October 9, 2011

#39 – Understand what your meter is saying

That's your meter near the top of the screen with the numbers -2, -1 -0, etc.

Beep. Blink. Click.

Ever notice that your camera is sorta like a chatty best friend? It always seems to be trying to tell you one more thing. The autofocus is locked (beep). The shot is too bright (blink). You just took a picture (click).  Want to make great memories with your camera? It’s important to pay attention to these cues, and while we’ve talked about focus and shutter speed in the past, we haven’t talked about your meter.

Every modern camera comes with a built in way to tell you if your photo is properly exposed called a light meter. It measures light that bounces off your subject., showing you if you need more light or less light in the photo.

I use my meter to give me an initial rough estimate of things – and that’s what a meter is good for, giving you a ballpark estimate of things. When it comes to the details of an image, I’ll actually look at my screen (too dark?) and depend on my histogram.

Your meter can be helpful in the same way. Just be sure to know a few things first...

Understand the scale

This is what a meter scale looks like (even though this isn't the actual meter).

Your camera meter is a line with a “0” in the middle. If your camera thinks your shot is underexposed (too dark), it’ll show you on the left side of the shot (-1, -2) – overexposed (too bright) and you’re looking to the right (1, 2...). These numbers tell you the amount of light that’s getting into the camera. They work exponentially – a +1 is double the light of 0, +2 is double the light of +1 (four times the amount of light than 0).

Figure out the type of metering your camera is using
Cameras have a bunch of different types of metering modes (check your manual to see what kind yours uses). “Centre-weighted metering” for example tells your camera to only measure a specific area in the centre of the frame. “Matrix or evaluative metering” looks at the entire frame and tries to average everything out. I tend to switch between modes depending on what I’m doing – Matrix is great for landscapes. “Spot” is better for portraits.

Know that your meter is flawed
On camera meters measure the light that bounces off stuff (reflected light) and that can sometimes fool your meter. It’s always best for you to look at your shot to see if it’s right. And what’s “right” really depends on you. Your camera uses a specific shade of gray to measure what it thinks is right. Again, use it as a basic guideline, rather than an absolute must do.

Don’t overexpose

That's the meter there on the right -- see how the dash in the middle?
That's the camera telling you it thinks you have a proper exposure.
The big advice I give with meters is to try and avoid totally overexposing your picture. If an image is too dark, you can usually salvage it. Digital cameras are a little fussy about overexposed images, it can be tough-to-impossible to fix those kinds of images. 

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