Spot Metering 101

If you’re a control freak (like me), you likely already have your camera set to manual shooting mode. This way, you’re able to set ISO, shutter speed, and aperture on your own without the camera interfering. But if you’re not also using spot metering, the camera is still making some decisions for you. Spot metering gives you ultimate control over the exposure of your images.

What is Spot Metering?

By default, most DSLRs use matrix (also called evaluative) or center-weighted metering to average out multiple areas within the frame using intricate algorithms. In the case of center-weighted averaging, more emphasis is placed on the exposure readings taken in the center of the frame. With spot metering, you tell the camera exactly which spot you want to use for setting your exposure without regard to any other points in the image. A small point in the center of the frame is used to take the exposure reading.

When to Use Spot Metering

Evaluative metering works well in fairly even lighting, and more sophisticated systems are versatile even with varied light. However, the camera doesn’t know what you’re using for a main subject. When you’re shooting into light, shooting into a dark background, or shooting a scene with a lot of variance between shadows and highlights, spot metering is a smart choice. The precision of spot metering lets you determine the most important part of your scene and expose for that particular spot; the camera is not left guessing.

Spot Metering

(The Soloist by digitalpimp.)
Spot-metering let the photographer get the exposure of his subject, the woman, just right in high-contrast lighting conditions.

 

Some photographers prefer to use spot metering all the time and master adjusting exposure quickly. Others switch between metering modes based on the shooting conditions. For example, spot metering may not be the best choice for fast-moving subjects like athletes, pets, or children under changing lighting conditions when you don’t necessarily have time to adjust your metering between each shot.

How to Use Spot Metering

  1. Check your camera manual for instructions, and switch your metering system to spot metering.
  2. Choose the point in your scene that you want to use for setting your exposure. For example, you might use your subject’s forehead if you want to expose for his or her skin tone.
  3. Put the center point of your viewfinder over the spot in the scene you want to use for metering.
  4. Using the zone system, adjust your exposure until it’s at the level you want that particular spot to appear in your photo. For example, if you’re using a spot in the scene that’s the same brightness as middle gray, you’d set exposure to 0. If you’re using a spot on the face of a person with light skin, you’d set your exposure to about +1. But if you’re using a spot of green grass, you’d set the exposure to somewhere around -2/3.
  5. With your exposure locked, recompose and take the picture.

Give it a Try

Test out how the different metering systems work by finding a high-contrast or backlit situation. Take a photo first using evaluative metering, then take an identical shot using center-weighted metering. For your third shot, switch to spot metering. Compare the shots and try them under other conditions to see which system you prefer for different types of lighting.

Mastery of your camera’s manual shooting mode gives you creative freedom. Using spot-metering adds yet another element of artistic control to your photography. If you find yourself frustrated with the exposure of your images, switch over to spot-metering and explore its advantages.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit nicoalprice.com for more info.

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