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Book Review: Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure by Michael Freeman

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Exposure has always been at the heart of photography. Too little and your image is too dark, too much and it is washed out. But even beyond that, for that perfect exposure, coming close is not good enough.

While the concept is simple, in practice, it is infinitely complex. It all comes down to a dose of light that is controlled by a shutter speed, an aperture, and the speed of your film or digital media. Understanding exposure is worth the effort because not only does it allow you to get it right, but also helps you understand what “right” is, and that is what Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure intends to show you how to do. This book is 192 pages in length and breaks out into five chapters.

Chapter One, “Fast-Track and Foolproof,” begins by looking at a decision flow. This is not a “system,” but rather the way you have to begin to think. When you are on a shoot, there is not much time for anything other than the shoot. There is usually not even time for exposure decisions. So these things really need to be made unconsciously.

First you look at the basic method of decision flow and the key decisions that you will need to make. You follow it through to some topics about brightness and exposure, and then you’re shown three case studies that show you how the decision flow works under different conditions.

Chapter Two, “Technical,” digs in to how things work. Because of the vagaries of how digital capture works, you will find a great deal more to consider with regard to exposure. Here, you begin with how the light on the sensor fills up in a linear way and how too much can result in the loss of data.

Then you move on to examining exposure and how noise can affect the image. You examine the sensor’s dynamic range capabilities, look at highlight clipping, scene dynamic range, high and low contrast, the various types of metering, scene priorities, and how to expose for color.

Chapter Three, “The Twelve,” describe the author’s fundamental exposure situations. Over long years of experience, this is how he assesses a particular scene to break it down quickly. This is the key chapter of the book. While there are perhaps thousands of varieties, they are merely subsets of one of the twelve when you look through the camera.

This chapter goes through each one and examines it from the point of view of tones and range of light. The chapter is highlighted with histograms so that you can get a feel for what you see in your camera and how you should compensate for the shot.

Chapter Four, “Style,” is about what you look for once you have the exposure under control. There is no true one exact exposure — it all depends on what you are trying to say with your image. You are an artist, and you have to stand by your vision.

Some of the influences examined here are mood, personalization, tone, the ability to envision, working with the Zone System, Black and White consideration, flare, low key, and shadows.

Chapter Five, “Post-Processing,” is something that, while it has to be done, does not have to be embraced. According to the author, he would rather get it right in the camera then have to fix it. But in the world of digital Raw files, this is impractical. On the other hand, if you shoot with the idea that you can fix it in the darkroom, you will become sloppy and your software will become a crutch.

In this chapter, you’re shown how to manipulate exposure after the shutter is released, how to control brightness and lighting, how to manipulate selective exposure, High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, exposure blending, and how to blend your exposures by hand.

Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure provides a good balance of technique with technical explanation. While “Perfect Exposure” is a value judgment, there are certain qualities that must be mastered so that you can be within the ballpark and to this end, the author does extremely well.

There are a couple of places that the author makes some assumptions on the reader’s knowledge. For example, he talks about and shows what he calls a “Grayscale Pixilated Matrix” but does not explain how to make one. For a novice that might be frustrating, so I have to assume that the author is writing for a certain level of experience. By the way, to create the matrix you just reduce the number of pixels in the image to one or two and increase the size of the image.

What I do like is that he does go into most everything else in detail without getting bogged down. He makes extensive use of histograms to diagram what the light, dark, and contrasts are doing. He points out how to work with the pixilated matrix and how it relates to the image at hand. The book also has a lot of very good and annotated images as examples.

The organization and flow of Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure make this a very enjoyable read, and the layout of steps in a real world scenario make it very easy to comprehend. As a fairly comprehensive book, it will take time and practice to make it work for your workflow. If you want to get a feel for what a perfect exposure is, then I highly recommend this book.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.