Fine Tune Your Exposures With Spot Metering - Digital Photography School

Fine Tune Your Exposures With Spot Metering

The metering systems of today’s digital cameras are light years beyond cameras of just 10 to 15 years ago. What this means is that in many situations, the camera’s meter, left to its own devices, is going to do an excellent job at getting a good exposure. While evaluative (or matrix) metering and center-weighted average metering take into account the entire scene, albeit in different ways, spot metering mode provides a tool for metering only the part of the scene you as the photographer consider most important.

I used spot metering on this image  due to the sun setting over her shoulder, making the sun and sand exceptionally bright behind her. By metering on the model's shoulder, I was able to maintain detail in the shadow areas, without hurting the drama of the lighting.

I used spot metering on this image due to the sun setting over her shoulder, making the sun and sand exceptionally bright behind her. By metering on the model’s shoulder, I was able to maintain detail in the shadow areas, without hurting the drama of the lighting.

Spot metering is especially helpful when the subject is much brighter or darker than the background, and the subject does not make up a majority of the image.   Most cameras, when set to spot metering, are set to measure an area of the image as small as 1.5% of the total image area.  This varies from camera to camera, so check your manual for the exact specification.  In addition, while most consumer cameras use the center of the image for spot metering, usually defined by a circle in the viewfinder, others allow for tying spot metering to the active AF point, which then ties your choice of focus point to the meter.

When I saw this shot I immediately knew what I wanted.  I did not want to completely lose the detail in the dress, but I did want a near-silhouette effect to add to the mood of the image.  Using the spot meter, I metered off the sky, and then dialed in +1/3 of exposure compensation to bring back some dress detail.

When I saw this shot I immediately knew what I wanted. I did not want to completely lose the detail in the dress, but I did want a near-silhouette effect to add to the mood of the image. Using the spot meter, I metered off the sky, and then dialed in +1/3 of exposure compensation to bring back some dress detail.

Generally, if you’re spot metering, and your camera’s spot meter is at the center of the image area, you will have to use Exposure Lock as well. This is because if the meter only works at the center of the image, and the area you’re metering is NOT the center of the image, you will need to recompose after metering.  Exposure Lock ensures that your exposure is locked in once you have metered the scene, before you recompose the shot. Exposure lock is generally activated by pressing a button on your camera while metering.  It will then hold the exposure you locked in, at least until you release the shutter button.  Some cameras will hold the metered reading until you deactivate Exposure Lock. On Canon cameras, Exposure Lock is achieved by pressing the (*) button.  On Nikons, exposure can be locked by pressing AE-L.

When you’re dealing with a high contrast situation, such as a bright background with a dimly lit subject, or a dark background with a brightly lit subject, switching your metering mode to Spot Metering can be an easy way of ensuring that your exposure is exactly where you want it.

I was shooting the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park when I spied this couple sitting on a rock.  I moved around behind them, and spot-metered on the sky. Because the meter tries to make the metered area a mid-tone, I knew it would silhouette my subjects perfectly.

I was shooting the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park when I spied this couple sitting on a rock. I moved around behind them, and spot-metered on the sky. Because the meter tries to make the metered area a mid-tone, I knew it would silhouette my subjects perfectly.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ mridula

    I have never tried spot metering before so one new thing for me to try out!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://lenstop.blogspot.com/ Arun

    informative, well explained with examples. thanks for sharing.

    regards

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    Glad to know someone is breaking metering down without going overboard. Great explanation.

  • Jay

    Good article. Spot metering is very useful especially for zone system.

  • Scottc

    The exposure lock is a great, and very often overlooked, point.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • Tim

    Good article. I’ve been using spot metering for some time. I moved auto focus to the back button so I can just hold the shutter half way down and recompose. It’s an extra step but I like the control.

  • http://www.jurphoto.com Jan

    Good article and examples.
    I would like to add another very useful usage : snow.
    When making photos with snow, I usually go to Manual, then I spot meter on the snow and dial in a +1, 2/3 (basically just below +2, because +2 was too much in my experience, but you may just try and check the histogram). The spot meter measures for grey, and obviously we want snow to be white, therefore this compensation is necessary. In addition such scenes usually have a lot of contrast, so we get most out of it when the snow is as bright as possible without being blown (exposure to the right basically).
    These photos http://www.jurphoto.com/#/Voyages/My%20region/Alpha%20Loup/ where made using this technique, there I basically ignored the exposure of the wolves or shades under the trees, and just exposed for the snow.

  • http://www.dangling-thoughts.com NiteshB

    I use his technique sometimes. The doubt I often get is while using flash, spot metering plays any role?

    Here are some example images I took using spot metering.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/niteshbhatia/7438687722/in/photostream/lightbox/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/niteshbhatia/7419634004/in/photostream

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    That was the best & clearest explanation of spot metering I have read. However, I do not know why anyone would go through all that hassle, just shoot in manual exposure mode.

  • http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com.au/ Sita

    I forgot about this function! I learnt about it a while ago and somehow didn’t have much use of it back then. Thanks for reminding me of this again!

    Photography: http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com/
    Lifestyle/mix: http://sprinkleorainbow.wordpress.com/

  • Tim

    My advice with spot metering and use of flash…understanding that the flash exposure settings should be set for the subject affected by the flash. The camera metering should expose for everything else. (ie background). The aperture will affect the amount of flash hitting the sensor, but not shutter speed. Due to the average speedlight at full power only lasts for ~1/850 of a sec. So longer shutter will brighten the picture not affected by the flash. With spot metering and flash, I would first determine how bright my background should be and possibly use exposure compensation if say I want it darker by a stop. Take a sample pic with no flash. Then, when I’m happy with that, add the flash and get the flash exposure the way I want it. So I’d have to aim the spot at the background in that case, hold the shutter half way down, recompose, and shoot. Just know that if it’s too dark, the shutter speed may drag too much and you may get camera shake or motion blur. Flash will add a lot more to the whole equation.

  • http://www.dangling-thoughts.com NiteshB

    @tim that cleared my doubt pretty well. Thanks a lot. I’ll try it out.

  • http://www.MelGattis.com Mel G.

    My first post on DPS! Thanks Rick, Tim and everyone else who left comments. This article highlights an area I need to improve upon so now I’m going to practice it. Thanks.

    http://www.MelGattis.com
    http://www.facebook.com/melgattisphotography

  • Geoff

    Great article, thanks.

  • Juan

    Hello everyone.

    I changed quickly to spot metering after acquiring my 450D. When I started using it I noticed most pictures I was snaping were closer to what I wanted. I also had to change to back-button auto focusing and exposure lock with the shutter for absolute control. It is like shooting in manual. However, I often change to manual when I figure the conditions I am shooting in are going to last for a while and are not as easy to control with Av mode. It really helps improve your photography. I recommend everyone give it a try.

  • http://www.hachiphotography.com david

    Love spot metering. I use it 90% of the time. It is so useful. Great to have a read through this in case I was missing anything.

  • Edgar

    OK, thanks for this. But if I am using a Nikon D3100, how do I do my metering.?

  • Simon

    Thanks Rick, you have given me some good ideas.
    I really like the way you have explained this technique.

  • Dave Rachow

    Great article Rick. Now I know how to get the effect I want without under exposing. Thanks.

  • Dave

    I’m surprised that the meter’s behaviour is not discussed more since it’s not what most noobs anticipate. For example, pure white seen by the meter will adjust the exposure to try to make it look “Photographic Grey” which is around 18% grey, or considerably under exposed. Many of us carry around a Photographic Grey card which we have the model hold up next to the face so that we can nail both exposure and white balance.

    The examples shown tend to be very contrasty and the photographer make significant adjustments to the meter reading in a couple of cases.. That’s great, but a noob is unlikely to catch all that’s going on. They’re sitting there thinking, “I’ll set my camera to Spot and take my reading off the baby’s white christening gown and it’ll be perfect.” In reality, it’ll likely be under exposed, unless the noob happens to take a reading off of a shadowed spot on the gown.

    Anyway, I think that spot metering only makes sense for those that fully understand Photographic Grey or in very high contrast situations.

  • ralph

    good article but how, pray tell, do you make the adjustments mentioned and still capture the bridal couple as they’re walking out of the church? good anticipation, perhaps, but clearly nothing that can be done in an instant as the caption implies.

  • kevin

    The second photograph (bride and groom) may have been taken after the sky was spot metered but opening + 1/3 would not create a sky that bright. The meter gives you middle gray (18%). To get the sky that bright you must open at least 2 stops = + 2.

  • Frankd1279

    I’ve often overlooked spot metering (mostly because I thought I would screw-up the shot) but mostly because I didn’t fully understand it’s capabilities. Thank you for the article. I think I’m going to be a little more “daring” in the future.

  • Carlos Comesanas

    You are full of s…! Are you telling me that in that second example you had time to do all of that before that couple just walked out of that door? Analyze the scene, decided where to spot meter, analyze again and decide that you needed to compensate that shot to get some of the white of the dress and in how much and do it? Come on! That was just a lucky shot!

  • http://nilI Thomas George`

    I .Hopes again you will write some important notes on photography?have red the article. Very very useful tips i got. my hearty thanks

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    @Carlos- Thanks for your subtlety. I am not “full of s__”, as you so eloquently put it. The couple was standing in the doorway for several minutes before stepping out. I had plenty of time to meter, compose, focus, compensate, and shoot. Having the knowledge and foresight to do all that quickly is what makes me a professional. I knew the couple would be walking out that door. I positioned myself there specifically for this moment. I was ready when I had to be.

  • http://www.jurphoto.com Jan

    Hi Carlos,
    You are certainly right. It also crossed my mind when I read the caption. But please, no need to insult. We are all photography fans, and the author did the effort to write this interesting article and to share his knowledge. In my opinion he achieved his goal: to interest people to spot metering. I mean this is digital-photography-school and not some professional-talk-to-professional web site.
    Indeed, two important things would have been interesting to talk about: how the spot metering measures 18% grey, and also that compensation may (or I should say- will probably) be needed.
    And also, from 18% grey to pure white, it is usually +2 stops, which for me was usually too much, so I usually use 1/3 stop less.

  • http://www.jurphoto.com Jan

    Well, meanwhile the author, Rick gave his opinion and clearly explained how this photo was made… so I guess that you can ignore my previous message :).
    Well done Rick.

  • Len

    Surely a good professional Wedding Photographer would have been standing in front of the couple to get the first image of them leaving the church as husband and wife, not standing in the dark behind them!

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    @Len- There was one in front of them. I work with another photographer. Our assignments are clearly spelled out beforehand. Because of where we were positioned INSIDE the church, he was the one who shot outside the doors. I handled them walking back down the aisle, and then when they passed, I got the shot of them from behind the open doors. We miss NOTHING when we shoot together.

  • Terri

    Just curious, can a sillouette be taken with a great cell phone? I see spot meter on my. GALAXY S lll . I’ve been trying to figure out how to photo this neat shadow (sil) of a floral arrangement bouncing off my white ceiling around 5a.m. each morning. If not possible, I guess I’ll dig out the real digi.. Getting up @ that time of day isn’t usual and I’m not awake enough to fiddle around. Maybe I should give myself a handle” the sleepy photographer” lol. Thamks. I learned a lot!

  • Donna

    Rick thank you for a good lesson in exposure. I love this photo and have come back to it many times. I only now read the comments after the article and I have to say I cannot believe that some people would read this and actually post negative comments. These articles are posted to learn from, if you don’t get anything positive from them then just move on.

  • Gilbert

    @Jan

    It is good you mentioned 18% gray, because when you white on 18% gray and also measure the EV on 18% gray, your pictures get an way better quality and more natural color.

    Those 18% gray whiting boards are specially made for digital sensors, or are the sensors made on the 18% gray-boards? Anyway i got the tip in the past from an sales representative from Nikon when i wanted to buy an spot-meter. For sure he is not an good sales man, but from photography he got knowledge.

    http://lifehacker.com/5659324/use-an-18-gray-card-for-better-color-balance-in-your-photos

  • Barry E Warren

    Great read on spot metering, Thanks for sharing.

  • Rey

    Thanks for sharing.Great info

  • JD

    Thx for those precious tips

  • http://www.wayfaringwanderer.com/ Wayfaring Wanderer

    I use spot metering pretty exclusively because it helps me to get the exposures that are more my style because I like bright images. AELock comes in handy, for sure!

Some older comments

  • Gilbert

    June 3, 2013 02:59 am

    @Jan

    It is good you mentioned 18% gray, because when you white on 18% gray and also measure the EV on 18% gray, your pictures get an way better quality and more natural color.

    Those 18% gray whiting boards are specially made for digital sensors, or are the sensors made on the 18% gray-boards? Anyway i got the tip in the past from an sales representative from Nikon when i wanted to buy an spot-meter. For sure he is not an good sales man, but from photography he got knowledge.

    http://lifehacker.com/5659324/use-an-18-gray-card-for-better-color-balance-in-your-photos

  • Donna

    May 10, 2013 11:03 am

    Rick thank you for a good lesson in exposure. I love this photo and have come back to it many times. I only now read the comments after the article and I have to say I cannot believe that some people would read this and actually post negative comments. These articles are posted to learn from, if you don't get anything positive from them then just move on.

  • Terri

    April 17, 2013 09:45 pm

    Just curious, can a sillouette be taken with a great cell phone? I see spot meter on my. GALAXY S lll . I've been trying to figure out how to photo this neat shadow (sil) of a floral arrangement bouncing off my white ceiling around 5a.m. each morning. If not possible, I guess I'll dig out the real digi.. Getting up @ that time of day isn't usual and I'm not awake enough to fiddle around. Maybe I should give myself a handle" the sleepy photographer" lol. Thamks. I learned a lot!

  • Rick Berk

    April 17, 2013 03:37 pm

    @Len- There was one in front of them. I work with another photographer. Our assignments are clearly spelled out beforehand. Because of where we were positioned INSIDE the church, he was the one who shot outside the doors. I handled them walking back down the aisle, and then when they passed, I got the shot of them from behind the open doors. We miss NOTHING when we shoot together.

  • Len

    April 16, 2013 08:04 pm

    Surely a good professional Wedding Photographer would have been standing in front of the couple to get the first image of them leaving the church as husband and wife, not standing in the dark behind them!

  • Jan

    April 15, 2013 03:21 am

    Well, meanwhile the author, Rick gave his opinion and clearly explained how this photo was made... so I guess that you can ignore my previous message :).
    Well done Rick.

  • Jan

    April 15, 2013 03:17 am

    Hi Carlos,
    You are certainly right. It also crossed my mind when I read the caption. But please, no need to insult. We are all photography fans, and the author did the effort to write this interesting article and to share his knowledge. In my opinion he achieved his goal: to interest people to spot metering. I mean this is digital-photography-school and not some professional-talk-to-professional web site.
    Indeed, two important things would have been interesting to talk about: how the spot metering measures 18% grey, and also that compensation may (or I should say- will probably) be needed.
    And also, from 18% grey to pure white, it is usually +2 stops, which for me was usually too much, so I usually use 1/3 stop less.

  • Rick Berk

    April 15, 2013 03:14 am

    @Carlos- Thanks for your subtlety. I am not "full of s__", as you so eloquently put it. The couple was standing in the doorway for several minutes before stepping out. I had plenty of time to meter, compose, focus, compensate, and shoot. Having the knowledge and foresight to do all that quickly is what makes me a professional. I knew the couple would be walking out that door. I positioned myself there specifically for this moment. I was ready when I had to be.

  • Thomas George`

    April 14, 2013 05:58 pm

    I .Hopes again you will write some important notes on photography?have red the article. Very very useful tips i got. my hearty thanks

  • Carlos Comesanas

    April 13, 2013 06:42 pm

    You are full of s...! Are you telling me that in that second example you had time to do all of that before that couple just walked out of that door? Analyze the scene, decided where to spot meter, analyze again and decide that you needed to compensate that shot to get some of the white of the dress and in how much and do it? Come on! That was just a lucky shot!

  • Frankd1279

    April 13, 2013 05:32 am

    I've often overlooked spot metering (mostly because I thought I would screw-up the shot) but mostly because I didn't fully understand it's capabilities. Thank you for the article. I think I'm going to be a little more "daring" in the future.

  • kevin

    April 13, 2013 05:17 am

    The second photograph (bride and groom) may have been taken after the sky was spot metered but opening + 1/3 would not create a sky that bright. The meter gives you middle gray (18%). To get the sky that bright you must open at least 2 stops = + 2.

  • ralph

    April 13, 2013 01:21 am

    good article but how, pray tell, do you make the adjustments mentioned and still capture the bridal couple as they're walking out of the church? good anticipation, perhaps, but clearly nothing that can be done in an instant as the caption implies.

  • Dave

    April 12, 2013 11:51 pm

    I'm surprised that the meter's behaviour is not discussed more since it's not what most noobs anticipate. For example, pure white seen by the meter will adjust the exposure to try to make it look "Photographic Grey" which is around 18% grey, or considerably under exposed. Many of us carry around a Photographic Grey card which we have the model hold up next to the face so that we can nail both exposure and white balance.

    The examples shown tend to be very contrasty and the photographer make significant adjustments to the meter reading in a couple of cases.. That's great, but a noob is unlikely to catch all that's going on. They're sitting there thinking, "I'll set my camera to Spot and take my reading off the baby's white christening gown and it'll be perfect." In reality, it'll likely be under exposed, unless the noob happens to take a reading off of a shadowed spot on the gown.

    Anyway, I think that spot metering only makes sense for those that fully understand Photographic Grey or in very high contrast situations.

  • Dave Rachow

    April 12, 2013 10:38 pm

    Great article Rick. Now I know how to get the effect I want without under exposing. Thanks.

  • Simon

    April 12, 2013 12:58 pm

    Thanks Rick, you have given me some good ideas.
    I really like the way you have explained this technique.

  • Edgar

    April 12, 2013 12:40 pm

    OK, thanks for this. But if I am using a Nikon D3100, how do I do my metering.?

  • david

    April 12, 2013 12:39 pm

    Love spot metering. I use it 90% of the time. It is so useful. Great to have a read through this in case I was missing anything.

  • Juan

    April 12, 2013 11:56 am

    Hello everyone.

    I changed quickly to spot metering after acquiring my 450D. When I started using it I noticed most pictures I was snaping were closer to what I wanted. I also had to change to back-button auto focusing and exposure lock with the shutter for absolute control. It is like shooting in manual. However, I often change to manual when I figure the conditions I am shooting in are going to last for a while and are not as easy to control with Av mode. It really helps improve your photography. I recommend everyone give it a try.

  • Geoff

    April 11, 2013 10:30 pm

    Great article, thanks.

  • Mel G.

    April 10, 2013 11:01 pm

    My first post on DPS! Thanks Rick, Tim and everyone else who left comments. This article highlights an area I need to improve upon so now I'm going to practice it. Thanks.

    www.MelGattis.com
    www.facebook.com/melgattisphotography

  • NiteshB

    April 10, 2013 06:34 pm

    @tim that cleared my doubt pretty well. Thanks a lot. I'll try it out.

  • Tim

    April 10, 2013 02:13 pm

    My advice with spot metering and use of flash...understanding that the flash exposure settings should be set for the subject affected by the flash. The camera metering should expose for everything else. (ie background). The aperture will affect the amount of flash hitting the sensor, but not shutter speed. Due to the average speedlight at full power only lasts for ~1/850 of a sec. So longer shutter will brighten the picture not affected by the flash. With spot metering and flash, I would first determine how bright my background should be and possibly use exposure compensation if say I want it darker by a stop. Take a sample pic with no flash. Then, when I'm happy with that, add the flash and get the flash exposure the way I want it. So I'd have to aim the spot at the background in that case, hold the shutter half way down, recompose, and shoot. Just know that if it's too dark, the shutter speed may drag too much and you may get camera shake or motion blur. Flash will add a lot more to the whole equation.

  • Sita

    April 10, 2013 11:40 am

    I forgot about this function! I learnt about it a while ago and somehow didn't have much use of it back then. Thanks for reminding me of this again!
    ---
    Photography: http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com/
    Lifestyle/mix: http://sprinkleorainbow.wordpress.com/

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    April 10, 2013 01:10 am

    That was the best & clearest explanation of spot metering I have read. However, I do not know why anyone would go through all that hassle, just shoot in manual exposure mode.

  • NiteshB

    April 9, 2013 09:18 pm

    I use his technique sometimes. The doubt I often get is while using flash, spot metering plays any role?

    Here are some example images I took using spot metering.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/niteshbhatia/7438687722/in/photostream/lightbox/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/niteshbhatia/7419634004/in/photostream

  • Jan

    April 9, 2013 06:13 pm

    Good article and examples.
    I would like to add another very useful usage : snow.
    When making photos with snow, I usually go to Manual, then I spot meter on the snow and dial in a +1, 2/3 (basically just below +2, because +2 was too much in my experience, but you may just try and check the histogram). The spot meter measures for grey, and obviously we want snow to be white, therefore this compensation is necessary. In addition such scenes usually have a lot of contrast, so we get most out of it when the snow is as bright as possible without being blown (exposure to the right basically).
    These photos http://www.jurphoto.com/#/Voyages/My%20region/Alpha%20Loup/ where made using this technique, there I basically ignored the exposure of the wolves or shades under the trees, and just exposed for the snow.

  • Tim

    April 9, 2013 12:03 pm

    Good article. I've been using spot metering for some time. I moved auto focus to the back button so I can just hold the shutter half way down and recompose. It's an extra step but I like the control.

  • Scottc

    April 9, 2013 09:21 am

    The exposure lock is a great, and very often overlooked, point.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • Jay

    April 9, 2013 09:06 am

    Good article. Spot metering is very useful especially for zone system.

  • Jai Catalano

    April 9, 2013 08:43 am

    Glad to know someone is breaking metering down without going overboard. Great explanation.

  • Arun

    April 9, 2013 05:05 am

    informative, well explained with examples. thanks for sharing.

    regards

  • mridula

    April 9, 2013 03:17 am

    I have never tried spot metering before so one new thing for me to try out!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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