Metering tips for black and white photographers
If the metering systems in today’s digital cameras are so sophisticated, why are there so many different metering modes, and why do we still have to override them now and again?
The problem is that however complex these metering systems become, they are never going to understand what they’re actually measuring.
The meter can’t tell the difference between bright and dark objects and bright and dark lighting, and it can’t predict the photographer’s own intentions about how the scene should look.
Multi-pattern metering systems split the scene up into segments, measure the light level in each and compare the overall light distribution to a number of typical ‘scenes’ to try to arrive at an intelligent guess at the correct exposure.
This gives good results more often than older metering systems, but it has its own problems.
The main one is that because it’s so sophisticated, and will adapt its reaction according to the conditions, it becomes difficult to predict when the meter is going to get it wrong.
If you prefer to interpret the lighting conditions yourself and simply use the camera’s meter as a ‘dumb’ measurement tool, then centre-weighted metering may be better.
It’s more easily influenced by backlighting and bright skies than multi-pattern metering, and this can lead to underexposure.
On the other hand, multi-pattern systems often allow highlight detail to burn out, so if you’re after the maximum dynamic range to produce the perfect ‘digital negative’, centre-weighted metering can be more reliable.
The third alternative is spot metering, where the light is measured in a small, central section of the frame only.
This enables you to take very precise light readings, but it needs to be handled with care, and for three reasons.
Firstly, it’s easy to overestimate or underestimate the size of the spot, or not position it accurately enough, so that you’re not measuring the light precisely in the area you intended.
Secondly, if you take a light reading from an area which is intrinsically light or dark, this will distort the measurement.
Thirdly, even if your spot reading is perfectly accurate, the picture may still come out looking ‘wrong’ if the rest of the scene is very much darker or brighter.
Pictorially, the whole image needs to look right, not just a tiny section of it.
PAGE 1: The black and white photographer’s guide to lighting direction
PAGE 2: The black and white photographer’s guide to light quality
PAGE 3: Understanding point source lighting
PAGE 4: Working with natural light in black and white
PAGE 5: Metering tips for black and white photographers
PAGE 6: Exposure tips for black and white photographers
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