Spot Metering… Expose Yourself - Digital Photography School

Spot Metering… Expose Yourself

A guest post by Scott Himelhoch from D Studio.

spot-metering.jpgHave you ever been frustrated that the subject in your photo is either hidden in the shadows or overexposed like snow on a bright sunny day?

You check your camera’s metering and it reads a perfect 0 EV. You reshoot the scene but again, your subject matter is still incorrectly exposed. One solution to this common problem is Spot Metering.

It is a technique under-utilised by many photographers. This feature gives the photographer control over exactly which portion of the frame the meter should use to determine proper exposure.

If left to the factory default, most DSLR cameras use what’s known as matrix metering, a sophisticated process which reads light intensity from several points within the scene. Then, the metering system determines what “should” give your photograph proper exposure. The challenge with matrix meeting arises if your frame contains a wide range of light intensity or if you are seeking a specific effect in a photograph.

For example, if you want to shoot a silhouette against a sunset, matrix metering will result in an over exposed back ground as it attempts to compensate for the foreground subject.

Instead, try spot metering.

This may require you to dust off your camera’s owner’s manual but rest assured, setting your camera to spot metering only requires a few steps.

Once set to spot metering, the viewfinder will indicate the specific zone which takes the exposure reading, usually a small point in the middle of your view finder. Next, point the zone toward the subject you want to properly expose. In this case, the sky about 15 degrees to the left or right of the setting sun. Next, dial in the correct combination of shutter speed and aperture to balance exposure to 0 EV (the dead center of the meter in your view finder).

The result is a beautiful silhouette in the foreground with a properly exposed sky.

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  • Steven

    I have purchased a nice 18% gray card and if I put my digital camera on spot meter or use Pentax spot meter for my film camera I find that I do not get an accurate exposure.
    Example: I set the gray card against a flower vase on our living room table and left it there.
    Light was naturally diffused through a white curtain.
    I stood about 10 feet away and used my camera’s spot meter and set exposure on the gray card and took the shot.
    Then I shot the same shot with center weighted and Matrix meter.
    I compared the three exposures to what I was seeing with my eye as I viewed the scene live.
    Results:
    Spot meter was significantly over exposed.
    Matrix was very under exposed.
    Center weighted looked very close to what I was seeing with my eyes.
    The light was such that the gray card to the eye was medium dark.
    The spot meter made the gray card go to 18% which was incorrect in the lighting environment. It made the light more than it should be to make the gray card 18% which was a false level of light.
    Center weighted took the gray card into account and averaged it with the surroundings in its meter circle and gave the correct exposure.
    Matrix took too little of the gray card into account and under exposed.
    Question: What value does a gray card have if light is not bright enough to allow the card to be 18% gray? In dimmer light the card tricks the camera into lying and producing an overexposed image.
    I have used a gray card with natural light for outdoor portraits in film and digital and the results have not been good. Exposure was always wrong.
    It is very frustrating. How can I measure exposure accurately?

  • http://www.mytimbuk2.com Tim Turner

    ” In this case, the sky about 15 degrees to the left or right of the setting sun. Next, dial in the correct combination of shutter speed and aperture to balance exposure to 0 EV (the dead center of the meter in your view finder).

    The result is a beautiful silhouette in the foreground with a properly exposed sky.”

    What do you mean by “dial In”? What Mode are you shooting in, Manual? when I point to the place I want correct exposure by using spot metering, I move the camera back to the item to focus on and it all changes back. I don’t follow how to keep those settings when pointing the camera 15 degrees to the left of the sun. how do you determine what settings they are and how to you dial them in?

  • Johan Bauwens

    I always use spotmetering for photographing concerts, where the background is very dark but the singers face is reasonably well lit. If I’d use matrix metering, I would get shutterspeeds of 1/25th of a second or longer and everything would be blurry. But still, it’s hard, especially when the singer has dark makeup or hair and a pale face. Then I’d still get some over- or underexposed shots if the singer moves.

  • Johan Bauwens

    Especially when using spotmetering, the 3% measured surface should be 18% gray

  • Edmund

    How about the histogram and blinkies (if your camera has these facilities) and exposing for the highlights as the shadows are easier recovered in post-processing?

  • silvermouse

    Or, put the camera’s metering system on manual and use your brain. The reliance on camera automation is making people less smart.

Some older comments

  • Tim Turner

    March 8, 2013 11:19 am

    " In this case, the sky about 15 degrees to the left or right of the setting sun. Next, dial in the correct combination of shutter speed and aperture to balance exposure to 0 EV (the dead center of the meter in your view finder).

    The result is a beautiful silhouette in the foreground with a properly exposed sky."

    What do you mean by "dial In"? What Mode are you shooting in, Manual? when I point to the place I want correct exposure by using spot metering, I move the camera back to the item to focus on and it all changes back. I don't follow how to keep those settings when pointing the camera 15 degrees to the left of the sun. how do you determine what settings they are and how to you dial them in?

  • Steven

    May 8, 2012 06:10 pm

    I have purchased a nice 18% gray card and if I put my digital camera on spot meter or use Pentax spot meter for my film camera I find that I do not get an accurate exposure.
    Example: I set the gray card against a flower vase on our living room table and left it there.
    Light was naturally diffused through a white curtain.
    I stood about 10 feet away and used my camera’s spot meter and set exposure on the gray card and took the shot.
    Then I shot the same shot with center weighted and Matrix meter.
    I compared the three exposures to what I was seeing with my eye as I viewed the scene live.
    Results:
    Spot meter was significantly over exposed.
    Matrix was very under exposed.
    Center weighted looked very close to what I was seeing with my eyes.
    The light was such that the gray card to the eye was medium dark.
    The spot meter made the gray card go to 18% which was incorrect in the lighting environment. It made the light more than it should be to make the gray card 18% which was a false level of light.
    Center weighted took the gray card into account and averaged it with the surroundings in its meter circle and gave the correct exposure.
    Matrix took too little of the gray card into account and under exposed.
    Question: What value does a gray card have if light is not bright enough to allow the card to be 18% gray? In dimmer light the card tricks the camera into lying and producing an overexposed image.
    I have used a gray card with natural light for outdoor portraits in film and digital and the results have not been good. Exposure was always wrong.
    It is very frustrating. How can I measure exposure accurately?

  • KRISHNAKUMAR NAIR

    January 20, 2011 04:36 pm

    For those looking for spot metering on their cams, it is not present on all cams. If you have partial metering use, it . the only difference is that the partial metering meters light over a larger area than the spot. So zoom in on your subject and meter. Adjust the same after recomposing and shoot. HAPPY CLICKING!!

  • vierx

    January 3, 2011 06:06 pm

    Hi,

    @meg22. I use a lot of spot metering to correct the exposure then press AEL-hold lock (means the AEL will not releas until the shutter is release). The reason for this is that of the AF. You want to get the correct exposure from the frame other that the subject and recompose your image again while AEL is lock to focus your subject. this way you get both correct AF and Exposure.

  • Meng22

    October 12, 2010 07:37 pm

    How do l use spot metering/AEL when my object is not in the centre of viewfinder i.e when complying with rules of third

  • cortlander

    June 17, 2010 11:41 am

    Yes, even if you were spot metering, you would still have to make adjustments if the object was light or dark. In practice this is not too difficult. An object may be neutral, or maybe a little light in which case you may increase one stop, or bright enough to need two stops.

    In any case, once you take a shot, check your histogram and you will be able to make adjustments necessary. You may also choose to bracket your shots by maybe 2/3 of a stop either way, depending on what you are shooting.

  • Spodeworld

    June 17, 2010 10:46 am

    When you spot meter, do you need to consider using something like exposure compensation or the zone system since, if I understand it correctly, it sees what you have selected as "neutral grey"? What if you were spot metering something that is very light or very dark?

  • Scott

    June 6, 2010 10:26 pm

    @bob - not sure about on this site but Neil Van Niekerk has excellent information on both subjects.

    There are 3 articles on exposure metering and 18 all about flash including FEC. The index is all on the right side of the site. This will get you started:

    http://neilvn.com/tangents/exposure-metering/
    http://neilvn.com/tangents/flash-photography-techniques/

  • Bob N. Betts

    June 6, 2010 06:51 pm

    I know this is out of topic ... please forgive me ... just would like to ask is there an article here in this site I mean about using exposure compansation and flash compensation.

    Thanks.

  • cortlander

    June 6, 2010 10:39 am

    I do use spot metering, applying the zone system to make exposure compensation. Most of the time, a good camera's matrix system gives excellent results as well, once again compensating for the zone.

    Now this is a good start, but it is the histogram that really matters. Take a trial shot, check the histogram, and make the adjustment.

  • John Lambert

    June 6, 2010 06:07 am

    I use spot metering exclusively because I want the centre of my subject exposed correctly. I also use a shallow depth of field because I want my subject to stand out from the background. F2.6 or F4 gives me what I want. Of course, if I'm shooting landscapes, I stop down.

  • Federico Sendel

    June 5, 2010 12:22 pm

    @Chris, I'm pretty sure "Partial" would be the equivalent of Spot. Give it a try.

  • Bob N. Betts

    June 4, 2010 06:21 pm

    Very nice tip .... a perfect example for spot metering ... no wonder i find it hard .. been using matrix for this type of shot

  • Chris

    June 4, 2010 03:11 pm

    Can't find spot metering on a 400D (Center-weighted, Partial, Evaluative). Am I missing something here??

  • gmomada

    June 4, 2010 01:51 pm

    I almost always use spot metering, too. It's especially good when doing close-up shots of flowers or insects because the subject is perfectly exposed without factoring in background light or shadows.

  • Chris

    June 4, 2010 08:06 am

    My Canon Rebel XT DSLR has 3 metering options "Evaluative", "Partial," and "Center-Weighted." Which one of these would be Spot Metering? I'm guessing Partial, but I'm not sure?

  • Martin Soler Photography

    June 4, 2010 08:06 am

    Thanks great simple article. I for one need to use spot metering more. Will definitely be spending some time with this.

  • David

    June 4, 2010 04:16 am

    Spot metering is a great tool, but as with any other kind of metering it will sometimes give you an undesirable result. I was trying a very wide angle zoom (12mm to 24mm) on a full frame sensor Canon 5D MkII. I was interested in how sharp the focus was but my results looked terribly dark inside a very large photographic shop.

    At first I thought maybe the lens wasn't designed for a full frame sensor and that I was suffering from horrific vignetting. Eventually the penny dropped. The spot meter on a very wide angle lens is going to be very very very small.

    Guess what, that was in the area pointing outside a window in the distance. When I switched to matrix or average metering all was perfect.

    Memo to self, be very careful when using spot metering on a very wide angle lens.

  • Marc

    June 4, 2010 02:39 am

    I do a lot of sport photography and I use spot metering 99% of the time. Since I often photograph skiers, snowboarders etc, I have to set the exposure on the subject and not care if the snow details are blasted, otherwise I would get a subject completely dark (underexposed). I've tried matrix metering with skiers, it just doesn't work (specially that most races are around noon 12:00pm)

    here is an example:
    http://www.photoshelter.com/c/marclapointe/gallery-img-show/Canadian-Snowboard-Championship-Mont-Tremblant/G0000VJGKbYbSixY/?&_bqG=2&_bqH=eJwz8Sn1TKuIdA9PdS4sKnd3L6nISAtNSQyyCDGwMjG0MjK1snKP93SxdTcAgjAvd..kyKTgzIpItQCQqJq7Z7y7o4.Pa1AkNkUAUuEcXQ--&I_ID=I0000ygKQtEgoVa8[/img]

  • Scott

    June 4, 2010 02:20 am

    Good article except for suggesting that 0 EV is the "proper" exposure for everything. In most cases, when effectively using spot metering the object you are metering is not 18% gray and this will not get you a perfect exposure. The matrix system does a better job if you just want to zero out the meter, at least then you'll most likely be close.

    If you want to use spot meter properly you need to understand how to apply the zone system to your digital camera and have to consider the tonality of what you are metering. If you're shooting people, that means you have to understand what EV skin should be placed at given the amount of light it is receiving. If you meter off a specular highlight on skin it is different from a diffused highlight or a shadow and if you arbitrarily set your meter to 0EV or set skin to the common +.7EV or +1EV you're not always going to have a good exposure.

  • Chris

    June 4, 2010 02:10 am

    My old film SLR had an awesome spot meter and my subjects were always well exposed. I admit I don't use the spot metering as much as I should on my 40D.

    Thanks for the article and the tip.

  • Barbara

    May 29, 2010 01:57 pm

    Nice succinct article on spot metering (and good post by Russ). Much appreciated. I am a center-weighted shooter, but might try the spot now that I understand it better. Thank you.

  • Amir Paz

    May 29, 2010 12:39 am

    here is a little tip i can add

    if you want to shoot something black,

    and you want it to have detail, and not just to be a black spot in the picture

    use spot metering from the black subject, and manualy set the camera to negative exposure compensation.

    play with the value, for me -0.7 to -1 EV usualy works good, and then the black subject in the picture will

    appear with detail. (i sometimes leave it alone on 0)

    i usually shoot black dogs, and i want them to appear as more than just a black spot in the picture so i use this technique.

    here is an example:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/2832915128/in/set-72157607125013563/

    Amir

  • jamesdon

    May 28, 2010 11:52 pm

    @Russ,

    Thanks a billion, I'll give it a shot (pun intended!)

  • Putera Dedeq

    May 28, 2010 11:45 pm

    Thts a great technique. Fore sure... not only sunset but this technique also will make the photo look hot.. :-)

  • Karen Stuebing

    May 28, 2010 10:44 pm

    Never used anything else. You can use your camera as a light meter by pointing at the brightest and darkest spots in a scene and adjusting ISO, aperture and shutter speed accordingly. I also use full manual.

    One caveat - this is not an effective technique if you have to shoot fast as in capturing wildlife. But I have learned to twirl those dials pretty fast. :)

  • Steve J

    May 28, 2010 12:51 am

    If you really want to have some fun, use your AE Lock button with spot metering AND your AF Lock button for focusing while having your camera set to Continuous focus, on a VR lens, chasing a warbler.... on a D300, it's akin to Photoshop's- "mash your fist on the left side of the keyboard" technique. On some of the other models out there, it's darn near imposable. :-D

  • Rick

    May 28, 2010 12:15 am

    Interesting, just last week I was experimenting with spot metering and was pleased with the amount of control I was able to achieve over what was correctly exposed in the picture.

  • Russ

    May 27, 2010 10:54 pm

    Jamesdon - you don't have to frame on the centre to use spot metering:

    1 - Point the centre of the viewfinder at the thing you want to meter for (such as your subject's face, for exampe) and half press the button.

    2 - Use the meter to set your shutter and aperture for the correct exposure.

    3 - Re-compose the shot as you want it, focus, and shoot.

    That's assuming you're shooting in manual, of course. If you're shooting automatic or semi-automatic, then you need to work slightly differently:

    1 - Point the centre of the viewfinder at the thing you want to expose for (as above) and half press the shutter button, so the camera chooses its settings accordingly.

    2 - Press the Exposure Lock button (time to dust off your camera's manual).

    3 - Compose the image how you want it, focus, and shoot.

    Simples. :-)

    Russ.

  • jamesdon

    May 27, 2010 07:14 pm

    I use spot metering here in Uganda a ton since people here tend to be pretty dark and the equatorial sun is super bright!
    I still have one thing I can't figure out; On my Canon xsi, does the metering zone change with the AF point or is it always in the center? I hate framing centered!!!!

  • Mei Teng

    May 27, 2010 10:50 am

    A good explanation on spot metering. Thanks for sharing.

  • paige whitley

    May 27, 2010 10:29 am

    I've been using spot metering after reading a blog about it BUT you've explained WHY it works and HOW it works so now I understand WHAT I'm going for. Thanks!

  • Federico Sendel

    May 27, 2010 07:48 am

    Ok.-.. I think I get it. Thanx @Reznor

  • LeZandra

    May 27, 2010 07:45 am

    Like others, I am usually just using spot metering. I find that it helps for most of my shooting here in Hawaii.

  • Jose Deleon

    May 27, 2010 07:08 am

    You know, I never understood metering til now. I can't wait to get home and give this a try. I only have my Nikon Coolpix at the moment. lol. Thanks!

  • Reznor

    May 27, 2010 06:45 am

    @Federico

    Well, spot metering propably doesn't make much sense with evaluative metering but there are other modes like center-weighted metering or similar modes that can make use of AEL-lock, too.

  • Steff

    May 27, 2010 05:44 am

    I like getting confirmation! I am a solely spot metering gal!

  • junglebear

    May 27, 2010 05:32 am

    I also use spot metering almost exclusively, it just makes so much more sense in most situations

  • Joel

    May 27, 2010 04:36 am

    I don't really use "spot metering" but manually under or over expose (using exposure compensation) for dark or bright shots respectively. I learned some tricks on this recently and have the results here:
    http://www.shutteria.com/2010/05/day-115-photography-project-365.html
    http://www.shutteria.com/2010/05/day-113-photography-project-365.html

    I guess you would achieve similar results automatically with spot metering.

  • Olaf | YaYapas

    May 27, 2010 03:14 am

    Nice article and one more reminder to use spot metering more often.
    I think it is worth mentioning that the spot meter delivers the correct exposure only when metering a subject consisting of 18% grey or similar. So when shooting (with a camera :) ) a white rabbit in snow the light meter thinks it is 18% grey and ends up with a too fast shutter speed and the rabbit looks too dark. On the other hand the black chimney sweeper in front of a black wall ending in an overexposed picture. In these situations you have to compensate with +2ev respectively -2ev or appropiate values in analogy to the zone system.

  • Tyler

    May 27, 2010 02:52 am

    I should be slapping my forehead. I use a pentax spotmeter when I shoot with my 4x5, but I never think to tweak my DSLR into spot metering mode.

  • Federico Sendel

    May 27, 2010 02:43 am

    This reminds me of a somewhat related question I've had for a while. Usually, when I use spot metering, I will do it in combination with AEL lock. In fact, I don't understand when you would use AEL lock WITHOUT using spot metering too... any thoughts?

  • Bill

    May 27, 2010 02:21 am

    Great post, useful pointer.

  • Michael M.

    May 27, 2010 02:18 am

    Thanks for the tip! I never dared to try stop meter I look forward to using it.

  • valerie

    May 27, 2010 01:47 am

    i'm going to give this a try this afternoon for my 365 project. thanks

  • Jason Collin Photography

    May 27, 2010 01:46 am

    I have not much experimented with spot metering as even at sunset I can usually get the exposure I want, but then I do not try for silhouette shots. I will give it a try. Thanks for the article.

  • Josh

    May 27, 2010 01:35 am

    Like others I only really use spot metering. There are few occasions when I've needed a more evaluative metering, but it's usually perfect for me.

  • Paddy

    May 27, 2010 01:33 am

    Good post ! I've been trying to get use to this spot metering for some weeks, needs some practice to get the expected result... :)

  • Perry

    May 27, 2010 01:22 am

    Really great technique. Seen so often and so simple to perform, but many new photographers aren't knowledgeable on how to do it.

    I'm sure that the vast majority of dSLR owners out there don't even know what spot metering is :)

  • chris

    May 27, 2010 01:12 am

    so, in this case, you would set your exposure on the sky, record it in the camera... then set your focus on the silhouette to have a sharp contour, and then shoot... correct ?
    what I usually do is only set the focus, then select a balance exposure of -2EV for instance on the first shot, and adjust on following shots to get perfect exposure if needed (only makes sense with digital)

  • zinaf

    May 27, 2010 01:05 am

    I only use Spot Metering. I do not want somebody or something else to determine what is good exposure for me.
    Of course there might be fields of photography (perhaps like 'sport') where speed is essential and the matrix/weighted metering is an advantage, but as I do not shoot this kind of photos it is not an issue for me.
    For me, as I am so accustomed to using the Spot Metering, even in situation where I have to act quickly, I still manage to get the correct exposure.
    cheers
    z.

  • Greg Taylor

    May 27, 2010 12:58 am

    I am big fan of spot metering. For all of my concert photos I only use spot. Thanks for getting around to this topic - I think everyone will find it very helpful.

    Here is link to my Concert Photography 101 Series

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