Ideally, if we were all shooting in perfect conditions we would have our in-camera light meter always in the center of the scale and would get a perfect exposure every time, however, in the real world, that’s not the case.
Action sports take place at unique locations, but generally have some sort of similar surroundings or surfaces. Whether they are snow, water, concrete, dirt, or woods, you will have to apply some sort of exposure compensations so you can get the perfect shot.
When you point your camera towards your subject, it takes a luminance reading of the scene calculates the correct settings for the exposure. But what happens if the backdrop of your shot is completely white snow??? The camera evaluates the scene and sets your camera settings for the average scene luminance. Since everything is pure white and your subject is pretty small you get an underexposed image. Your camera is doing its job and calculating the correct exposure, but it just doesn’t know that everything is white, it's trying make everything a neutral gray.
That’s when you need to apply compensations. It could be positive or a negative, positive is when you add more exposure to the scene…making it brighter. Negative is when you reduce the exposure resulting in a darker image. Exposure compensation is measured in EV units that are equal to stops of light: +1 EV = + 1 full stop of light.
So how do we fix the snow scene?..since we have an under exposed image(due to the very high luminance value of the scene), we apply a positive exposure compensation of about 0.7 to 1 EV. This should make the white to actually be white (instead of gray) and open up your subject so it is not just a silhouette anymore. On really gray days you may need to even go over by +1.3 or +1.7 EV.
Now that we got the snow scene down, we go deep in the woods, where light barely makes its way in. The trees are almost dark and your camera evaluates the scene based on this darkness, giving you an over exposed shot, that doesn’t look good at all. That’s when we need to apply a negative exposure compensation, depending on the scene you could need just -1/3 EV or -2/3EV to get it perfect. The only way to find out is by taking a test shot or/and looking at your histogram. Once you get used to this you'll know what to do without testing.
To conclude, if you have a really bright overall scene apply some positive compensation, if it is too dark overall, apply negative compensation. It seems counter-intuitive, but the results will speak for themselves! Also check on our Metering Modes article since, they are critical to the way your camera reads the scene.
It is important for you as an action sports photographer to be able to get the compensation right without even thinking about it. Don’t let a single cloud ruin your best shot!
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