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Metering: Part Two of the Tutorial

Did you read this post last week?  Were you intrigued?  Relieved that you aren’t alone in your frustration?  Did you get out your camera’s instruction manual and figure out how to change your metering method?  Well, good!  Then let’s take what we learned last week about choosing a method of metering (matrix/evaluative, center-weighted average, or spot), and apply what we learned.  For this tutorial, I am using examples from my own body of work with my own style, and I fully recognize that some of these lighting categories and techniques might technically overlap each other, depending on degree of light and angles used.  But I’m okay with that. :)

example of backlight

First, you’ll need to set your camera’s dial to the M, for Manual Mode, in order to be in total control of your exposure.  Using A/AV/Aperture Priority, or S/TV/Shutter Priority will only give you control of your aperture and shutter speed, respectively, and will always default to exposing right at the 0, or dead-center mark of your meter… even if that’s not where you want your exposure to be!    When you shoot in M/Manual, YOU have control over all aspects of your exposure.  You can choose to “underexpose” or “overexpose” in order to get creative results from your camera… ones that your semi-auto modes won’t allow you to shoot with the meter always defaulting your other settings to expose at the center/zero mark. (Edited to add:  The exception to this is when you also use your Exposure Compensation controls when in these two modes… but the way I look at it, after all that readjusting, you might as well just shoot in manual anyhow!)

If you’re shooting indoors, I’d suggest that you start around 1/250 shutter speed, and as wide (low f/stop number) of an aperture as your favorite lens allows (I try and stay around 2.2-2.8 if I can).  Then, you’ll need to point your camera at your subject (or whatever I direct you to “meter off of” below), and set your ISO so that your camera’s meter reading is as close to that center mark (the 0) as possible.  We are going to be adjusting our shutter speed and aperture until we get a result we like.  Remember, practice makes perfect, and you can always just shoot another frame!  Don’t get frustrated, just keep adjusting your settings slightly (ISO, shutter speed, and aperture) until you like what you see.  Again, try to stay near the center/zero point.  If you don’t have a willing subject to help you with today’s lesson, then take some inanimate object out into the light instead!  I’ve been known to use my own kids’ toys on lots of occasions to squeeze in a little extra practice.

Spot Metering:

You’ll also want to change your metering method to Spot for these examples, because we want our cameras to expose based on a very small selection within our frame.  Consult your camera’s instruction manual if you’re still unsure how to do that.

Why do I choose to use the spot meter?  Because it follows the focus point I have selected.  Whatever I’m focusing on, my in-camera meter will show me the “correct” exposure for it, in the hash-mark guide at the bottom of my viewfinder.  And 95% of the time, I want the subject I’m focusing on to be exposed properly, right?  I can live with, and sometimes very much desire, shadowy foregrounds or backgrounds, or bright backgrounds, as long as my main subject is exposed correctly.  And I find it more difficult to get the same results using the other two metering methods.  So there you have it.

How to “Read” your Camera’s Meter:
Your camera’s spot meter will “read” the light falling where your focus point is aimed, and let you know whether your camera is set to expose that part correctly, by showing you “tick marks” either to the left or right of center/zero in your viewfinder’s meter.  These tick marks are not to be ignored, they are your guide for correctly exposing your images!  (Important Note:  Canon cameras will show underexposure as tick marks to the left of the 0, and overexposure to the right of it.  Nikon cameras are exactly the opposite: they will show underexposure to the right, and overexposure to the left.)  Now, depending on the effect I want, I generally try and keep my exposure near the center/zero… not necessarily right on it.  This is where your creativity comes in, as well as your learned ability to see light and determine what you want your final image to look like.

metering tutorial

For a true silhouette, you’re going to want to place your subject between you and your light source.  I find that it’s most effective to meter off the light behind the subject (such as the sky below).  We essentially want to underexpose the subject and leave it completely in shadow.  You’re going to want to make sure that you don’t place your subject in the middle of a bright lighting scenario, obviously.  Take a look at my example below and follow suit with regards to lighting and general placement of your subject in relation to the light source.  Aim your focus point at the sky behind your subject, set your ISO, shutter speed and aperture so that you’re underexposing that sky just the tiniest bit, and shoot.  Go ahead and chimp if you need to… it’s the beauty of working with a DSLR!  And, it helps you learn more quickly.  Don’t worry, if you don’t see the result you want in your LCD screen, then adjust your exposure a bit and shoot again (and again).  Be mindful of your subject’s placement, profile, and body language.  As you can see below we were able to preserve her gorgeous profile including her lashes and clasped hands, as well as that sweet flip of hair.

By the way, it is not cheating to bring up your blacks in post-processing or darken those shadows a bit.  Use the tools you have to the best of your ability!  But… be sure you’re using your editing software to enhance your images, instead of using actions as a crutch to remedy poorly-exposed photographs.  πŸ˜‰

example of silhouette

f/3.2  |  1/2500  |  ISO 200  |  Camera facing West  |  July 2009  |  8:15pm

Rim Lighting:
To get that sliver of pretty light and that detail on the edge of your subject, you’re going to need to find a pretty dim area to shoot in which also features a window (or other light source), such as below.  Turn off all ambient lights that might serve as a fill light in front of or to the side of your subject.  You want to limit your light to only a “rim” or the edge of your subject.  Place your subject slightly in front of and to the side of that bright light source.  Below, I’ve placed Lila in of that beautiful pool of sunshine from the window.  The light gently falls around her, wrapping the edge of her face and body in light, but the majority of her still remains in shadow.  You might need to move your subject further from or closer to the window, depending on your particular lighting scenario.  (There are many variations of rim lighting, some very strictly a tiny sliver of light, and some that are simply backlit.  In a google search for “examples of rim lighting”, I found images from one extreme to another.)

Now, you’ll want to aim your focus point – and therefore your camera’s spot meter – onto the area of your subject that is illuminated.  Just the edge of her.  Focus/recompose if you must, and adjust your aperture and shutter speed until you get the effect you like.  By using dramatic light this way, you’re going to get a lovely almost-silhouette, yet you’ll retain the detail in the shadows nearest the light source… unlike a true silhouette in the example above.
example of rim lightingf/3.5  |  1/250  |  ISO 1250 | South-facing window  |  September 2010 |  6:00 pm

My favorite.  This one depends on the light you’re shooting into, but you’re generally going to have your subject’s back to the sun, and you’re going to be shooting either directly into the sun, or pretty close to it.  Your subject is going to be between you and your light source.  What I try to do is meter off of the subject’s face/body, but underexpose him slightly so that you still retain a little bit of detail to the background.  You don’t want to clip ALL of your highlights, and you still want the background to be recognizable in this situation.  Raise your shutter speed or stop down your aperture (use a higher f/stop number) if you need to.

example of backlighting

f/2.8  |  1/500  |  ISO 200  |  Subject facing East  |  April 2010  |  6:30pm

Don’t forget to check out these past photography tutorials here on TCM!

Manipulating Light

Utilizing Window Light

Shooting Backlight

Finding the “Perfect” Location

If you like these tutorials, be sure to stay tuned to The Creative Mama.  We are planning and finalizing our Third-Annual Creative Photographer Series, set to take place in July, and our amazing team has lots of helpful tips and information in store for you (as well as lots of fabulous giveaways)!

In the next several installments of photography lessons, we’re going to explore shooting in manual, the Magic Triangle (ISO, aperture and shutter speed and how they relate to one another), and metering for other tricky… and not-so-tricky… lighting scenarios.  If there are specific lighting situations that you’d like to see me illustrate next time, would you kindly let me know in the comments?  We definitely plan on keeping up with the photography tutorials on a regular basis, and we always love your feedback and suggestions!


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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  • Ashlee

    I just went through and read all of your blogs! I loved them! They were so simple and easy to understand and yet covered so much! Thanks for the time you put into this to help us learn more!

  • Christina

    I’m not sure how I came across your blog, but I’ve been doing momtography for about 4 years now. I went from Nikon to Canon and in that time felt like I lost all “know how”. Thank you so much. This was so easy to read and it actually made sense. Can’t wait to try it out on my husband!

  • Littlepeople Photography

    very helpful! thank you!! =)

  • April

    Wow! This answered sooo much for me! Thanks…makes manual not seem so scary! New to this blog but super excited now!

  • Cherish

    Oh this was just awesome. Thanks for clearing a few things up for me.

  • alta

    Thanks for sharing!!! I am definitely gonna use your tips in future.

  • Christine

    You are awesome!! Thank you thank you. One ? I noticed when I try back light ( especially in a window) a lot of times I get a glow, usually purple around the subject… Is this from over exposing? Is this what would be considered clipping? Or if there is a tree in the background like with your little boy I would have a green cast in the hair. Is this something I just have to worry about pp? Thanks again. You have no idea how much this helps.

    • Stacey Woods

      Actually that purple (or red or green) outline is called “chromatic aberration” and it shows up when you have something dark next to something bright (and overexpose the light background). So yes, tree branches, people in dark shirts (or dark hair) with blown backgrounds, things of this nature… they’re the most prone to this phenomenon. Your particular lens might have something to do with it also (some lenses are better at preventing it than others). Here’s a quick tutorial I found on getting rid of it. πŸ˜‰ Hope it helps!

      • Christine

        Thanks so much!!!! So helpful.

  • Addie

    As a self-taught photographer, these 2 metering tutorials were probably the best Ive ever read – technical, but actually easy to understand… thank you!

    I would love to see a tutorial on focus points sometime… oh, and custom white balance as well – never mastered that one…

    THANK YOU!!! You are awesome!

  • Alena

    You don’t know how long metering has been so confusing to me! Thank you, thank you for posting this. It makes sense now more than ever!!

    • Stacey Woods

      So glad it’s coming together for you, Alena!

  • payton

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I get so frustrated and my subject is usually over it by the time I figure out what the right settings are. This really helps! Now if I could just get white balance…..

    • Stacey Woods

      Practice as much as you can at home, if you have available subjects. Know your camera and memorize your favorite apertures and shutter speeds, and practice changing your settings quickly so that it will eventually become second nature to you at a shoot. Keep at it, it’s worth it! :)

      And oh, white balance. That will certainly be another subject for another day. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Christina Test

    I just finished reading several of your posts about metering. This is something that I am still working on. I am getting better but am grateful for more experienced photographers, such as yourself, who are willing to teach us newbies. That being said, I did find a typo in your post above. Under how to read your camera’s meter, when you talked about the exposure meters being opposite in Canon and Nikon. You stated the same thing for both cameras. I read it about 7 times just to make sure that I wasn’t misreading it. I just wanted you to know about this so that you can fix it. But other than that thank you for the tutorials.

    • Stacey Woods

      You know, I typed that and reread that phrase myself three times before I published it, and still missed it! (I’m blaming pregnancy brain, ha!) Thanks for the heads-up. I went back and amended the post. πŸ˜‰

      Glad the tutorials are helping!

  • Kara S

    I love all your photography posts!

    I guess my tricky lighting situation is when I’m indoors without much sunlight. I want to get good shots, but I seem to struggle between using the flash (which doesn’t look nearly as nice) vs having an underexposed image with a lot of noise.

    I guess my other tricky lighting situation is when you’re following around a toddler trying to take shots. I never know what aperture to use…I’d prefer a wider aperture for better bokeh and a faster shutter speed, but then I always seem to have his nose or ear in focus instead of his eyes because of how quickly he moves around.

    • Stacey Woods

      Toddlers make us work for it, that’s for sure! Try keeping your aperture around 3.5 or 4 until you get more comfortable (and faster). You can gradually open up as your skills improve. πŸ˜‰ It’s certainly something that takes a lot of practice! That said, I still get plenty of in-focus ears and blurry faces when photographing quick little ones on the move. I tend to overshoot running toddlers in the first place for this reason.

      And for your first question about indoor shooting, the trick is to find the right light in the first place. Go from room to room and find those sweet pockets of light. And open up the doors if you need to. That said, I do shoot in plenty of dark homes at high ISOs and wide aps with success. Embrace the grain (to a certain degree) but make sure you’ve found the best light to work with first and foremost. Hope it helps!

      • Kara S

        Thanks so much Stacey! Great advice. :)

  • Jess

    Great tutorial. But if I’m reading this right, you’re saying you can’t tweak the metering in Av or Tv mode? That’s not correct. Exposure compensation is easy to set, and tells the camera exactly where on the meter (either side of middle zero) to meter at, in either of those semi-manual modes. That said, in many situations, full manual is the way to go! :)

    • Stacey Woods

      Hi Jess!

      Thanks a bunch :) Yep, you can tweak your exposure by using the exposure compensation controls, but I meant that the camera’s meter automatically “defaults” to center/zero when you set it on AV/TV mode. Thanks for clearing that up!

  • Meghan

    Your timing is sooo perfect! I got my first DSLR this week and am determind to get myself into M! I’d love to know tricks for getting those cool halo’s, sun spots, I’m sure there’s a technical name for them. I’ve picked them up by accident a couple of times and can’t figure out how I did it to repeat it. Plus I’d like to be able to control them.

  • ginger

    i am loving your blog! thank you for teaching us or refreshing our memories! I’m thinking about posting some pictures on my blog that go along with your Tutorial. Between you, Jill ( , Ashley ( and Pioneer Woman ( , i feel like i can now “own” my pictures, and let my creativity come out!! thank you again! i will let you know if i post pictures =0)

    • Stacey Woods

      Ginger, oh yes please do! I’d love to see. And we’re so glad you’re able to learn from the tutorials. Thanks for your support!