Knowing when to use spot metering is one of the questions we often hear from photographers who are struggling to get accurate exposures.
The default matrix, or multi-segment, metering on most digital cameras is accurate and reliable in most shooting situations.
However, if you’re shooting into the light or against a light or dark background, the results can be under- or overexposed (for more on using light, read See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light). It’s not always easy to get the exact light level you want using exposure compensation.
For complete control, use spot metering. Instead of taking several readings all over the subject, your camera’s spot meter takes one from a tiny area of the subject.
Spot metering requires a little more effort than matrix metering but can give much better results.
The trick is to position the test area over the correct part of the subject. As with all metering systems, the exposure you’re given will be based on a mid-tone.
So, once you know when to use spot metering, such as in our original image above, you need to meter from an area of the subject that you want to be recorded as a midtone. Here’s how it’s done…
How and when to use spot metering
01 Spot the mode
To change the metering mode on most cameras, either go to the shooting menu or press the metering mode button and use the input dial. Spot metering is shown by a small dot in the centre of the metering display. High-end cameras often have a metering mode switch.
02 Make your change
Spot metering is available in the P, A, S or M modes, so make sure you’re using one of these. For subjects such as portraits where you want control over the depth of field, it’s easiest to use Aperture Priority (A) mode, which enables you to control the aperture selection.
03 Select the AF area
The spot metering region is linked to the autofocus area on most Nikons, so make sure you’ve selected the single-area AF mode. Now select the AF area using the four-way selector on the back of the camera. It should match the area of the subject you want to be in focus.
04 Use AE-L
To control the exposure and focusing separately, make sure the AE-L/AF-L button is set to ‘AE lock only’ in the Custom Settings menu. This means you can lock the exposure from the spot meter, then focus by half-pressing the shutter release.
SEE MORE: How to use AE Lock to control exposure
05 Pick a point
Position the focus point over the area of the subject you want to be a mid-tone. Then press and hold the AE-L button on the back of the camera. For portraits, the point you need will usually be a skin tone. It could be grass or foliage for outdoor shots.
06 Focus and shoot
While holding down the AE-L button, you can now recompose your shot and focus on the main subject by half-pressing the shutter release. Once you’re happy with how the focus and composition look, it’s time to take your shot and see the effects of spot metering.
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