In order to correctly assess exposure when shooting on location, you need to start with a calibrated screen. This is a simple process but can often be overlooked. Here is my quick guide.

1. Start by setting your camera picture style to standard. If you are shooting RAW this has no effect on your final image as picture styles are overruled by Lightroom or Photoshop anyway. Set the white balance to auto white – again, this has no effect on the final selections made when converting your RAW files.

2. Select ‘jpg large’ setting on the camera – don’t use RAW. Fit a standard lens, step outside and take a picture of an average scene. This could be your garden, car park, whatever.

3. Download the picture to your desktop on your computer and insert the memory card back into the camera. Open the jpg in Photoshop and view it on a colour hardware calibrated monitor. Press play on the camera and compare the two images. Zoom into 100% on camera and scoot around the picture taking note of highlight and shadow areas. If the picture on the camera seems lighter or darker than the one on your computer screen, enter the menu system select LCD brightness and adjust to taste.

Confirm your selection is correct by comparing the two images again and you should now be able to accurately assess exposure using your camera screen. Switch your camera back to RAW if that’s your normal shooting system and you’re good to go.

The reason you can’t use RAW to do the same process is that Lightroom or Photoshop builds it’s own interpretation of the RAW data and to some extent plays a part in the exposure process. In practice, the differences should be negligible, but the image you see on the back of the camera is a camera processed jpg so it makes sense to compare this image with a hi res version of the same in-camera processed jpg on your computer screen.

It’s the little tweaks like these that make the whole shooting process easier and give you confidence in your exposure decisions.

If your picture looks good on the back of the camera, it is good.


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13 Responses

  1. John Curgenven

    Thanks Damien,

    Good advice.

    When shooting in RAW, is the histogram shown on the camera’s LCD based on the RAW file or the camera processed jpg? Does this depend on the make/ model of camera?



  2. damien

    Good question John. As you know the raw file isn’t actually a picture with distinct image pixel values so it can’t be represented in a histogram. Each picture pixel has a value of red, green and blue, whilst each camera pixel has a luminance value only. So the histogram is created in camera at the same time as the jpeg preview based on the values in the jpeg. You can confirm this by selecting different white balance settings and shooting the same frame several times. The histogram values for each of the colours will change even though the raw files will be identical.

    The histogram is not a very useful tool to asses exposure but it is brilliant at the post production stage.

    Kind regards, Damien.

  3. John Curgenven

    Thanks Damien. Very clear – especially for a wrinkly brought up on film, manual cameras and smelly chemicals!

    Best wishes,


  4. DaveBulow

    Good info and recommendation, Damien, though would be a little cautious advising people that they would “now be able to accurately assess exposure using your camera screen”.

    Yes, use it as a guide. It’s a useful tool, especially indoors, in controlled lighting, such as in most studios, but switch the lights out and it’ll seem (to human eye) to be brighter, or outside in bright sunlight and it’ll appear too dark. However, blinkies (flashing areas showing overexposure) work in all light conditions.

  5. damien

    Hi Dave,

    I understand your concerns, we all have our own ways of doing things and I would say that if you have a system that works then stick with it. I am very happy to asses exposure on the camera screen once it is set up in the way I describe as in my opinion there is no finer way of doing it.

    As we can zoom in to the picture at 100% and see exactly the shadow detail and what info there is and we can do the same with the highlights too I think the picture is the safest way of getting the exposure spot on. I always keep the black flashing highlight option turned off too as a large part of my compositions often include pure white and it is annoying to have the camera telling me I’ve made a mistake or fooling me into cutting the exposure back.

    On very high contrast scenes I pop the camera under my coat to check the screen. I never expose for the highlights unless it’s a wedding dress. I expose to get the mid tones and shadow right. If the highlights are too gone with the exposure set for the blacks I reduce contrast by adding light. A characteristic of exposing for the shadows is that the blacks are free from noise and the midtones are in the sweet spot of the tone curve. Playing safe with the highlights usually means boosting the image in Photoshop and lifting the noise to the point it becomes intrusive.

    A lot of my frames are low key too and there is no white or near white in the frame either. This is a situation that requires even more careful placement of the shadow detail.

    I hope this helps.

  6. DaveBulow

    Thanks for the comprehensive explanation. I totally agree with your way of working. You know how to judge the scene from screen & how results tally. The results speak for themselves.

    My original concern simply came because I’ve worked in a minilab for years. A large number of pro photographers were disappointed with prints because they trusted the screen too much. So thanks for the clarification. I never doubted your technique.

    Your explanation gives context to your advice.

    Thanks again.

  7. mr Gibson

    I do not understand why damien is not using professional cameras with TWO recording cards at the exposing stage.
    Using Canon 5dmk2 bodies leaves a lot of error if the single card has any errors.

    • damien

      Hi Mr Gibson, It’s Damien here.

      5D mk2 cameras are far more reliable than the 1Ds series in my experience. Error 99s never seem to happen to 5D mk2s whereas, of the 100s of delegates I get on my workshops each year. I have exclusively shot digital since 2001 and in 9 years I have never had a card fail beyond the point that I couldn’t retrieve all the shots bar 2 And I knew which pictures they were because they were the ones being written to the card from the buffer when the battery died. Having 2 cards would not protect from this. If it ain’t broke and all that. If I had 2 slots for CF cards I would still only use one card at a time. I’d probably get confused about which one is which knowing me.

      The 5D mk2 camera is by far the best camera for shooting weddings or portraits. The smaller the better. Perhaps a digital Leica might be preferable for some reportage shooters. The 5D MK2 is light, robust and supremely capable. The files are clean and high enough resolution too.

      I hope this helps explain my decisions.

      Regards, Damien.

  8. martin

    The only corrupted cards I ever had were in my 1D bodies. In fact Karen’s 1D Mark 2N still corrupts CF cards from time to time.

    The only shutter I ever had fail was on a 1D Mark 2 (at 27000 actuations)

    Our 5Ds (Mk1 and Mk2) have done three wedding and portrait seasons and have never missed a beat. I agree with Damien – the 5D2 is the perfect wedding camera (for a canon user).

    I have a 1DS2 and it’s too damned heavy to carry around all day (I hate straps and never use them)


  9. David Millington

    Discrepancies between my Nikon D3 and my computer Monitor led me to contact Damien today. His swift response via Twitter has been invaluable as always!

    Superb detailed explanation here on the blog regarding calibrating your Camera with your Monitor. I shall now only use the histogram as a rough guide to exposure and rely more on the actual image displayed!

    Great site!


  10. Fiona Campbell

    Thank you! Monitor calibration now on the to do list. Forgive me for this slightly unrelated question but not sure where to post it. Feel free to move it if you think it would be better somewhere else. I’m trying to get a really good strategy for back up. I already have good back up on my computer, which is automatically backed up via Apple time machine to two external hard drives. I also always take two cameras with me to every shoot. What I want to know is whether there is a way of wirelessly backing up memory cards? What do other people do to protect themselves against memory card failure or loss of data? Do you use a particular brand of memory card? Do you use a particular size of memory card? How often do you change memory card? I was recently at a wedding as a guest and the bride had employed a product photographer to do her wedding shots (sigh…) and just as the confetti fell to the ground his memory card filled up. So glad that wasn’t me!! But that aside, I would be really glad to hear tips and strategies for preventing the unthinkable loss of images on a wedding day.

    • damien

      Hi Fiona,

      Good question. Here are my answers…
      1. Buy the best memory cards you can. I use Sandisk 60 mbps 16Gb. (90mbps don’t seem any quicker to me)
      2. Have twice the number of cards that you need so if one fails you can switch to your backup.
      3. Don’t change cards unless you absolutely have to. 1x 16Gb card lasts me a whole wedding.
      4. Write your cards to an external hard drive the evening of the wedding.
      5. Keep 2 copies of all the files from then on in.

      Any more than this is overkill in my opinion. I’ve never lost more than 1 wedding picture and that was on a Lexar card that failed. All bar one shot were recovered using software.

      Don’t panic or get too stressed about it. Be sensible and you will be fine.

      Cheers, Damien.


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About The Author

Damien Lovegrove is a world renowned portrait photographer specialising in making women look fabulous. “I’m inspired by beauty and as I have matured as a photographer I’ve learned to see beauty in just about everyone and everywhere. It’s not what I look at that matters to me, it is what I see. I love people and I suppose women in particular. I love their mannerisms, fashion, style and beauty."

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