Metering for high contrast scenes – How a spot-meter helps

Do you rely on your camera’s inbuilt exposure meter when shooting pictures? If so, do you know how to choose between matrix, centre-weighted or spot metering to ensure that you get the best exposure for the most important parts of your scene?

There is nothing wrong with using your cameras inbuilt light-meter. In fact, the camera manufacturers have gone to great lengths to provide photographers with sophisticated camera light-meters to help us find the correct exposure for a scene. However, there are still times when using a handheld meter can be advantageous.

Take the scene below, this was an early morning view that presented itself to me. However, the sky is very bright and has no detail and the shadow areas very dark. I did not want to burn out the sky or lose detail in my important shadow areas. 



The problem is, how do you meter for a scene like this?

A real personal frustration of mine is that most camera manufacturers do not allow you to use multiple spot meter readings and then average them out. Which, in the image above would be very helpful in assessing the contrast range of this scene.

we have a number of options here in terms of assessing and finding the correct exposure.

  •  In camera
    • Matrix meter the scene
      • Use the suggested aperture / shutter combination.
      •  Use the camera histogram to help dial in some expoure compensation to capture the entire scene.
    • Use centre weighted metering
      • And assume that the most important subject area is in the centre and that it will be exposed correctly. (we risk blowing out the sky though)
    • Use spot metering
      • Find a mid-tone
      •  Expose for the highlights
      • Expose for the shadows
      • Meter the important highlight area, meter the important shadow area, average the two readings to pin the exposure to our most important highlight, shadow areas where we still want detail.

My prefered method and the most accurate for pinning my exposure for scenes like this is to use a spot meter and meter for the most important highlight and shadow area where you want still want some detail and average the exposure between the two.

I use the Sekonic DigitlaMaster L-785

Metering for Highlight, Midtone and Shadow

This allows me to

  • Take multiple spot readings and store them in memory
  • Average out the meter readings
  • Check the contrast range in the scene from the averaged meter readings
  • Dial in any exposure adjustments necessary on my meter and set the expsoure on my camera.

Using the concept of the zone system and knowing my camera sensors exposure latitude when shooting RAW images, I was able to ensure that my exposure was correct for any post-development.

Final image

Working this way guarantees that my RAW file will contain all the data I need to produce the perfect image with the minimum of post-processing corrections.

When shooting in JPEG, your JPEGs have less exposure latitude, so it is even more important to pin your exposure (get the optimum exposure for the scene)

Whilst camera sensors and metering have come a long way alog with photo editing software there is still a place for a hand-held meter.

My personal experience of using a hand-held meter is that I tend to always get better exposed images whether shooting JPEG or RAW. Why? Because a good hand-held meter with both incident and spot metering cababilities can help you undertand and meter for nearly every lighting situation.

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