Monday, September 16, 2013

REVIEW: Understanding Exposure 3rd Edition (UPDATED: Sept 16, 2013)

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is one of those books that when you first start to read it you say to yourself "I already know that", but if you can stay focused and actually read all of the words of this book (i.e., no skimming) then you'll discover many little nuggets of info that will help you to be more creative in your photography.

NOTE: This review has been updated for the 3nd Edition but some parts of my original review remain.

The exercises and stories Bryan talks about cause me to have numerous "ah ha" moments where I feel like my mind and view of the world changes and my photography will get better in the process. For example, before reading Bryan's books I never would have taken photos like these of my kids (in 2007):

Another thing I like about Bryan's books is that he shares his stock photo shots that have been successful and tells you how much money he has made on them. I find this valuable because I look at certain shots, like his cover picture, and say "wow that's nice" but I wouldn't expect it to be a $40,000 stock photo (in the 90's). His shots remind me that you can have a simple basic shot that is well taken and exposed and still make some good money with it. While the current stock photography market is exponentially harder now, and I don't think you are going to see $40k photos anymore, it does remind me that you don't need to travel to a national park or exotic location to make good money with a photo.

Section by Section Walkthrough (3rd Edition)

Here’s my thoughts on the major sections of this book:

Defining Exposure

In this section Bryan define what people mean when they say exposure in simple terms that anyone can understand. He also goes into detail about how ISO has an impact on exposure (complete with one of his many great hand-on exercises). More importantly, he discuss how your camera exposes an image by measuring the available light and how you can have many properly exposed images, but how only one might represent your artistic intent. This is a key concept that I see people fail to recognize all of the time. Every beginner (and some who think they are intermediate to advanced) should read this section.


This is a great discussion on why we use different aperture. As Bryan puts it, they are “Storytelling Apertures”, so he provides plenty of examples of how an aperture adjustment can make a huge difference on the story a given image can convey. He even goes into the impact aperture can have on macro photography as well as how & why the rules change a bit when you use a small sensor (i.e., a point and shoot).

Shutter Speed

This section discusses why you should care about shutter speeds and the impact adjusting it will have on a photo. More importantly, he shows examples as to what you can accomplish by having accurately exposed photos at shutter speeds you might not think to consider (i.e., sometimes blur is good). More importantly, there’s a good discussion on how you can imply motion by shutter speed adjustments (including a brief discussion on panning). He finishes up with a cool trick on how you can combine a slower shutter speed with a lens zoom (while shooting) to create a cool effect, and my favorite – how to photograph rain properly.

For a deeper discussion of Shutter Speed, I highly recommend his book Understanding Shutter Speed.

Light 100

Everything you do as a Photographer will involve making adjustments (and many times compromises) to the light you have at your disposal to create a combination of a properly exposed image and an interesting composition. This section should be mandatory reading for anyone who owns a camera (any type of camera).

In this section Bryan discusses the importance of light and how you can “explore” it to get a great exposure. He goes into detail about different types of light and how the position of that light will impact your photographs. This will inspire beginners to look at light differently and understand how to get more creative images by understanding light in ways that they may have never noticed.

The last half of this section gets a little more technical, but it is described in a way that most people will easily be able to follow (which is Bryan’s gift). While it may seem a bit intimidating at first when he jumps into Exposure Meters and Gray Cards, if you hang in there you’ll get to the crown jewels of this whole book – the “Sky Brothers” and “Mr. Green Jeans” topics. I encourage you to read those topics as many times as necessary to understand them fully as they will help your photography tremendously. Here’s a tip though, to use them effectively you’ll need to understand how Auto Exposure Lock (AE-L button on Nikon and perplexingly the asterisk (*) button on Canon) works on your camera. Please take the time to do this and understand these as they are the key to making great exposures in camera for the conditions discussed.

This section finishes up with the all important subject of Night and Low-Light Photography and why you’ll need a tripod if you decide to shoot these types of shots. If you’ve read my Which Books Should I Read? article and picked up the outstanding book Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, but found it to be way too geeky and dry for you then this section is a good “Cliff Notes” on some of the more important concepts. I still highly recommend Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting but I recognize it might not be for everybody.

Filters, Special Techniques & Flash

This is a useful section for the beginner that can be skipped by more advanced photographers. It provides a short and simple discussion on how you can “break the rules” with exposure to create various effects (some of which might not be possible with your camera and therefore only doable via Photoshop). It also is great overview of various filters and why you might need them as well as images that show the before and after impact of a various popular filters (i.e., Polarizer, Neutral Density, Graduated Neutral Density and more).

The subject of HDR is a little light and only focuses on Photomatix, but if you have never heard of HDR before you might find this useful.

The flash sections just touch on what’s possible, but don’t really have any depth.


I highly recommend getting this book. For those who think they know all of this stuff, I suggest that you keep reading and pay close attention. Don't let your mind wander and start skimming pages, because you will miss nuggets of useful information that will help make you a better photographer.

If you own this book then you may definitely want to consider some of his others listed below in recommended order.

Skill Level: Any

Value: Worth every penny

Recommendation: This is a MUST read for any photographer who isn’t generating an income off of Photography already. You may think you know everything there is to know, or you might be fooled into thinking that your $8000 camera is so good you don’t need to read this – but you’d be dead wrong. This book covers essential topics that billions of photos on Flickr prove that people simply don’t understand they way they should.

It is hard to go wrong with Bryan's books and this is no different. This was his first book that got it all started and he's got a winning formula for writing fantastic books. I used to say that Learning to See Creatively should be read first because composition is critical, but this is a great book that shouldn’t be missed either.

Here’s more Bryan Peterson book reviews on this blog (in recommended order):

  1. Learning to See Creatively
  2. Exposure Solutions (really a tie with below)
  3. Understanding Composition Field Guide: How to See and Photograph Images with Impact (REVIEW COMING SOON – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)
  4. Beyond Portraiture
  5. Understanding Shutter Speed

Where to order

Click here to order on Amazon. A Kindle edition is also available.

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Anonymous said...

Mr. Martinsen,
Would you say that your photos of your kids be cameo or obligatory? It is apparent you obviously have way too much time on your hands and perhaps NOT enough work hence your abundance of time for writing ill words about your fellow Photographers/Colleagues material and /or family, which you say oddly inspired you? Wishing you the best of luck with that, as it is obviously a source of insecurity for you.
Kind Regards,
Kate Peterson said...

Hi Kate,

First off, my apologies for offending you. I am a big supporter of Bryan's books and have promoted them heavily on my blog and in my photography club. My affiliate data supports that people are responding positively to my recommendations by purchasing his books quite regularly each month.

I read all of his books back to back and when consumed that way you do start noticing a common theme, so that is what I am reporting on in my review. It was intended to be a recommendation for Bryan and other authors who might be reading (and to be fair, I'm guilty of it myself sometimes on my blog). Perhaps I should have worded it differently and made a more constructive suggestion. I'll update the article here shortly to do just that.

Ron Martinsen