In a previous article we examined the Exposure Triangle and how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are used in concert to balance exposure for a scene. However, there is one thing that should not be overlooked. How does the camera determine what is the proper exposure in the first place? In this article I’ll discuss exposure metering to help you start to see like your camera.
- Demystify exposure metering
- Understand what your camera is telling you
- Learn some pre-visualization techniques
If you look at a blank piece of white, unlined paper, what do you see? Just a white rectangle, right? Now, reach for the nearest writing utensil and draw a shape on the paper. The shape you just drew shows up on the paper because it reflects a different amount of light to your eyes. Just like drawing on a blank piece of paper, differences in light are what allow us to see the world.
With this in mind, let’s talk about how your camera sees and interprets the light of the world. The term for this is exposure.
Start With Stops – Zone Metering
When we evaluate a photograph we talk about whether or not it was exposed properly. What does that mean exactly? In general, a properly exposed image allows you to see details from the darkest to lightest part of the scene. Alternatively, an underexposed image is too dark. Finally, if the overall image is too bright, overexposed.
Properly exposed, underexposed, and overexposed are the terms used to describe the light of the overall image.
If an image is overexposed or underexposed we need a way to measure the difference so we can fix it. The stop is the answer. But, what is a stop? A stop of light is either half or double the amount of light reaching the camera sensor or film. It is a measurement system that makes it easier to talk about exposure in a consistent way to every other photographer.
Next, what is Zone Metering? Ansel Adams created zone metering to teach his students about exposure. Zone metering is a visualization method for photographers to see the world around them. Mr. Adams said that you could visualize scenes to have +/- five stops of light from the average. With each increasing stop of light the scene is brighter until you cannot make out details. For every decreasing stop of light the scene is darker until you cannot make out details.
Blown out refers to loss of detail in the highlights of a photograph. Clipped refers to loss of detail in the shadows of a photograph.
Rather than just put this in writing let’s take a look at the concept visually.
In the first example, I captured a series of eleven exposures from -5 to +5 of the same textured wall. What you should notice is that somewhere between -3 and -5 you lose the ability to make out details in the scene. The same between +4 and +5 stops.
Why is this important to you and your photography? To me, zone metering simplifies the relationship between different stops of light. I use it almost every day when planning a scene. This is the kind of tool you can keep with you all the time and make quick improvements to your results.
Next, let’s see how you can use the concept of zone metering and stops in real world scenes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Calgary and the surrounding area. Calgary has quite a few beautiful pieces of art, but this particular mural of a First Nations woman really caught my attention.
The original photo is in color, but I wanted to share this with you in black and white to simplify the discussion of evaluating the different stops of light in the scene. I’ve incorporated the zone metering scale from above to help you start to visualize the differences between the light and dark areas of the scene.
When you look at this scene you see that there are areas of black, white, and gradations of grey. This is because there are different amounts of light in the scene. In the following image I set the camera to aperture priority, then metered various parts of the scene. Here are the results.
I converted the measured shutter speeds to show the number of stops between each of the different values. As seen in this table, there are six stops of difference between the brightest and darkest areas of this scene.
What does this mean?
This means that the camera must be able to capture six stops of exposure in order to show detail in all areas of the scene.
Exposure Metering – How Your Camera Sees the World
Your camera can measure the light from any given scene in a variety of ways. The names vary by manufacturer, but the functions are similar. The methods are evaluative, center weighted average, and spot metering. The following image shows a comparison of exposures based on the three different metering modes.
*Note: All photos were taken in Aperture Priority mode on a tripod. The only thing that changed was the metering mode.
Let’s take a look at the reason for the changes between the images.
Camera Metering Modes
The following images represent the areas of the scene the camera uses to determine the correct exposure. When using the evaluative metering feature the camera takes a measurement of the light from the entire scene to determine the exposure. Switching to center weighted average reduces the metering area of the scene to a box around the center of the frame. Finally, spot metering measures the scene in a very localized area at the center of the frame.
Evaluative metering averages the light from the whole scene to determine the average. The average value tries to include details in the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.
Evaluative (or average) metering is a great tool for most scenes. It is an easy and straightforward method of capturing what you see. You simply put your camera up to your eye, frame your scene, check focus, and click. No fuss. No muss.
Center-weighted average is the next metering mode available. Instead of averaging the light from the entire scene, the camera takes a measurement from a certain amount of the scene around the scene center. This is a good method to use when your subject is near the center of the scene and you want to expose it properly.
Spot metering is the third way your camera can evaluate a scene. It is also the trickiest of the three modes because it measures light in very specific locations. This means you can get unexpected results easily if you are not careful. I usually use spot metering with manual mode to exercise full control over my exposure.
I used spot metering to obtain the shutter speeds for the various areas of the Calgary scene.
Go Forth and Meter Confidently
Now that you, hopefully, have a better understanding of how your camera sees the world it’s time to get creative. I’d encourage you to pick a scene to recreate the exercises in this article.
Set your camera to aperture priority. Select spot metering. Meter different areas of the scene you wish to capture to record the different shutter speeds. This will help you start to visualize the dynamic range of your scene.
Then, place your camera on a tripod. Still in aperture priority mode take a series of photographs using the different metering modes. This part is important because it will help cement the results of using the different modes for a given scene.
Finally, import your photos to your favorite editing software to evaluate the different results on a bigger screen. After one or two experiments, the lessons of this article will become valuable tools in your photography toolbox.
Thank you for letting me share in your photographic journey. As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Also, feel free to post some of your images in the comments below. See you all on the trail.
Matt is a creative fine art landscape and commercial photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He stepped away from a successful engineering career in the midwest and moved to California to chase his dream of becoming a full-time professional photographer. Over the last two years, Matt has traveled the world chasing light and capturing one-of-a-kind landscapes.
He enjoys sharing his adventures with family, friends, and strangers along the way. When he is not hiking to a remote location, Matt enjoys volunteering for local and national conservation organizations. His mission is to share the world with people, inspire a sense of adventure, and to make a difference for the planet.