity in the detail.

Above: Mosteiro da Batalha, Portugal. Shutter 1/125, f14, ISO 100, exposure bias -0.3, focal length 24mm.

Above: Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal. Shutter 1/3200, f 2.8, ISO 100, exposure bias +0.3, focal length 27mm – whoops I had my camera in aperture priority mode for shooting inside this monastery.

However, it demonstrates that balancing exposure means balancing the other two building blocks. There is no 'right' way to balance exposure except to get a balanced image!


Shooting Australia in the hard light would be good for deserts and rock formation. Look at how different hard light is in Australia compared to Portugal. Australian light is different to Portuguese light.

Broken Hill, NSW, Australia taken in 2008 – both are Shutter 1/250, f11, ISO 400, focal length 34mm. Not what I would shoot today. I’d now drop the ISO to 100 and go from there.


The other hard light situation is theatre and live music. Lighting rigs can be pushing out mega watts and it is a fine balance between shutter speed (which needs to be fast especially for dancing and movement) and aperture with needs to allow for an interesting depth of field – not too flat and not too reliant on accuracy. There’s not a lot of time to change settings in live performance.

The lens plays a massive part in the shooting of quality theatre images to get the ideal depth of field. That's another blog another time.

When shooting 42nd Street in 2022 for Gosford Musical Society, I used Shutter 1/160, f2.8, ISO 640. The original shots were slightly underexposed (darker) and I brought up the light in post-production.

The lighting was quite dark to create atmosphere for the live audience. The shutter speed is as low as I can go before I start to have everything blurry while still getting that magic swing of the dancers. I would have liked a higher f-stop, but this is what I had to use to trade off not using a higher ISO. I didn’t want the pictures too grainy.

The rest of the work was hours in post to get the result you see.

Below is Music Man from 2016 shot with a different lens and camera body. Not as crisp as the later shots, Shutter 1/250, f 3.5, ISO 1600.

Your turn

As Tom Gleeson would say, "Time to go and shoot - HARD!"


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