Exposure (photography)

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"Underexposure" redirects here. For the 2005 film by Oday Rasheed, see Underexposure (2005 film).
"Overexposed" redirects here. For the album by Maroon 5, see Overexposed (album). For the related concert tour, see Overexposed Tour.
A long exposure showing stars rotating around the southern and northern celestial poles. Credit: European Southern Observatory
A photograph of the sea after sunset with an exposure time of 15 seconds. The swell from the waves appears as fog.

In photography, exposure is the amount of light per unit area (the image plane illuminance times the exposure time) reaching a photographic film, as determined by shutter speed, lens aperture and scene luminance. In digital photography "film" is substituted with "sensor". 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 generally refers to 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.

Photometric and radiometric exposure[edit]

Photometric or luminous exposure[1] Hv is the accumulated physical quantity of visible light energy (weighted by the luminosity function) per area applied to a surface during a given exposure time. It is defined as:[2]

H_\mathrm{v} = E_\mathrm{v} \cdot t


The radiometric quantity radiant exposure[3] He is sometimes used instead; it is the product of image-plane irradiance Ee and time, the accumulated amount of incident "light" energy per area:[4]

H_\mathrm{e} = E_\mathrm{e} \cdot t


If the measurement is adjusted to account only for light that reacts with the photo-sensitive surface, that is, weighted by the appropriate spectral sensitivity, the exposure is still measured in radiometric units (joules per square meter), rather than photometric units (weighted by the nominal sensitivity of the human eye).[5] Only in this appropriately weighted case does the H measure the effective amount of light falling on the film, such that the characteristic curve will be correct independent of the spectrum of the light.

Many photographic materials are also sensitive to "invisible" light, which can be a nuisance (see UV filter and IR filter), or a benefit (see infrared photography and full-spectrum photography). The use of radiometric units is appropriate to characterize such sensitivity to invisible light.

In sensitometric data, such as characteristic curves, the log exposure[2] is conventionally expressed as log10(H). Photographers more familiar with base-2 logarithmic scales (such as exposure values) can convert using log2(H) ≈ 3.32 log10(H).

Table 1. SI photometry units
Quantity Unit Dimension Notes
Name Symbol[nb 1] Name Symbol Symbol
Luminous energy Qv [nb 2] lumen second lm⋅s TJ [nb 3] Units are sometimes called talbots.
Luminous flux / Luminous power Φv [nb 2] lumen (= cd⋅sr) lm J [nb 3] Luminous energy per unit time.
Luminous intensity Iv candela (= lm/sr) cd J [nb 3] Luminous power per unit solid angle.
Luminance Lv candela per square metre cd/m2 L−2J Luminous power per unit solid angle per unit projected source area. Units are sometimes called nits.
Illuminance Ev lux (= lm/m2) lx L−2J Luminous power incident on a surface.
Luminous exitance / Luminous emittance Mv lux lx L−2J Luminous power emitted from a surface.
Luminous exposure Hv lux second lx⋅s L−2TJ
Luminous energy density ωv lumen second per cubic metre lm⋅s⋅m−3 L−3TJ
Luminous efficacy η [nb 2] lumen per watt lm/W M−1L−2T3J Ratio of luminous flux to radiant flux.
Luminous efficiency / Luminous coefficient V 1
See also: SI · Photometry · Radiometry · (Compare)

Table 2. SI radiometry units
Quantity Unit Dimension Notes
Name Symbol[nb 4] Name Symbol Symbol
Radiant energy Qe[nb 5] joule J ML2T−2 Energy received, emitted, reflected, or transmitted by a system in form of electromagnetic radiation.
Radiant energy density we joule per cubic metre J/m3 ML−1T−2 Radiant energy of a system per unit volume at a given location.
Radiant flux / Radiant power Φe[nb 5] watt W or J/s ML2T−3 Radiant energy of a system per unit time at a given time.
Spectral flux / Spectral power Φe,ν[nb 6]
Φe,λ[nb 7]
watt per hertz
watt per metre
Radiant power of a system per unit frequency or wavelength. The latter is commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1.
Radiant intensity Ie,Ω[nb 8] watt per steradian W/sr ML2T−3 Radiant power of a system per unit solid angle around a given direction. This is a directional quantity.
Spectral intensity Ie,Ω,ν[nb 6]
Ie,Ω,λ[nb 7]
watt per steradian per hertz
watt per steradian per metre
Radiant intensity of a system per unit frequency or wavelength. The latter is commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1. This is a directional quantity.
Radiance Le,Ω[nb 8] watt per steradian per square metre W⋅sr−1⋅m−2 MT−3 Radiant power of a surface per unit solid angle around a given direction per unit projected area of that surface along that direction. This is a directional quantity. It is sometimes also confusingly called "intensity".
Spectral radiance Le,Ω,ν[nb 6]
Le,Ω,λ[nb 7]
watt per steradian per square metre per hertz
watt per steradian per square metre, per metre
Radiance of a surface per unit frequency or wavelength. The latter is commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1. This is a directional quantity.
Irradiance Ee[nb 5] watt per square metre W/m2 MT−3 Radiant power received by a surface per unit area. It is sometimes also confusingly called "intensity". This is an hemispherical quantity.
Spectral irradiance Ee,ν[nb 6]
Ee,λ[nb 7]
watt per square metre per hertz
watt per square metre, per metre
Irradiance of a surface per unit frequency or wavelength. The former is commonly measured in 10−22 W⋅m−2⋅Hz−1, known as solar flux unit, and the latter in W⋅m−2⋅nm−1.[nb 9] This is an hemispherical quantity.
Radiosity Je[nb 5] watt per square metre W/m2 MT−3 Radiant power leaving (emitted, reflected and transmitted by) a surface per unit area. This is an hemispherical quantity.
Spectral radiosity Je,ν[nb 6]
Je,λ[nb 7]
watt per square metre per hertz
watt per square metre, per metre
Radiosity of a surface per unit frequency or wavelength. The latter is commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1. This is an hemispherical quantity.
Radiant exitance Me[nb 5] watt per square metre W/m2 MT−3 Radiant power emitted by a surface per unit area. This is the emitted component of radiosity. This is an hemispherical quantity. "Radiant emittance" is an old term for this quantity.
Spectral exitance Me,ν[nb 6]
Me,λ[nb 7]
watt per square metre per hertz
watt per square metre, per metre
Radiant exitance of a surface per unit frequency or wavelength. The latter is commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1. This is an hemispherical quantity. "Spectral emittance" is an old term for this quantity.
Radiant exposure He joule per square metre J/m2 MT−2 Irradiance of a surface times exposure time. This is an hemispherical quantity. It is sometimes also called fluence.
See also: SI · Radiometry · Photometry · (Compare)

Optimum exposure[edit]

Main article: sensitometry

"Correct" exposure may be defined as an exposure that achieves the effect the photographer intended.[6]

A more technical approach recognises that a photographic film (or sensor) has a physically limited useful exposure range,[7] sometimes called its dynamic range.[8] 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.

It is worth noting that 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.

Overexposure and underexposure[edit]

White chair: Deliberate use of overexposure for aesthetic purposes.

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".[9] 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,[10] known as "blocked up shadows" (or sometimes "crushed shadows," "crushed blacks," or "clipped blacks," especially in video).[11][12][13] As the image to the right shows, these terms are technical ones rather than artistic judgments; an overexposed or underexposed image may be "correct", in that it provides the effect that the photographer intended. Intentionally over- or under- exposing (relative to a standard or the camera's automatic exposure) is casually referred to as "shooting to the right" or "shooting to the left", respectively, as these shift the histogram of the image to the right or left.

Exposure settings[edit]

Manual exposure[edit]

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.

Automatic exposure[edit]

A camera in automatic exposure (abbreviation: 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 mode (commonly abbreviated to Av) 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 mode (commonly abbreviated to TV) gives manual shutter control, with automatic aperture compensation. In each case, the actual exposure level is still determined by the camera's exposure meter.

Exposure compensation[edit]

Main article: exposure compensation
A street view of Taka-Töölö, Helsinki, Finland, during a very sunny winter day. The image has been deliberately overexposed by +1 EV to compensate for the bright sunlight and the exposure time calculated by the camera's program automatic metering is still 1/320 s.

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,[14] also known as EV units,[15] a "+1" exposure compensation setting indicates one stop more (twice as much) exposure and "–1" means one stop less (half as much) exposure.[16][17]

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.

Exposure control[edit]

A 1/30s exposure showing motion blur on fountain at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
A 1/320s exposure showing individual drops on fountain at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

An appropriate exposure for a photograph is determined by the sensitivity of the medium used. For photographic film, sensitivity is referred to as film speed and is measured on a scale published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Faster film, that is, film with a higher ISO rating, requires less exposure to make a good image. Digital cameras usually have variable ISO settings that provide additional flexibility. Exposure is a combination of the length of time and the illuminance at the photosensitive material. Exposure time is controlled in a camera by shutter speed and the illuminance by the lens aperture and the scene luminance. Slower shutter speeds (exposing the medium for a longer period of time), and greater lens apertures (admitting more light), and higher-luminance scenes produce greater exposures.

An approximately correct exposure will be obtained on a sunny day using ISO 100 film, an aperture of f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second. This is called the sunny 16 rule: at an aperture of f/16 on a sunny day, a suitable shutter speed will be one over the film speed (or closest equivalent).

A scene can be exposed in many ways, depending on the desired effect a photographer wishes to convey.


Further information: aperture, exposure range and f-number

An important principle of exposure is reciprocity. If one exposes the film or sensor for a longer period, a reciprocally smaller aperture is required to reduce the amount of light hitting the film to obtain the same exposure. For example, the photographer may prefer to make his sunny-16 shot at an aperture of f/5.6 (to obtain a shallow depth of field). As f/5.6 is 3 stops "faster" than f/16, with each stop meaning double the amount of light, a new shutter speed of (1/125)/(2·2·2) = 1/1000 is needed. Once the photographer has determined the exposure, aperture stops can be traded for halvings or doublings of speed, within limits.

A demonstration of the effect of exposure in night photography. Longer shutter speeds result in increased exposure.

The true characteristic of most photographic emulsions is not actually linear, (see sensitometry) but it is close enough over the exposure range of about one second to 1/1000 of a second. Outside of this range, it becomes necessary to increase the exposure from the calculated value to account for this characteristic of the emulsion. This characteristic is known as reciprocity failure. The film manufacturer's data sheets should be consulted to arrive at the correction required as different emulsions have different characteristics.

Digital camera image sensors can also be subject to a form of reciprocity failure.[18]

Determining exposure[edit]

A fair ride taken with a 2/5 second exposure.

The Zone System is another method of determining exposure and development combinations to achieve a greater tonality range over conventional methods by varying the contrast of the film to fit the print contrast capability. Digital cameras can achieve similar results (high dynamic range) by combining several different exposures (varying shutter or diaphram) made in quick succession.

Today, most cameras automatically determine the correct exposure at the time of taking a photograph by using a built-in light meter, or multiple point meters interpreted by a built-in computer, see metering mode.

Negative/Print film tends to bias for exposing for the shadow areas (film dislikes being starved of light), with digital favouring exposure for highlights. See latitude below.


Latitude is the degree by which one can over, or under expose an image, and still recover an acceptable level of quality from an exposure. Typically negative film has a better ability to record a range of brightness than slide/transparency film or digital. Digital should be considered to be the reverse of print film, with a good latitude in the shadow range, and a narrow one in the highlight area; in contrast to film's large highlight latitude, and narrow shadow latitude. Slide/Transparency film has a narrow latitude in both highlight and shadow areas, requiring greater exposure accuracy.

Negative film's latitude increases somewhat with high ISO material, in contrast digital tends to narrow on latitude with high ISO settings.


Example image exhibiting blown-out highlights. Top: original image, bottom: blown-out areas marked red

Areas of a photo where information is lost due to extreme brightness are described as having "blown-out highlights" or "flared highlights".

In digital images this information loss is often irreversible, though small problems can be made less noticeable using photo manipulation software. Recording to RAW format can correct this problem to some degree, as can using a digital camera with a better sensor.

Film can often have areas of extreme overexposure but still record detail in those areas. This information is usually somewhat recoverable when printing or transferring to digital.

A loss of highlights in a photograph is usually undesirable, but in some cases can be considered to "enhance" appeal. Examples include black-and-white photography and portraits with an out-of-focus background.


Areas of a photo where information is lost due to extreme darkness are described as "crushed blacks". Digital capture tends to be more tolerant of underexposure, allowing better recovery of shadow detail, than same-ISO negative print film.

Crushed blacks cause loss of detail, but can be used for artistic effect.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Standards organizations recommend that photometric quantities be denoted with a suffix "v" (for "visual") to avoid confusion with radiometric or photon quantities. For example: USA Standard Letter Symbols for Illuminating Engineering USAS Z7.1-1967, Y10.18-1967
  2. ^ a b c Alternative symbols sometimes seen: W for luminous energy, P or F for luminous flux, and ρ or K for luminous efficacy.
  3. ^ a b c "J" here is the symbol for the dimension of luminous intensity, not the symbol for the unit joules.
  4. ^ Standards organizations recommend that radiometric quantities should be denoted with a suffix "e" (for "energetic") to avoid confusion with photometric or photon quantities.
  5. ^ a b c d e Alternative symbols sometimes seen: W or E for radiant energy, P or F for radiant flux, I for irradiance, W for radiant exitance.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Spectral quantities given per unit frequency are denoted with suffix "ν" (Greek)—not to be confused with the suffix "v" (for "visual") indicating a photometric quantity.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Spectral quantities given per unit wavelength are denoted with suffix "λ" (Greek) to indicate a spectral concentration. Spectral functions of wavelength are indicated by "(λ)" in parentheses instead, for example in spectral transmittance, spectral reflectance and spectral responsivity.
  8. ^ a b The two directional quantities, radiant intensity and radiance, are denoted with suffix "Ω" (Greek) to indicate a directional concentration.
  9. ^ NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center includes a definition of the solar flux unit (SFU).


  1. ^ National Institute of Standards and Technology [1]. Retrieved Feb 2009.
  2. ^ a b Geoffrey G. Attridge (2000). "Sensitometry". In Ralph E. Jacobson, Sidney F. Ray, Geoffrey G. Attridge, and Norman R. Axford. The Manual of Photography: Photographic and Digital Imaging (9th ed.). Oxford: Focal Press. pp. 218–223. ISBN 0-240-51574-9. 
  3. ^ Hsien-Che Lee (2005). Introduction to Color Imaging Science. Cambridge University Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-521-84388-1. 
  4. ^ Hans I. Bjelkhagen (1995). Silver-halide Recording Materials. Springer. p. 15. ISBN 978-3-540-58619-7. 
  5. ^ Gareth Rees (2001). Physical Principles of Remote Sensing. Cambridge University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-521-66948-1. 
  6. ^ Peterson, Bryan, "Understanding Exposure", 2004, ISBN 0-8174-6300-3 : p.14
  7. ^ Ray, S.F. et al. 2000 "The Manual of Photography" Focal Press, ISBN 0-240-51574-9, p.230
  8. ^ Ray, S.F. et al. 2000 "The Manual of Photography" Focal Press, ISBN 0-240-51574-9, p.121 and p.245
  9. ^ Ed van der walt. "Basic Photography - ISO and Film Speed". Retrieved 2 July 2011. 
  10. ^ Rob Sheppard (2010). Digital Photography: Top 100 Simplified Tips & Tricks (4th ed.). John Wiley and Sons. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-470-59710-1. 
  11. ^ Barbara A. Lynch-Johnt and Michelle Perkins (2008). Illustrated Dictionary of Photography. Amherst Media. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-58428-222-8. 
  12. ^ Steve Hullfish and Jaime Fowler (2005). Color Correction for Digital Video. Focal Press. pp. 135–136. ISBN 978-1-57820-201-0. 
  13. ^ John Jackman (2004). Lighting for Digital Video & Television. Focal Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-57820-251-5. 
  14. ^ Chris George (2006). Total Digital Photography. Running Press. pp. 54–55. ISBN 978-0-7624-2808-3. 
  15. ^ R E Jacobson (2000). The Manual of Photography. Focal Press. p. 318. ISBN 978-0-240-51574-8. 
  16. ^ John Child, Mark Galer (2005). Photographic Lighting : Essential Skills. Focal Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-240-51964-7. 
  17. ^ David D. Busch (2007). Nikon D80 Digital Field Guide. John Wiley and Sons. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-470-12051-4. 
  18. ^ David D. Busch (2003). Mastering Digital Photography: The Photographer's Guide to Professional-Quality Digital Photography. Thomson Course Technology. ISBN 1-59200-114-9. 

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Exposure at Wikimedia Commons