What is Exposure in Photography and Cinematography?

If you’re a beginner to photography and cinematography you’ll be hard-pressed to wrap your head around the word ‘exposure’ or ‘camera exposure’.

What is exposure or camera exposure, really?

Here’s a quick video of the simplest explanation I can think of:

Exposure definition for photography and cinematography

Here’s my humble definition for the beginner:

Exposure is the amount of light you think your subject needs.

The two references to you in the same sentence is for a reason. It really depends on you all said and done. So feel empowered!

Exposure simply is the control of light you have on each area in your photographic or cinematographic frame. If you can play with each area individually, like a painter, then you’re well on your way to exposure mastery!

Almost every photographic or cinematographic accessory – barn doors, camera filters, lenses, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, lights, flags, scrims, ad infinitum – has evolved over many years to help you control exposure. That’s all there is to it.

What is “correct exposure”?

If you’ve watched the video, you’ll know there’s no such thing. That’s like asking what is the correct haircut, or the correct chair or the correct coffee mug.

The correct exposure is what you think you need. It comes after you make the decision. Sometimes you make a calculation, but ultimately only you know if you agree with the calculation or not. If you calculate you need to eat three slices of pizza, only you know if it’s too much or too little, and you have full freedom to disagree with accepted norms and calculations!

Therefore, middle grey, or camera exposure or “correct exposure” as defined by camera meters, light meters, grey cards, etc., are just starting points. If you know where to start, you can consistently reproduce results.

That’s why you have a middle grey – you have a point from which you can repeat your style or look time and again. This is critical in cinematography because you have to match shot to shot in a scene under tough budget and time constraints.

So if you’re having practical difficulty getting shots you like, you can start with what the camera meter tells you. Most people stick to it for the rest of their lives. Nothing wrong with that.

What is an overexposed photo and underexposed photo?

There is no such thing as a correct exposure, unless you think it’s correct.

After that, anything brighter is overexposed (to you), and everything darker is underexposed (to you).

However, other people, when watching your work, might have opinions of their own. They might say a photograph or video is overexposed or underexposed – but –

That is their opinion.

You can agree with them, you can take it seriously and let it affect your craft, or you can –

Go with your instinct!

Which path you choose depends on your personality. If you study all the great photographers and cinematographers, you’ll see they are all unique in their style and technique. If they had listened or cared about what others consider overexposure, underexposure or correct exposure, they would be unknown today.

I hope this simple explanation of exposure has helped you understand it on a gut-level. That was all I intended to accomplish. If you feel it has helped you, please let me know!