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Metering: A Photography Tutorial

Ever tried to take an indoor (natural light) photo of someone sitting in a chair in front of a window with the blinds open?  Were you disappointed when your expensive, fancy digital camera produced a dark silhouette of that person, with a perfectly exposed window behind them?  Not the look you were going for, was it?  Yeah.  I’ve done that too.  It’s a sorry sight, and it almost makes a girl want to turn on her pop-up flash. Or worse, tempt you into thinking about purchasing a new camera that “takes better photos”.

Wait.  Not so fast.  Instead, that girl could learn a little bit about metering modes, and therefore save her poor subjects from pin-flash catchlights, flashbulb eyes, prevent the hassle of that red-eye removal tool later on, and possibly save you the price of a “nicer camera”.

(Yes, this is straight out of the camera, just sized for web and stamped.  I am not proud.)

A lot of you have asked me how I meter when I shoot, whether I’m photographing hazy, backlit images… or if I’m aiming for a moody, dramatic black and white photo… if I’m experimenting with different ways to manipulate light… or even if I’m utilizing window light to create a portrait.  So today, I thought I’d share a little bit of how I meter, and why.

Your camera, whether it’s a simple point-and-shoot, a complex DSLR, or a film SLR (for the most part) has a built-in light meter. This handy meter measures the light that enters your camera in order to determine the proper exposure for each image you take.  *For today’s article, I will be using a DSLR, namely my Nikon D700, as an example.  Please consult your own camera’s manual to find out which metering modes your camera offers, and how to change those settings.  My D700 has a lever on the back, just to the right of the viewfinder, where I can choose between these three symbols for metering modes:

Download your own camera symbol chart courtesy of www.murphycomp.com/CamSymbols.pdf

There are generally three metering modes: matrix/evaluative (pattern as explained above), center-weighted average, and spot/partial.

Photo courtesy of pixinfo.com

Now, in the very simplest of definitions, matrix/evaluative metering means that all the different values of light in the entire scene are read and averaged in when determining exposure.  (Yep, the dimly lit foreground of the room and the bright window in the background, it all counts.)  Center-weighted average means that the majority of the meter reading is based upon the amount of light in the middle of the scene.  Whatever is in the middle of your frame gets the highest priority in the meter reading.  Spot/partial metering judges only the bit of light in the direct center spot of the frame, or in certain cameras, it only reads the light wherever you have your focus point aimed.  (If your particular point and shoot model does not have any menu setting or switch to change the metering mode, then you likely are set to matrix metering as the default.)

There are online tutorials galore on exploring the different types of metering, so I won’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here.  Suffice to say, if you take your camera (owner’s manual in hand) and try to shoot the same scene with each different meter setting, you’ll likely get three different exposures.  Different metering modes work well for certain types of photography and specific types of lighting situations.

In my own work, I shoot in Manual mode, I shoot RAW instead of JPG, and I utilize my spot meter 100% of the time.  My camera’s spot meter also follows my focus point.  Therefore, if I’m focusing on a person’s face in the top right corner of the frame… guess what will be properly exposed?  You got it… her skin.  I don’t care about what’s outside the window.  I’m creating a portrait here, not focusing on the landscape.

(A slightly-adjusted RAW file, spot-metered to underexpose her face slightly but still preserve highlights on her shoulders and temple as best as possible.)

Well, we are smarter than the machine, right?  Right.  So, in order to “trick” our camera’s meter into exposing for her sweet face, I just used my spot meter setting and aimed my focus point on her face.  My meter (that row of tick-marks inside the bottom of your viewfinder with 0 in the center… kind of like 2..1..0..1..2) lined up near 0 when I set my camera to ISO 800, f/2.5 and 1/500.

photo courtesy of The Photo Forum

It’s important to note that I did slightly underexpose her face here, and this is why: a lot of times when I use backlight, I try to avoid too much light spill on the edges of the skin.  These areas are the backs of her right arm, top of her shoulder, her temple and her hair.  I know that if I expose properly for those brightest edges of her skin, then I will inevitably underexpose her face (which is in the shadows).  It’s a trade-off and I accept that.  I don’t always manually set my exposure by lining up my arrow at the 0, that center point.  (More on that in the next post!)

I know that I can always “bring up” what’s slightly underexposed during my post-processing in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) by adjusting the Exposure, Brightness, or Fill Light sliders as needed.  Or I can get very precise and use an Adjustment Brush to increase the exposure/brightness on her face, arms, and the front of her body, while the rest of the image remains unaffected.  Likewise, if I slightly overexpose the highlights of her skin (which, in all honesty, is what I typically do), I could use the Recovery slider in Camera Raw to “save” those highlights a teeny tiny bit if I needed to, while keeping her face properly exposed.  (Use that Recovery slider judiciously though, and with a slight hand.)  This method is a bit riskier, so you have to be careful not to overexpose too much… there are some highlights that you can never bring back once they’re gone.  However, I do find that images that are slightly overexposed show less digital noise than underexposed images that have been corrected in post-processing.

(After a super quick edit in Camera Raw, we’re back in business.)

So let’s review.  What likely happened if I used matrix/evaluative metering for the first image? My meter would have taken the whole scene into account, that’s correct.  That bright open window plus the indirect light inside the room, means the meter would have used an average reading of all the light combined, to tell me how to properly expose my image.  Which is fantastic if our goal is a silhouette of this pretty girl… obviously, it was not what I had in mind!

I’ll be back again next week to share more tips on metering plus other ways you can use your own knowledge to fool your camera’s light meter into getting the results you want.

Remember, the artist creates the image… the camera is merely a tool the artist uses.

Co-editor, Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages, and she prefers to photograph them in black and white, almost exclusively. Her online photo journal can be found at Stacey Woods Photography. Stacey’s own husband and children (a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter) are her greatest source of inspiration… and laughter!
To read all articles written by Stacey, click here.

About Stacey Woods


Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. She believes that the small moments are really the biggest ones, that photographs are legacies that we leave to our children, and that authentic love is beautiful. Her online photo journal can be found here.

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  • roy

    This is just an awesome tutorial…fantastic work Stacey!

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  • Mimi

    Hi, I’m a newbie at trying to learn new things to improve. With that said, I’m almost always shooting in AE mode. I love shallow dof and like to control that…I can still choose my spot metering while using this mode, right? I bet i could’ve had a much better backlight pic while we were sitting next to the window in the airport terminal last week….ah well, keep learning and applying. :P

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  • Judy

    Hi, this was very instructive. I would love to know more about how you got the final picture to show more of the background details. Thanks.

    • http://www.staceywoodsphoto.com Stacey Woods

      Judy, to bring back details that are slightly clipped, try moving the recovery slider in ACR or Lightroom, or for more precision, the adjustment brush (reducing exposure and/or brightness) as needed over just those particular areas. Hope it helps!

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  • http://www.piggfamilyblog.blogspot.com,www.ourcupsrunnethover.com/blog Dawn Pigg

    Stacey:

    Thanks so much for this. I am a COMPLETE newbie at this photography thing and had just asked Cilla about bokeh in outdoor lighting because while I am far from mastering anything with photography, I probably struggle the most with outdoor/sun lighting. I always am over or underexposed. But it’s a work in progress and I’m having a ball. So thank you for this posting…it was really helpful. I changed my meter on my camera last night for Jackson’s t-ball practice. Looking forward to next week’s tips.

    Dawn :)

  • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

    When shooting in manual mode, what is the purpose of metering? Aren’t you, the photographer, completely determining the exposure of the photo? Wouldn’t this only be applicable in auto, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes?

    • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

      Oh, and I didn’t mean to sound too critical, sorry. :) It really is a good blog post. I’m just confused about when metering matters.

      • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

        Ok, sorry, another comment. :) By reading through the comments on your other posts, I’m getting the impression that what you do is spot meter, look at the exposure level for that spot in your view finder, and if that spot is not at the exposure level you want then you adjust your settings? Is that how you use metering in manual mode?

        • http://www.staceywoodsphoto.com Stacey Woods

          That’s exactly it! :) I choose what to point my spot meter/focus point on, and then I tweak my exposure from there. I make all the decisions, however my meter is a guide and a starting point for me. I typically start around f/2.8 or so for one or two people. My shutter speed rarely drops below 1/200 or 1/250 unless I’m intending a bit of motion blur. And I set my ISO depending on my lighting situation (100 for beachy/bright day, 200 for outdoors, 400 for a bit darker, and then around 800-1600+ for indoors). My ISO and shutter speeds are the first things to be adjusted. I’ll talk about this quite a bit in next week’s tutorial post as well!

          • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

            Excellent, thanks so much for the clarification!

    • http://www.staceywoodsphoto.com Stacey Woods

      Kara, no it’s a great question! Yes, when shooting in manual mode, I have to make the decision about which camera settings to choose. I do this by using my in-camera meter. I don’t just guess on my exposure, so I need to use the meter to give me an idea. Does that make sense? For example, if I were shooting in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or another auto mode, the camera would automatically choose my settings so that the exposure lines up on the 0, whether that’s what I wanted in the first place or not. When I use my meter as a guide, I get to make the decision as to what I expose for… whether I want to silhouette her (by underexposing her completely) or by exposing her skin properly (and overexposing whatever is out the window behind her). In this case I chose to underexpose her skin slightly to preserve the highlights and spill light on her shoulders, and tweak the rest in post-processing.

      I hope that helps! :)

      • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

        Helps a lot. :)

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  • http://www.hollyhowe.com Holly

    wonderful, stacey! thank you for this! :D

    • http://www.staceywoodsphoto.com Stacey Woods

      You’re so welcome, Holly!