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A Novice, Dumbass, Layman’s, Non-techy Tute for Spot Metering or how to add drama to a Photo

Earlier in the week, I was having a big discussion about spot-metering with a friend.  We were discussing when to use it and how to master it.  We both loved our Light Bulb moments with spot-metering.  It was literally like someone showed us how to give birth without pain.  Yes, that’s how excited we were about it.  So I figured I’d share.  But listen, this is going to be a dirty tute.  No pro terms.  Nothing.  Because that isn’t how I “got” it.  And I’m no pro, so here’s Spot-metering in layman’s terms.

But a few tidbits of info first.  One, I shoot Nikon (that sounds pro-ish just the way I typed it).  Canon and Nikon have different terms, but each does the same thing.  Two, I typically shoot in Matrix mode.  It looks at the light over the entire frame and gives me the exposure for the whole frame.  I’ve learned that my camera wants to overexpose everything.  That’s annoying.  I don’t want the white or bright spots blown out.  I underexpose by a click or two.  Some people only use spot-metering (or so I’ve read).  Because I want to be like certain people, I tried that.  I hated the results.  Everything was overexposed and I spent more time underexposing.  I like and primarily use Matrix.  But sometimes, I need to spot.  I spot when the light is really wonky.  Or when the light is wonky and want to use that wonky for drama.

So here goes…  Take your camera and put it in Manual.  You can do it.  It isn’t that scary. Google Manual or read your camera’s manual to understand it.  It takes a little time, but you should do it.  Auto sucks.  Your portrait modes suck.  Practice and play around, but I know you can do it.  Get hip to Manual.  I do however let the camera focus.  I can’t be manually focusing my kids because they never sit still, but I never let my camera decide what should be in focus.  I pick that and the camera handles the actual focusing.  Here’s a big one, if you use Auto ISO, take it off.  If you leave your Auto ISO on, spot-metering doesn’t work as well.  Your camera will bump up the ISO and your photo will be brighter than you want.  Trust me.  I learned the hard way.

Ready? Find a subject and put them in some wonky-ass light.  My youngest was crouched underneath the window and a few rays of light were bouncing off his hair.  Set your ISO.  You might need to take a test shot to figure out what works best for the situation.  This takes practice, but you’ll get it.  Next, I figure out my f-stop.  For me, this is quick.  I usually have my f-stop at 2.8.  No clue why.  I like that number and it’s my sweetness.  When I’m in Manual, I’m only adjusting the shutter speed to get a good exposure with that f-stop number.  Google something else to understand f-stop.  The little flashy focus blurb in your viewfinder?  Use that to expose the scene.  I moved my blurb to the head light, pressed it half way down to get a reading, and set my camera’s shutter to expose for that light on his head.  My camera thought the entire scene was going to be really bright, so it told me to set my shutter speed pretty high.  I cranked up my dial and got it to something like 1600 (I didn’t write it down or feel like looking for it, so trust me).  Wherever you put your focus blurb is what you want to be exposed.  That head light blob was going to be exposed properly.  Once you’ve set it, compose the picture to your liking.  Focus on the good bits.  In the above shot, I focused on the back of his neck.  Now check that out.  Notice how it’s much darker than the blob of light on his head?   When I pressed the button halfway to focus, my camera went all sorts of crazy.  It’s said, “Hey, Lady!  It’s really dark here and your camera is set to expose for bright sun.  WTF?  Fix this.  Come on.  Please, Nutcase.  Fine.  Screw up your photo.”  But I ignored it.  I told my camera that I’m the HBIC.  I told it, “I know what I want.  Now take it the way I want.”  And I snapped.  Ta da.  Bright spot is exposed and the rest is dark.  The shutter snapped super fast because it thought the entire scene was going to be bright.  But really only the head light blob needed a little bit of time from the shutter.  Those dark spots needed more light and more time with the shutter open.   They didn’t get it so they stayed really dark and moody.  The camera wasn’t set to properly expose them.  I was greedy.  I gave my love to the head light blob.  Sorry, dark spots.

Spot metering is great for backlight subjects.  The shot above was metered off of Coop’s face.  Notice how the window is really bright and overblown?  The focus blurb was on a darker spot, so the shutter had to slow down to get a bunch of light into it to expose for Coop’s face.

But I love spot-metering for drama.  The shot above was metered off the window.  Then I adjusted what the camera wanted.  I knew if I did exactly as I was told by my camera, Coop would be a complete silhouette.  I didn’t want to lose all his pissiness (he was mad at Becks), so I slowed the shutter to let in enough light to highlight his anger/boredom.  But my camera was still mad at me.  I metered off the really bright sun.  I set it for that exposure.  When I focused on Coop’s face, it was mad that I was going to take a photo set for sun and not his darker face.  But I ignored it and told the camera to create what I wanted.  I’m in charge.

Practice.  Find a reason to try it out.  You get to create the photo.  You’re the artist.  Quit letting the camera be in control.  You’re the HBIC.  And then when people say, “Oh you must have a nice camera” you can respond, “but I’m the one who tells it what to do.”  If you’ve never spot-metered before, try it and show me the results either in the via a link in the comments or on the FB page.


Disclaimer: sorry if this is a tad wrong and the terms are off.  I warned you.