Have you ever been out taking pictures and you come across a scene that is just wonderful and you point the camera and shoot some shots of it. Then you look at the LCD and the images just don’t match what you are seeing? Then instead of adjusting the cameras settings while you’re there you decide to just “fix” it in Photoshop and spend hours trying to get it to be an acceptable image. Wouldn’t it be nice to get the image right from the start so you only have to spend a few minutes fine tuning the images to make them spectacular instead of just acceptable? Yes but you don’t know how? I am going to tell you how to do just that.
One of the most confusing and fearful things about photography that new photographers, or even people that have been taking pictures for years but who have never shot out of a program mode, face is understanding metering. Both the camera’s metering system and how to meter a scene. Both are quite easy once you understand them.
First let’s discuss the camera’s meter. All built-in metering systems use reflective light to get a meter reading. And all of those systems try to meter all scenes to 50% grey, or neutral grey. And while that is nice for an averagely lit scene, not all scenes are averagely lit. An averagely lit scene is one where the light is broad and even, like outside in mid-day. The sun is high in the sky and everything is bright.
Almost all newer digital cameras have 2 to 4 metering modes to choose from. Nikon calls them; 3D Color Matrix, Center-Weighted, and Spot. Canon has; Evaluative, Partial, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The only difference between them is where they meter in the frame.
Nikon’s 3D Matrix Metering and Canon’s Evaluative Metering are the same. They are taking the whole scene and averaging it out to give you the best overall exposure. The on board computer is also helping with this meter system to give the best accuracy. I use this metering most of the time because it gives me a good reading based on the scene I am shooting.
Nikon’s Center-weighted and Canon’s Center-weighted & Partial are all the same too. They are taking an area in the center of the frame and putting a higher importance on the part of the scene to obtain a meter reading. The only difference with Canon’s two modes here is one is using the center of the frame while the partial is using a chosen section. I hardly ever use this setting because I feel the scenes can fool the meter way too easily.
Both Spot Meters are the same in Nikon and Canon. It is taking a single focus point and metering that point. This setting is the best one to use for tough lighting situations. I will always flip to this when I want the subject to be correctly exposed and I am not as worried about the rest of the scene. Usually concerts or plays this is great for and night shooting. Or if I am dialing it in and want to know how many stops I’m away from the brightest to the lightest.
Now where is the meter indicator on the camera? STOP reading right now and go get your camera’s manual and look up the section on metering in the manual so you can follow along and learn your camera better. Usually the meter indicator is in two places. The first is in the viewfinder. The second place it may be is on the top of the control panel window. Now turn on your camera, take off the lens cap, put in Manual Mode and point the camera at something bright and then something darker. Do you see the meter changing? Make sure it is in MANUAL MODE if you don’t see it. The meter indicators will move as different values of light hit the meter.
Now how to read the meter. All meters do the same thing but they may just look a little different in the viewfinders. They all have a zero point, a low range and a high range usually indicated by a + and – symbol. Some will even indicate how many stops of over or under exposure there are. When you look at the meter indicator if it is in the + area you need to shorten the amount of light that you have the cameras settings at. In other words you need to get the indicator to zero. If the indicator is in the – side you need to add more light to the settings to get the indicator to zero. Remember, we are doing this manually so if you don’t understand what I am talking about go and read my “Camera Settings” post for a detailed explanation of how camera settings work together.
Now go and try this out. Pick one setting that you are comfortable with changing and go and meter a few scenes. Pick a bright one, then a darker one and do some test shots. Change you setting to get the correct exposure. It is very easy.
How’d you do? It was pretty easy wasn’t it? What, the pictures were good but not perfect? Ah, remember what I said at the beginning? Meters are trying to meter at 50% grey. I had a professor in Photography 101 tell me from the word go that “All meters are stupid”. And that is the reason why, the meter doesn’t know what you are shooting, it’s doing its job and that is to meter the scenes neutral. The meter will get you in the ball park but it won’t hit that home run for you. That is why shooting in manual is better than letting the camera’s modes dictate the image for you. Because the program modes are just going by what the meter dictates. Remember, YOU are the artist creating the image with the use of the tool- your camera.
So what do you do if the meter tells you one thing but the image isn’t right? You need to learn to read the scene. Now comes the real fun! Reading a scene is easy and lots fun. You get to pick out what in the scene is important to you and how you want the light to look. You can make a dark room bright or a bright room darker. You can add mood and drama to an image. You are the artist.
Let us use an evening scene around your home for an example. You are outside and you see something on a lit porch, a window of a building, or along a lit street. The light looks perfect and there is a “mood’ about it that caught your eye. Or maybe it is a holiday decoration with lights all around. You point your camera at the scene and compose the image. You check your cameras meter and make any adjustments to make sure the reading says zero and then you shoot an image or two. You check the LCD and the images look dark. What the heck? You look at the scene again and you see some dark areas and some bright lights. Ah, there is where the problem lies. Those darn bright lights fooled your cameras meter into thinking the scene was brighter than it was. So what you need to do now is “Dial it in” to get the correct exposure for your image.
You know the images were dark so what should you do? Yes, you need to open up the exposure to allow more light in, that way the dark areas will be in better exposure. How you decide to do that is up to your shooting style. You keep making adjustments until you get the results you are looking for. Now the cameras meter will be telling you that you should be closing it back down, but you know better now. And of course just the opposite is true if your images are too bright.
In difficult lighting situations I usually spot meter just off of the brightest point in the scene. I don’t ever put the spot right on the brightest area because that will always meter the scene dark. But if you spot slightly off that should get you into the ballpark of exposure range and from there you can make fine adjustments until the scene looks the way you want it to.
That is the hardest thing to learn as a photographer in my opinion, trusting yourself over what a camera is telling you to do. I know when I switched over from film to digital years ago I thought because the cameras were now “digital” somehow the meters were better. How wrong I was.
With digital cameras seeing your results is easy, just look at the LCD on the back. And for even greater control you can use the Histogram to accurately make sure you are correct. I will post more on the Histogram in another post. My point here is that there should be no fear of shooting in manual as long as you understand the basics. If the image is too dark you open up the settings. And the opposite is true for overexposed images, you stomp the settings down to darken the image. And if you’re not sure you can ‘Bracket” a few exposures. That will be another post too.
Now you have FULL control over your camera and reading a scene. Now go out and practice!