It’s terrible when, after a day or a week of photography, you come home, look at your pictures and realize that you ruined the exposure. You might be able to fix the situation with a bit of Photoshop work, but that’s not the kind of situation you want to be in. Here’s how to get the right exposure every time on the spot.

Shoot RAW

The easiest way to always hit the target is to make it nice and big. Why shoot at the little bullseye when you can aim at the barn door? Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG basically does it for your camera.

RAW images contain all the data your camera can capture, not just a small segment that is saved as a JPEG. My camera’s RAW files are about 25MB while JPEGs are 5MB at best. That’s a hell of a lot of data to work with.

When shooting in RAW, your camera can capture the full dynamic range of the scene — or at least get as close to it as possible — so you’re much less likely to blow out your highlights or squash your shadows. RAW images must be «developed» using programs like Lightroom or Photoshop before you can publish them online or print, but the small amount of work is worth all the extra data you have to work with. You can see in the image above how much I was able to brighten up the photo without looking weird.

Understand your camera’s light meter

Your camera has a built-in exposure meter that measures the amount of reflected light from everything in front of it. This exposure meter works on one simple assumption: that everything, at least in light, is average to medium gray. This is how your camera thinks the world looks like this:

This is a surprisingly safe assumption and works well in most cases. However, do not rely on it with blind faith. Instead, you need to think about how your camera’s light meter will interpret what you’re shooting. Is it really a bright day? Then it will probably underexpose the image. On the other hand, if you’re shooting during the blue hour before sunrise, it will try to overexpose everything.

To learn more about your camera light meter and how to use it, check out our complete guide.

RELATED: What are the different metering modes on my camera and when should I use them?

Take control of your camera

Pressing the shutter button and hoping is not a reliable strategy for getting good photos. You have to make decisions about (or at least orient your camera to) shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

RELATED: Your Camera’s Most Important Settings: Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO Explained

You don’t need to control everything manually to control your camera. I recommend that you use aperture priority mode in most cases. You can then use a combination of aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO to control how the image looks. As long as your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low, you don’t have to worry.

RELATED: Get Out of Auto: How to use your camera’s shooting modes to enhance your photos

Check the histogram

The best way to view your photos in situ is to use a histogram; this will give you a good idea of ​​what your exposure looks like, even if you can’t easily view the whole image on a small screen.

View your images and activate the histogram (if you are not sure how to do this, check your camera manual). Generally, you want to see a balanced histogram with no shadow or highlight clipping, although a histogram that is slightly overexposed can be helpful.

Another option is to enable «flicker» so that your camera will show you when you’re overexposing your images without having to check the histogram.

Take some safe shots

Sometimes, due to difficult or changing lighting conditions, it is very difficult to securely capture a shot. The best thing to do in such situations is to take a few shots. I recommend taking one photo with an overexposed stop and one photo with an overexposed stop. This way you cover your bases. In the worst case, instead of the photo you thought you were going to use, you should use one of the safety shots to get the best possible final image.

Getting exposure reliably on the spot, or at least as close to correct as possible, is an essential skill for a photographer. As with most things related to photography, you just need to think a little and take control of your camera.

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