Your Camera Wants You To Be Average

Your Camera Wants You To Be Average

Holy Average-Boring, Batman

I’m going to let you in on a secret but first I need you to put your camera away. You see, cameras are becoming smarter and smarter every year as the ability to pack more and more information and programming into their circuits becomes available thanks to the march of progress. I don’t want your camera catching whiff of this conversation.

That’s because the honest truth is your camera wants you to be average. More precisely, your camera wants your pictures to be average. Let me explain with a bit of backstory.

For the SLR crowd, cameras haven’t always had light meters in them. They started out as simple pinholes, graduating up to more and more complex systems, but always relying on the human operating them to figure out the right amount of light to let in via a shutter and aperture (as well as the light sensitivity of chosen film). But then light meters made the move. They were tired of being handheld units, only reporting back the ambient light striking them at one particular spot on the planet, letting a human figure out the rest. They wanted to see what we saw.

And so light meters made their way into SLR cameras and their popularity grew. These meters were simple at first; they would only be able to sample from one spot in the scene and tell us what they measured with the simplest of needles, partially out of view. These meters were different in another way too; unlike the hand held units, they measure the light reflected off of an item.

One metering spot grew to two and four and now we have systems with over 60 different light metering nodes. Along the path the light metering aspect also offered to take over setting our shutter speed and aperture for us. I mean, it’s such hard work and the electronic brain of the camera is now so fast, why not?

Why not? Because your camera doesn’t know what you want. That’s why not.

Your camera’s computer brain (today) measures light coming into the body and tries to find an average. It doesn’t know what you are exposing for. Is it that bright sun in the corner? Or the jet black Porsche in the foreground? Or the cute white poodle in the driver’s seat? It also might have trouble focusing because it isn’t quite sure what you want (we can go over that another time, but it hits to the same problem for your camera).

This leads your camera to try to create an average picture. By itself, this isn’t such a bad thing. Your camera’s sensor can only pick up a certain range of light (around 7-9 stops currently, but growing every year)and it has to decide how to fit a scene beyond its range into that frame. Your eye picks up and your brain can handle about 15 stops of light at a given moment. In this case, your camera is already doomed not to show what you see (which is where HDR comes in to fill the dynamic range gap).

All this is not to say your camera hates you, it doesn’t. It just wants to do the best it can and it thinks you want middle of the road average. It will pick highlight and shadow that come across its sensor and attempt to find middle ground. This is often desirable, but not always. Maybe the foreground is more important to you and should be exposed more brightly. Maybe the sunset shouldn’t be so harsh in the sky and you don’t care if the foreground is dark.

Maybe your camera can’t read your mind. I hope it can’t. So what do you do with a camera that wants to bring about an average shot every time?

Exposure Compensation/Bias

Find and use the exposure compensation, or bias, on your camera. Here’s a previous post on DPS describing how this feature works. It is a great tool for popping your camera out of the average rut. It typically works in Program, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes.

Check The Histogram

If your camera has a histogram display, it might be a good time to employ it. You will see average pictures being a nice even mountain. If that isn’t getting you the oomph you want, try pushing things one direction or the other. The histogram will tell you how far you can push (dark or light) before you start losing data. Take a look at the histogram at right for the shot up above (taken from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom). This shot was taken as prescribed using the Program mode, evaluative metering and no exposure compensation. There are about 1-2 more stops of room left on the left side of this histogram to bring the exposure to life.

Lose Data

That’s right, lose some data. Nothing says you have to have a perfectly exposed image time and time again. Move the limit and focus on what you want. Besides “perfectly exposed image” is an entirely subject phrase and there is no set rule that says you are restricted from having part or most of your image over or underexposed if that is what you like. Experiment.

Post Process

I don’t point people to post processing as a means to fix their woes very often. I’m a firm believer in getting the shot right the first time. But reality is that a computer is helpful when used well. In this case, with the photo above, the camera rendered a fairly flat image. 45 seconds spent in Lightroom gave the photo some life. While it will not win me a prize at the local fair, I wanted to use it to show how much brighter that gray day looked to me, compared to the camera. I also wanted to show that, yes, that’s a drenching downpour in the distance and, yes, that little speck under the downpour is Seattle.

Use Spot Or Center -Weighted Metering and AEL

It’s time to stand up for what you want and move away from the matrix or evaluative metering your camera has been using. Try out spot or center-weighted metering and point them towards what’s most important to you in the scene. Also get accustomed to using your camera’s auto exposure lock (AEL) feature to hold the metering while recomposing a shot.

Learn To Read Light And Use Manual Mode

This is something you should have done from the start. I know, ‘should’ is a strong word in this case. I’m not trying to push doctrine down your throat. I do believe that to be successful (measured to your own person liking) at photography, it is key to be able to see and read light. Nothing says you have to use the metering suggestion of your camera. Every DSLR still has a manual mode where you decide the three key elements: Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. Your camera might flash things at you, telling it thinks you’re making mistakes, but take the shot anyway and learn from your mistakes.

You don’t deserve to have average shots. But don’t blame your camera either. Learn how your camera is ‘thinking’ and make adjustments accordingly to bring about the image you want. Average works at times, but if you want to get more life into your pictures, stop listening to your camera’s light meter all the time.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Eric Cachero May 14, 2011 12:49 pm

    The meter on the camera measures the light reflected by the subject. It is the hand-held meter that measures the light coming into the subject. This is the difference between hand-held light meters and camera integrated light meters. It is also the reason professionals prefer handheld metering devices as it is more accurate.

  • Lewis May 14, 2011 04:22 am

    I agree with most of this article, but I do not think shooting full manual all the time is the best solution. I mean you can take advantage of technology by shooting in A or S mode so that you can control how your shot is captured, and then use exposure compensation to override the metering system when needed. Chances are you will miss or screw up a lot more shots shooting in M mode because you forgot to change a setting when you turned to shoot something in a different direction other than the direction you took your reading from. I say let modern advancements help you get to where you want to go, but you stay in control over final or creative decisions

    For the record I started shooting years ago on full manual cameras and advanced through MF and LF. I use hand held meters for a lot of my work. So I do understand exposure and creative controls, but I just think it's plain silly to spend all this money on modern cameras, then refuse to use the technology that it brings to the table.

  • John Schickler May 14, 2011 12:21 am

    One of the most unique ways of saying what so many others take volumes to say. This was truly a "fun read" while also being informative.

  • Best Exposures Photography May 13, 2011 08:42 pm

    Oh, and another thing!

    When I let a friend borrow my gear, I told him to put the camera in either aperture or shutter priority. Then note the other settings the camera chose.

    Then I tell him to put it in manual, set the camera to what the camera suggested, and make some changes and note the outcomes.

    Its a great way to learn!


  • Best Exposures Photography May 13, 2011 08:39 pm

    I used to have a pentax with just a meter (no autofocus), and my pictures were actually quite amazing! I took a break from photography for a few years and when I came back to it the DSLR's were here. It took me a while to get it to give me what I wanted. I actually think some of this technology gets in the way! And I really love tech, we all do to some degree right? But when ISO meant film speed, and you had no idea if you got the picture until the film was developed.. I don't know if it was the pressure to get it right the first time due to cost.. but theres something to it.

    That being said, these DSLR's are amazing. Spot metering is my best friend. I have a 7D and a 5D mark II, and if technology were everything the 7D would win, but the camera I use as my primary is the 5DII. Yeah, it has less metering and autofocus points... but who cares? That stuff never makes GREAT photos.

    I agree 100% with the author... Great Article!


  • Trep Ford May 13, 2011 05:26 pm

    I often read camera reviews where recent buyers slam a given camera because "IT (the camera) takes lousy pictures". I think far too many camera buyers (and some folks who call them selves photographers) are under the impression that cameras are supposed to know how to properly expose just about any scene at which you point them. And certainly camera sales people and manufacturer literature could lead one to this false impression. But as Peter points out, even more "computerized" cameras which attempt to analyze the pattern of light falling on your sensor to make an educated guess at what's in front of you ... are only guessing. They evaluate various values in various zones, compare them to a database of values from existing images ... and guess. Sometimes this works ... sometimes it doesn't.

    You, the photographer, are (a) the only member of the camera/shooter team that knows what's in front of you and (b) (hopefully), which tonal values you want to capture in what portions of the image you want to create.

    I think this is one of the biggest things that separates photographers who are regularly satisfied with their shots and those who aren't. Education and experience and can help you learn how to use just about any camera to create really wonderful images ... consistently. And the key lies not in the camera but in understanding how to use a camera and its settings to capture on the sensor (or film) the values you want, where you want them. Which portions of the picture do you want to be the very darkest ... the very brightest ... how do you want the mid-range tones distributed in between? Where do you want dark values to be hard black ... where do you want dark shadows to retain texture ... When you really know what you want and you know how to "tell" your camera how to render what you want before you shoot ... THEN and only then will you find yourself saying "YES!" to most of the photos you take ... instead of "Aw MAN!".

    I recently came back from a day trip to Vashon Island, WA on a recently rare sunny day and was delighted to find virtually all my shots were ready to use, right out of the cameras. Neither were expensive or particularly advanced cameras, but over 30 years of learning has taught me how to get the images I want out of nearly any camera.

    The good news for digital photographers is that you have more tools at your disposal both for learning how to do what's discussed in this article more quickly than ever AND for salvaging those shots where your initial attempts don't quite work. It's a GREAT time to be learning and exploring the world of photography.

  • Arturomar May 13, 2011 04:40 am

    Thank you Peter for this great article.

    I thought it was going to be about how dificult it is to have in mind all the settings today cameras have every time you are about to take a picture.

  • Paul May 13, 2011 04:17 am

    Interesting article, shoot in RAW and Lightroom gives you a second chance?

  • DaveA May 13, 2011 03:50 am


    A great article. I teach a photography class regularly and this is one area that people have a hard time understanding, the meter is not your brain! No manufacturer has figured out how to do this yet, and none will, put YOUR (my, the photographer's) brain in the box with the camera! But it is great to see, with a little training and understanding, how so-so images become great images with just a little thought (imagine that)!

  • SK_CHICAGO May 13, 2011 02:22 am

    Nice article. Yes, the image straight from camera have to be composed right but Emilio have a great point & I agree with him 100%. Post processing rocks....I love it.

  • SK_CHICAGO May 13, 2011 02:22 am

    Nice article. Yes, the image straight from camera have to be composed right but Emilio have a great point & I agree with him 100%. Post processing rocks....I love it.

  • mike strom May 13, 2011 01:55 am

    I love this article and agree 100%. I'm trying to convince some friends about this thinking... Thanks, i got some more fuel now =D

  • Linus May 9, 2011 11:44 pm

    Nice article. More article with guidance on use of light will be helpful.

  • Emilio Espinosa May 9, 2011 06:22 am

    I, for one, am happy to have come into photography after the dawn of the digital age. I understand what the camera is trying to do and why, and I understand the relationships of the shutter, aperture, and ISO, but most importantly I understand the tools that have been handed to me on my computer. As such, I treat the moment that I shoot my photo as just the beginning of a bigger process where I will "massage" my image into precisely what I want it to be. I am happy to have what you might term an "average" image to begin with. A "properly exposed" RAW file is my goal when shooting. A "photograph" is what I will produce in the computer where I can make the image whatever I desire, and make it lots of things just by copying the image and starting over with a whole new set of changes.

    In all fairness, it probably comes down to my profession as a video producer/editor and motion graphics designer. It's my job to manipulate images creatively. Still, I'm always a bit bothered by the notion that the image has to be "finished" straight out of the camera. It feels like "real photographers" just want to shun the amazing tools that let the rest of us in on the fun of creating images, that let the rest of us express a vision from within ourselves, that let the rest of us create something that resonates with other people. It's about the art, not the process.

  • FARfetched May 9, 2011 04:39 am

    Being a relatively old fart, I learned to shoot with cameras that had no auto-anything — and yes, I used a light meter in those days. So naturally, the first thing I did when I got the DSLR was to turn the mode knob to M. The nice thing about the display is that you get instant feedback, you can take a look and adjust exposure as needed for a do-over.

    I do a lot of product shots on the side for my day job; the products in question invariably have black plastic housings. I learned fairly quickly to overexpose those shots between 2/3 stop and a full stop for best results. It works the other way for very white objects: drop a stop.

    Of course, if I loan the camera to someone else (usually so I can be in the picture), I have to remember to turn on auto-focus and turn the knob to P or maybe Tv (shutter priority).

  • Robert Wilson May 9, 2011 03:27 am

    Well said
    I really enjoy using vintage manual lenses on my DSLRs. So much so I sometimes use my AF lenses manually too.
    This article also illustrates why people like Leicas and also prefer shooting film whe n modern cameras are so much
    Better on paper

  • ScottC May 8, 2011 03:19 pm

    This article is perfectly titled, and all so true. I've found many of my "mistakes" to be better photos than those "poperly" metered by the camera. I need to take this advice myself.

    Sometimes I wonder what I could have done with an opportunity that I let slip by in a mode with multi-segment metering and no bias.

  • Evilcornbread May 8, 2011 09:29 am

    Agree that losing data can totally be the right thing in some situations. That said, I like the first exposure better. :-)

  • Deirdre May 8, 2011 08:21 am

    "Lose data" -- love that suggestion. I have been so worried about getting my photos to technically "perfect" for a few years, and now I am trying hard to see with my soul or my heart rather than with my brain and allow the photo to break rules to fit with my vision. I've been shooting on aperture priority, mainly, for a few years, and now I'm trying to shoot most of the time in manual, because it helps me to keep the metering exactly where I want it.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 8, 2011 06:58 am


    While I am not from the Pin Hole Era, I have and still do use a handheld light meters depending on the situation. As an Elctrical Engineer, I keep abreast of all things technical and agree with the the points in your article. I would say, take the tech with a grain of salt and work around the things you dont like. Shoot RAW, focus manually (when possible), get the camera off Auto, understand relationships between shutter, aperture, ISO...and always check your Histogram.

    Often all these Modern Marvels allow Bracketing, so I use this feature when shooting for HDR Processing like this shot inside St Johns in NYC.

    AND I will never let my camera make my shots Average...that sould be my fault.