Many moons ago, a trip to the local chemist included collecting your photographs after coming back from your annual holiday (that’s a vacation for US visitors). After listening to two weeks’ worth of “take another one just in case” and “I hope they all come out” and even “careful, I’ve only got 3 left on the roll”, the container holding all of your family memories had been mysteriously emptied and in exchange, a paper envelope with lots of pockets was handed back to you. Inside were 24 or 36 6x4 glossy prints, together with your film negatives cut into strips of 6.
“That’s a nice one of mum” and “oh that’s a shame” very often followed as the mixture of light and dark images revealed themselves. Fast forward to what seems like a hundred years on, sees us all in a situation of never having to say such things again... because we now have a tool to help us: namely the ‘Exposure Meter’ and it’s right inside our cameras.
I know, it’s easy to just fire up the camera, stick it on auto and hope for the best but, given that the ‘tool’ we, or your camera, is using, still has the ability to make us say “oh that’s a shame”, it’s a good idea to take a bit more control by looking at how we can narrow down the failure rate. Given that many of today’s cameras work on the same basis, it’s most likely that either within the menus or sometimes through an external dial is the ability to change how the exposure meter (i.e. the tool) works. In its simplest form it measures how much light is coming into the camera and then makes adjustments to any one of the three parts that go together to contribute to the ‘exposure triangle’ (see my previous post). However, the problem is that almost all scenes display a variety of light levels ranging from black to white and the meter has little idea as to which area YOU want light or dark; a prime example being a person wearing black standing against a white background. So let’s look at how we can take better control of the situation. You have the facility to direct your meter towards the areas of the image by changing the mode it uses. Almost all exposure meters have changeable modes such as:
Let’s take a look at the various options.
The meter mode takes into account light levels from across the whole frame but YOUR most important area is placed on the central reading area, (around 20%). The meter is making an average light reading but with an emphasis on the center which very often is a much smaller part of the picture. To be remembered is the fact that any active auto focus point is not taken into account, so dark or bright focal points are less likely to affect your exposure. Generally a good starting point for the average scene. In effect, it’s giving you an overall average light reading.
* Matrix / evaluative:
The meter again makes an assessment of the light across the whole scene and is most likely to be the default setting on most cameras. While similar to centre-weighed, this mode DOES take into account the area you have focused on as it feels this to be the most important, so maybe the next mode for you to try.
* Spot metering:
This is a very precise method of light reading as very often only an area of between 1-5% of the scene is being used. It’s used for portraits and for identifying small areas of a landscape that are very important to you. It generally takes little account of the larger lighter / darker areas and while very accurate, it’s maybe one to use when your experience has increased.
* Partial metered:
While not seen on all cameras, it measures around 8-12% of the scene while taking into account your chosen focus point. Can be useful when you are tracking a moving subject such as runners’, motorsport or bad guys running away.
* Manual metering:
As the name suggests, it gives you an average reading and says, “it’s up to you what you do next”. If, when you have your head around ‘under and over exposure’, you may wish to produce a very light or dark image (i.e. high key or low key) so this mode gives you total control as to what the end result can be.
All meter mode attempt to average out all the light coming in to offer an 18% grey reading. Which means black will show as grey the reading needs to adjust to shift the output to a black. In the early days of your camera ownership you should be prepared to experiment to increase your skill base; remember, photographs are simply not expensive anymore so experimentation is the order of the day.
I strongly recommend that during a quiet time you grab a beer, coffee or tea, sit comfortably somewhere outside and take a range of exposures of the same scene. Then secretly bring out your ‘jotter’ pad (without looking like a nerd) and jot down which mode was used; no need for a computer screen as the LCD on the camera will reveal your results. Lastly, you need to remember that the image shown on the LCD is a jpeg representation which is fine when shooting in jpeg mode, but if you shoot in RAW, you are give a flat looking image. This is because the camera has left of the processing to you.
Like all hobbies, you get back more than you put in so it’s worth taking the time to experiment in order to improve your skills, happy clicking.
Thanks for reading.
Terence Jones ARPS
A photography enthusiast with a long and varied interest in taking pictures.
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20) The Golden Hour?
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16) Photo Editing Workflow
15) Camera Meter Modes
14) The Histogram
13) I taught it everything
12) 25 Tips
11) The Exposure Triangle
10) Eight Elements of Composition
9) The Ghosts in my Camera Bag
8) Jpeg vs RAW?
7) Shooting Infrared
6) 30 Creative Photography Ideas
5) Street photography in London - 10 point plan
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