I have often seen people taking point and shoot snaps without much thought into exposure. A little bit of experimenting with exposure, and you can dramatically improve your snaps.
Simply put, exposure is ensuring your photos have the right amount of colour, brightness and contrast. This ensure that the primary subject(s) in your pictures are neither too dark nor too bright. While its very easy to ‘photoshop’ your images to get unrealistic colour, it takes a good camera and a better photographer to capture colours as close to reality as possible.
Conditions like bright direct sunlight, snow, sea water, night photography, sunrise and sunsets etc. provide difficult shooting conditions. Some cameras have settings that let you preselect an environmental condition, others allow you to manually increase or decrease the exposure.
Most automatic cameras have one or more small highlighted blocks (usually a small red rectangle) that comes on screen/ viewfinder when you press the shutter release button. This block is also used to read the image information and make calculations required to ensure correct exposure.Often these also have a half-lock position that is used to lock the exposure information and then compose your focus to do a full click. Some of the expensive cameras also have a dedicated exposure lock button.
The simplest thing one can do is to ensure that this block collects information about the small area that you really want to show lighting and colours correctly for. Remember, this is not necessarily what you want to focus on!
In the example of the sunset here, the exposure was set to reflect the setting sun – This helped in masking the trees (which were actually visible to the normal eye when the shot was taken). Thus the colours of the sunset and the brightness of the sun itself were captured accurately.
In the example of the sunflower, a flash and exposure compensation setting was used to override the harsh direct sunlight entering the camera. As you can see here, the background is completely white (overexposed) while the colours of the sunflower have been captured accurately.
It is possible to capture almost the entire image in its best form without really compromising on the exposure of the darker and brighter elements. HDR (High Dynamic Range imaging) is one such method fast catching up. We shall save that for sometime later.