Expose Yourself
written by Ben Horne

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 direction.

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.


ReadingMetered Objects
+3 stopsEXTREMELY bright white undetailed subjects in full sun. Bordering on blown highlights -- not very useful for metering off of.
+2 stopsConcrete, light gray stonework, fair skin tones, bright afternoon sky, etc...
+1 stopAverage Blue Sky (w/o a polarizer), light colored vegetation, darker skin tones, brightly backlit leaves, etc...
neutralDarker vegetation, lush green grass, deep blue northern sky


Step 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 World Examples

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.