How to Learn Your Camera's Light Meter and Master Manual Mode

How to Learn Your Camera’s Light Meter and Master Manual Mode

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Most cameras have a few different shooting modes such as Automatic, Aperture Priority (A or Av), Shutter Priority (S or Tv), and Program. It’s not uncommon for people to take a majority of their photos in Automatic mode since it generally does a good job of getting decent results, though more advanced photographers will often use Aperture or Shutter Priority. Shooting in Manual, however, might seem intimidating and highly complex but once you understand a few basics it starts to make a lot more sense. Certainly you should have a working understanding of the three components of the exposure triangle: shutter, aperture, and ISO.

But in order to get the most out of your camera you will need to know how to use a simple, but incredibly powerful, tool that functions as the glue that binds everything together: the light meter.

purple-flowers

Nestled quietly at the bottom of your camera’s viewfinder or Live View display is a small block of lines or bullets accompanied by a few numbers. You might also have noticed a little triangle moving back and forth, or some vertical hash marks appearing and disappearing from time to time, in a fashion that seems nonsensical or completely random. If these numbers and symbols make no sense at all, don’t worry, you are not alone. It can be a bit confusing to understand the light meter at first. But once you get the fundamentals you will probably find yourself growing much more confident in understanding how photography works. Maybe you’ll even venture out of Automatic and into Manual for the sheer amount of control you are able to have over your photos.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of the light meter itself, I want you to take a look at it in relation to the other data shown in your camera’s viewfinder. Note that this diagram is highly simplified and your viewfinder might look slightly different, or include other information, but all cameras (except some point-and-shoots) include the elements shown here.

light-meter-master

In this example the camera’s shutter is set at 1/90 of a second, the lens aperture is f/4.8, and the ISO is 400. The light meter is a readout that shows whether these values are going to result in a photo that is properly exposed – that is, a photo that is neither too light or too dark. The small triangle hovering over the zero in the light meter shows that the exposure is correct, and when the shutter button is pressed the picture will look fine.  But, I’ll show you a few pictures to see what happens as the camera’s exposure settings are changed. If you want to try this yourself you will need to have your camera in Manual mode, and I would recommend reading the rest of this article with your camera at your side so you can do a bit of experimenting on your own.

For my first shot, I’ll show you a photo that is underexposed and then illustrate how the camera settings can be adjusted to get the proper exposure. The values shown on these images are exactly what I used in my camera to get these shots, and nothing has been edited or retouched in Photoshop.

landscape-under

Here you can see that the shutter speed is 1/1000 of a second, the aperture of the lens is f/4, and the ISO is 200. The camera’s viewfinder displays this information along with the light meter, and note how the triangle has moved all the way over to -3 EV. (EV stands for Exposure Value, and technically this image is underexposed by three stops. Don’t worry about the technical jargon though! For now just follow along with the examples to see what happens when the exposure values are altered.

To get a properly exposed photo you are essentially trying to re-create what your eye already sees, but right now the light meter tells us that the photo will be way too dark. And indeed, the resulting photo turned out just how the light meter predicted: it’s so dark it looks like it was taken at night instead of mid-afternoon.

So what can be done to fix this? By adjusting the aperture, shutter, or ISO you can change the exposure settings with the goal of getting that little triangle to hover above the zero. Watch what happens when I change the shutter speed but I leave the aperture and ISO fixed at their present values:

landscape-over

By altering the shutter speed from 1/1000 of a second to 1/15 of a second, the photo is now too bright – exactly as the light meter said it would. It is overexposed by three stops, and the image is virtually unusable. Because the viewfinder itself does not change as the aperture, shutter, and ISO are adjusted, you have to rely on your light meter to tell you how bright or dark the image will be. And sure enough, the triangle is hovering above the +3, which tells us the photo will be too bright. Here is what a properly exposed photo looks like.

landscape-correct

Finally, a good picture! By adjusting the shutter speed to 1/125 of a second, I was able to get the triangle to hover above the zero, which means the photo would be properly exposed. Note that there is no one correct way to do this, and a proper exposure could have also been obtained by changing the aperture or ISO instead of the shutter speed, or a combination of all three. For instance, I could have left the shutter at 1/1000 and increased the ISO to get the same result.

Why bother with all this?

At this point you might be wondering why you would want to go to all this trouble when you can put your camera in Automatic mode and it will just take care of everything. The answer lies in the fact that you, not your camera, know exactly what kind of photo you want to take. Your camera does not know whether you are shooting landscapes, portraits, sports, starry nights, kids, pets, or anything else. All it sees is how much light is coming in, and it tries to adjust the shutter, aperture, and ISO to get that triangle to hover above the zero. But if you know how to control those values yourself, you can open up vast new areas of photographic creativity that Automatic mode can never do for you.

As another example, here is a picture of some berries, but again notice how it is underexposed by three stops.

berries-underesposed

There are several settings I could adjust in order to fix this, or I could just put the camera in Automatic mode. The problem with Automatic in this case is the camera does not know that I am looking at berries. It just sees light, and would attempt to adjust the shutter, aperture, and ISO to get a proper exposure even though it might not end up with the exact type of picture I want to take.

Because I shot in manual using the light meter as my guide I was able to get precisely the shot I was looking for. I knew that I wanted a shallow depth of field, which meant I should use a large aperture of f/2.8. I knew that an aperture of f/1.8 would be too wide for my taste, and a smaller value like f/4 or f/8 would not give me the nice blurry background I was hoping for. By leaving the aperture at f/2.8 and changing the shutter speed I got a properly exposed photo with a nice smooth background as you can see here:

berries-correct

But what if I had changed the other values instead? Look what happened when I left the aperture and shutter at their original values from the underexposed photo (f/2.8 and 1/1000), and raised the ISO instead:

berries-correct-high-ISO

The end result is almost the same: a properly exposed photo (just like our light meter told us it would be, with the triangle hovering above the zero), but this image has much more noise and grain than the previous one. Notice how the tree in the background just behind the berries looks speckled and grainy instead of silky smooth, which is what usually happens at high ISO values. Thus, raising the ISO might not be the best way to get the image I want even though the photo itself is properly exposed.

So what about changing the aperture instead?

berries-correct-small-aperture

Once again the result is a photo that is properly exposed, but the depth of field is much wider – see how the background is not quite as smooth and blurry as before? Also, because the aperture was smaller I had to leave the shutter open longer at 1/90 of a second and even raise the ISO a bit in order to maintain a proper exposure.

Get the exact shot you envision

Shooting in manual and using the light meter as your guide is a good way to ensure that the image you see in your mind is exactly what you end up with when you click the shutter. If you are shooting fast-moving subjects like cars or sports, you would want to start with a fast shutter speed and adjust the other settings until you get that little triangle to hover above the zero. If you are taking portraits and want a shallow depth of field with nice blurry backgrounds, keep the aperture wide and change the shutter and ISO until the exposure is correct. It’s all about giving control back to you, the photographer, instead of letting your camera make the creative decisions for you.

construction-lights

Shooting in manual was the only way to capture this photo. By reading the light meter while carefully adjusting my exposure settings I got precisely the shot I was aiming for. Camera settings: f/16, 1/3 second, ISO 800

Understanding the basics of the light meter is really just scratching the surface, though. Additional settings like your camera’s metering mode and the Exposure Lock function are even more tools you can use to take control over your photography and unlock your true artistic potential. Using manual mode and reading the light meter might seem like a complicated way to take photos, but remember that you know better than your camera what kind of picture you want to take. Once you know how to read your light meter and adjust your camera’s settings accordingly, you can open up a whole new world of creativity that has been right in front of you just waiting to be discovered.

Practice time

So now it’s your turn: grab your camera, put it in Manual mode, and hold the viewfinder up to your eye. Now start changing the aperture, shutter, and ISO values and watch what happens to the light meter. Is your image going to be overexposed? Lower the ISO, raise your shutter, tighten the aperture, or try a combination of all three. Is your image going to be underexposed? Do the exact opposite. The more practice you get, the easier it will be and soon you will feel much more comfortable shooting in a mode that might have seemed hopelessly confusing before.

Do you shoot in manual? If so, how did you get yourself off Automatic mode? Or do you actually prefer Automatic? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • Lisi

    Love this article!. Very informative, finally I know what those numbers in my camera mean. I got a DSLR a month ago, and I have learned so much with you guys. Thanks!

  • Thank you so much! I’m glad you found it helpful, and good luck with that new DSLR!

  • beavis

    nice

  • richard

    Thank you…what a concise explanation of how to use the manual mode.

  • Thank you, and I’m glad you liked the article. I was so hesitant to use manual mode at first because it seemed too complicated, but it’s actually not once you understand the light meter.

  • Sambathnico

    Thanks, I’ve just start using a DSLR And I just know about it. It’s very useful

  • Trendisitas

    I just bought my 1200D yesterday. I tried to use manual mode in the Mode Dial. Then, all my shots were dark and the light meter is -3. I thought it was having a defect until I read this article. Thanks!

  • VI_Amateur

    Best article I’ve read on this topic. Now I feel more confident to go and work on Manual mode. Can’t wait to go out and try.

  • brian

    VERY INTERESTING now I know what them figures are all about/enthusiastic amateur
    have a CANON SUPERSHOT SX50 and just learning how to use it.
    This has been very helpful. THANKYOU.

  • Wow, thanks for saying that. I’m glad you feel more confident about using manual mode now. You can do it!

  • You are quite welcome, and that SX50 is a fine camera. If you thought it could take good pics in Automatic, just wait until you get Manual figured out 🙂 Good luck!

  • Been there, done that. One time I almost sent a camera back because I just didn’t understand what it was doing. Keep up the good work and you’ll have it mastered in no time!

  • David

    I got my Canon almost 2 years ago. I almost immediately started using manual mode because of my friends advice which was very similar to this articke. People who knew I was just a beginner were amazed that I used manual. It was very hard at first, but after using only manual, thats all I really knew how to use and even use now. I actually don’t know how or even care to use any of the other settings.

  • Alan Richardson

    Excellent article. How did I wean myself off Auto? My first prime lens (no auto-focus in lens or camera) I I had to switch to aperture priority for the camera to recognize it. Then I fitted a thirty-five year old lens to the body – camera thought no lens was attached – until I put it in manual. Bliss! Deceptively easy.

  • rwhunt99

    This is a perfect article for my friend who is wanting to try manual photography. I am not very good in explaining things. That said, some of the key words in the article are – What I wanted – and – what I knew (would happen). So undertanding the relationships between aprture, shutter speed and ISO are critical in understanding how to manipulate them to get exactly what you want. It is also critical that you are very familiar with YOUR camera’s controls (hint, read the manual) and it is only then that you can play with that basis of knowledge, in what you want to accomplish.

    I find that I am slow at setting the camera up to work in manual and that knowing what I am going for in a particular situation, I will switch to a different mode (shutter or aperture priority) and if I then am not satisfied, I will go to manual if the moment hasn’t passed already. That is what I love about digital photography – instant feedback and the low cost to experiment.

  • Tatianna

    Thanks so much for this article! I got my first DSLR ( a Canon T5I) for Christmas and I’ve wanted to learn more about this so I had more control in regards to the direction my photos were going. I’ve dabbled with other canon DSLRs for a few years(thanks to very patient friends of mine.) But never had my own to broaden my horizons. This has been such a godsend! Because honestly, I can’t shoot in anything other than manual and understanding this has allowed me to understand what should be adjusted, when to get specific photographs. I don’t think I’ll have as difficult of a time trying to adjust my exposure levels with this!

  • Sandeep

    Simon, I am a photography enthusiast for years and your article exposed something I did not know about. I tried with my Nikon 5200D and it worked like a charm. I have been meaning to go manual for months now and this possibly has opened the floodgate. Thanks Simon. Will try following your other writings… Keep sharing.

  • Dandelion

    I have used my Panasonic Lumix FZ200 in manual mode almost since l got it but didn’t know how the light meter worked. Thanks, great article.

    Dan Daniels
    Alexandria, VA

  • oldrider

    Great article. Back to basics but with that additional edge. The creative side was there all the time but the ‘auto’ switch makes us all lazy. Thanks for the advice.

  • AzYooper

    It’s a Nikon D5200 and most of this stuff is in the owners manual

  • Bal

    Great tips

  • Josh

    While this is a good article for beginners if they understand the exposure triangle there are a lot of these out there on exposure and the examples presented here are on ideal situations. I’d suggest people look into metering modes and how the metering actually works to further their growth…It’s so often an overlooked topic that can really help people get better with their shots. So overlooked that I actually did an article/blog on it myself and it’s the most read and commented on topic I have atm. Seems to have helped quite a few people. For example, if we were to strickly follow the instructions laid out in this article and took a portrait of somebody that had 80 percent black in it, the meter would suggest to overexpose by 1 full stop and the exact opposite for something that was mostly white (underexposed by 1 stop) leaving it gray looking. This is under that assumption that the metering mode is set to evaluative (meter evaluates everything in the frame).

  • Duncan Gibson

    I’ve been on Manual mode for a few months now and fully look forward to taken the camera out and photographing certain sections of landscape ..What the Manual mode done for me has slowed me down and made me think more of my shot on hand ..I truly enjoyed your article and mention it to a friend ..now I have good company when out there photographing ..Thank you

  • Glad you enjoyed the article, Duncan 🙂

  • AdderallDiaires

    I love your articles. I took myself out of Portrait/Auto mode a few years ago when I realized pictures didn’t have to be boring. Now I am doing photography as an enthusiast and guarding my camera with my life. Before that I averaged about six months before I lost my camera.

  • I’m glad you like these articles, and I know what you mean about guarding your camera with your life! I know modern cameras are durable, but I don’t have tons of money to go buying new gear if mine gets lost or stolen…

  • Gopinath Subramaniam

    Very informative and helpful, thank you sir!

  • Thank you sir! I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • Michael

    Simon, as always you are the man to teach digital photography clearly and concise. Great article for beginners. Personally, I am using Manual mode when shooting with flash indoor otherwise I mostly on Av (aperture priority in my Canon DSLR) including outdoor with fill-up flash and always setting my flash with Hs mode (high speed sync). I have to warn some beginner photographers starting using Manual mode as it usually takes more time to set your light meter triangle at the 0 point by adjusting either all 3, 2 or just one exposure components in the exposure triangle, so make sure that your model has enough patience to wait for your creative result. It’s good way to practice to really understand the concept of the exposure but later you will realize it would be more convenient to use one of semi-automatic modes like aperture priority (Av or A) that give you the same custom control of your camera while making sure you never miss any important shots because it takes no time to be ready to take a shot, however, one should be aware of the shutter speed that could be too low for hand-holding your camera shots so you should either open the aperture a little more or increase your ISO for another stop or so.

  • Thanks Michael, and I appreciate your perspective especially since you have a lot of experience in this area. Recently since upgrading to full-frame I have started shooting in Av mode (A on Nikon) using Auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/(2x focal length). This helps ensure that my shutter is always fast enough to avoid motion blur on still subjects, and I have set my max ISO to be 6400 which is just a tad noisy but plenty acceptable when the tradeoff would otherwise be a blurry photo.

  • Bob Jeske

    I just purchased a Sony RX10………I was so confused about what I saw in the view finder that I just went to Auto……..After reading your article and doing it the way you suggested, I am on my way OUT of auto, and that’s just what I want…………..THANKS a MILLION!!

  • I’m really glad this article was helpful, and I hope you are having fun with your new camera! That RX10 is a fantastic piece of equipment 🙂

  • Diana

    I still sometimes shoot in auto mode when I’m limited for time ie: sun is rising or setting and I don’t have time to play with the settings as it doesn’t come naturally to know which ones to use as yet… but for me getting out of auto mode into manual mode has been reading up on the light triangle with articles like this one and going out and playing with it, I deliberately over exposed and under exposed shots to compare and adjust different parameters, I still don’t have it down 100% but i’m getting better and more confident, recently I went to a national park to photograph a couple of waterfalls and had to switch to manual mode and slow the shutter speed down to get the silky effect of the water falling as auto mode won’t do this… (and the waterfalls came out just as I’d wanted them to) so it was a great moment for me when I got the images I wanted and found about 85% of this shoot was in manual mode, a first for me!!!

  • Congratulations on your waterfall shots, Diana! With a bit more practice I’m sure you will feel way more comfortable shooting in manual mode more often. Keep up the good work!

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