Metering to Achieve the Right Exposure

I was leading a workshop about off-camera flash and had been discussing lighting. I paused and to make sure everyone was following and asked if there were any questions. One participant responded, “I don’t know what you mean by metering each light differently?  What is a meter?”

Caught off guard, I replied, “It’s how you get a proper exposure”.  He blankly looked at me, but fortunately, before I confused him more, another in the class said, “no, he means in his camera”.   I realized he had just asked a question (maybe one of the most important of the day) I should have anticipated early in my lecture.

Today’s high tech cameras are wonders at balancing all the light in a scene and many photographers unfortunately choose one of the programmed modes, point their cameras, release the shutter, and never look at anything on the camera but the LCD again.  Even using a flash, just the right amount of light almost always seems to be perfect. However, if we want to control and master light, whether it’s the sun, a reflector, a camera mounted flash, or off camera lights, we need to understand how that light is bouncing off the subjects we are about photograph.  Why would we bother when these newfangled cameras are marvelous?

That photographer in my lighting workshop had never used his camera on anything but the Aperture priority mode. That means he selected the aperture and the camera’s computer selected the shutterspeed.

In this workshop we were directing one flash to brighten the background, one to create a highlight on the subject’s cheek, and another high to the front as main illumination. Each of those lights had different intensity, and it’s the meter (consider it a tool) in the camera that we use to easily tell us what each individual exposure is so we can control the image.

Here is an example of critical metering I wrote about on 6 September; “The guest had a perfectly good camera, but criticized it, and said he wished he had a better one because the backlighted couple we were photographing were being recorded as silhouettes.”  That photographer had his camera set on a program mode and was of the belief the camera was capable of solving the high contrast lighting.

The camera’s computer couldn’t determine correct exposure with a strong changing backlight, and since he didn’t know how to use the camera’s meter all he could do was claim it was the camera’s fault.

On that day I began by metering to determining the overall exposure. I started with an ambient exposure, and by reading my camera’s meter, I decided to stop down enough to make the ambient backlight an underexposure, then added a flash slightly off camera which brought up the luminance of my subject so that, unlike that confused photographer that didn’t use or pay attention to his meter, I ended with a very usable photograph that didn’t need to be saved in postproduction.

I prefer using my camera on manual, but in both situations those photographers could also have used their camera’s Exposure Compensation (EC) feature. EC works great, and worth reading the instructions to learn, but for the application at my workshop, and at that fast moving outdoor wedding I prefer the “M” or manual mode. However, I must admit that although I like using exposure compensation, as it is fast and efficient, I get involved thinking about other things and forget to reset the EC. Staying on manual, and using the meter display at the bottom of my viewfinder helps me to remember.

Using the metering tool determines how the camera sets exposure, and today’s cameras make it easy for the photographer to choose a metering mode for the shooting conditions. Understanding the meter tool allows for control over the different exposure modes that determine how the camera will set the shutter speed and aperture.  I can only stress that readers who have DSLR cameras learn to use the meter.

Everyone’s comments are welcome.

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