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Chad Perkins: Some DSLR cameras, such as the Canon 5D and a Panasonic GH2, have an on screen histogram which can really help you gauge the exposure of your shot. To enable this on the Canon 5D, go to the back of the camera and click on the Info button a few times to cycle through the info modes, and eventually you will get to the mode with the histogram. This histogram is a read out of the luminance or brightness levels in your shot. From left to right we have shadows, mid tones and highlights. The height of the graph in these areas shows you how much of that particular luminance range you have.
So this histogram suggests that our shot might be a bit too dark--certainly got a lot of shadows and not much in the way of highlights. This shot on the other hand suggests the opposite; lot of bright areas and not much shadow detail. Using a histogram could help you make sure that your image is balanced and could help you prevent blowing out highlights or crushing shadows. If your DSLR doesn't have a histogram, that's ok, it will still have a light meter called a spot meter.
Now these light meters aren't as good and incident meters, which are actually physical things that you hold, and they actually get a reading of how the light falls in an exact spot, but the light meter in your camera is just good for getting an overall sense of the light in your shot. One final tip here, some people like to under expose by just a little bit--I'm actually one of those people, because I can then brighten things up back in post. I usually go one, maybe two tiny little notches down on the exposure meter on the camera. If you go any more that, you are going to get noise. It's going to be ugly.
But having that image a little bit darker is just better then making things too bright. Whether you use a histogram, the camera spot meter or a physical incident light meter to gauge exposure, I highly recommend getting a reading before every shot.
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