When I bought my first digital camera in 1999, one of
the first things I was disappointed with was the lack
of manual controls. Quite frankly, I don't like it when
the camera makes photographic decisions on my behalf.
This is why I was very excited when the Sony DSC-D700
came onto the market. It was one of the first consumer
grade cameras that featured a fully manual exposure and
white balance modes. I sold this camera many moons ago,
but I owe a lot of my photographic knowledge to this
little camera. In many ways, I still wish I had it around.
Now days, nearly all cameras have the following exposure
modes: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority,
and Manual. There is a place for the auto modes (P, A,
S) in some types of photography, but I prefer not to
use these. I find it a lot easier to go fully manual
so I can get the exact exposure I want. If the exposure
is bad, I can only blame myself and learn from it.
My digital camera of choice is the Canon EOS 1D. The
1D has 2 additional features that make shooting in manual
mode very handy: a spot meter, and an in-camera light
meter that ranges across 6 stops of exposure. If a scene
has consistent lighting, the use of manual exposures
with the help of the spot meter and light meter is really
the best solution.
My goal in the digital darkroom is quite simple.....
I try to avoid it. I really don't like having to fix
a shot with a bad exposure or poor crop, so I try to
get things perfect in-camera. Often times, if a shot
is underexposed or overexposed by more than a third of
a stop, I will simply trash the photo. The same applies
to photo that need any cropping. I have come up with
a pretty good, reliable technique for metering my photos.
However, you should be forewarned that this isn't some
secret technique that you will learn immediately after
reading this article. You will need to train your eye
based on experience, but I hope to guide you in the right
Step 1: Meter for the Highlights
Now lets get down to the nitty gritty stuff. When you
set your camera to spot metering and meter off a given
area, the camera is going to try and expose the scene
so that given area turns out middle gray. If you point
your spot meter at a dark object, your camera will
try to overexpose the subject, and if you point the
camera at a bright object the camera will try to underexpose
the subject. As a result, it is very important to interpret
your meter reading. As a general rule of thumb, 3 stops
brighter than neutral will be nearly pure white, and
3 stops darker than neutral will be nearly pure black.
If you want to photograph a white wall, point your
spot meter at the wall, then adjust your manual exposure
until the in-camera light meter tells you that the
subject is about 3 stops brighter than white. Now when
you take the photo, you will see that the wall is extremely
bright, and might even have some blown highlights.
In reality, you don't want the wall to be pure white,
so the ideal metering would likely be just short of
3 stops brighter than neutral.
When I meter a scene, I will look for light colored
subjects. I prefer to meter off objects that are about
2 stops brighter than neutral. Below is a chart of objects
and surfaces I commonly meter off.
|+3 stops||EXTREMELY bright white undetailed subjects in full sun. Bordering on blown highlights -- not very useful for
metering off of.|
|+2 stops||Concrete, light gray stonework, fair skin tones, bright afternoon sky, etc...|
|+1 stop||Average Blue Sky (w/o a polarizer), light colored vegetation, darker skin tones, brightly backlit leaves, etc...|
|neutral||Darker vegetation, lush green grass, deep blue northern sky|
2: Confirm your Exposure
To make sure you have the proper exposure, it's a good
idea to point your spot meter at various subjects to
see how their tonal values will be represented in the
final image. After the exposure is set, I will often
point my spot meter at what I believe is a neutral
subject to see how the meter reads it. Finally, I will
spot meter the shadows to make sure they are as dark
as I would like.
Step 3: Shoot
Now that you have your perfect manual exposure set, go
ahead and take a photo of the scene. Check it out on
the LCD, and examine your histogram to make sure that
you are set. I prefer to have the blinking highlights
enabled so I can instantly see the true white areas.
Don't be afraid of the blinking highlights. If there
is a subject in the photo that is a featureless white
surface in bright light, the highlights should be blown.
Otherwise your image will be way too dark. It seems
like most dSLR owners are afraid of the evil blinking
highlights. If that part of your subject is true white,
and the highlights are blinking, it means that you
have properly exposed the scene. Otherwise, you will
need to adjust the levels/curves in software because
the image will be underexposed.
Case Studies: Real
This is a very good example of a scene where metering the highlights is very effective. For this photo, I was treated to some very nice overcast lighting, which was ideal
for this type of photography. Since I prefer to meter off the highlights, the headstone was my primary target for metering. The stone is not pure white, so it should be about 2 stops brighter than neutral.
I set my aperture to f/2.8, then adjusted the shutter until the in-camera meter
reported that the stone was 2 stops brighter than neutral. After I have an established meter reading, I checked it against other objects in scene. In this case,
the out of focus grass makes an excellent subject. The grass is not very dark, so I figured it should be about 1 stop brighter than neutral. When I pointed the spot meter at the grass, the meter confirmed my
guess. Now that the exposure was set, I was ready to take a lot of photos with different compositions. I knew that my exposure would be accurate so long as the lighting
conditions remained consistent.
Okay, so what happens when a scene has no highlights to meter? This photo of a mother and baby bonobo contains mostly dark tones. I was very fortunate to be shooting these animals under overcast skies. Because of the soft
lighting, their eyes are not lost in deep shadows. Since there are not any strong highlights in this photo, I metered off the bright forearms. In this case, I judged
them to be just a little bit brighter than neutral. If I had just set my camera to program mode with evaluative metering like most of the other point and shooters at the zoo that day, the image
would have been greatly overexposed and the detail in the forearms might have been lost completely. Just like with the headstone photo above, I moved my spot meter around the subject
after metering off of the arm. I looked at the meter to make sure the dark tones of the fur did not get too dark. After I snapped a photo and saw that I had the proper exposure, I was ready
to concentrate on capturing a nice pose.... not on the camera settings.