Even for experienced photographers, metering and how to take an exposure reading on your camera can be confusing, but the basics are easy to get to grips with…
All digital cameras have a built-in light meter which is used to calculate the exposure settings for a given scene.
Without getting bogged down in aperture and shutter speed, the most important thing to realise is that built-in light meters are programmed to expose every image as an average mid-tone.
This is fine for most scenes, because they contain a mix of shadows, mid-tones and highlights that average out to a mid-tone.
But the meter will also expose very light subjects (such as snow) or very dark subjects (such as black card) as a mid-tone, so you need to be aware of this to avoid poorly-exposed images.
Choose a metering mode
In most situations average metering, also known as Evaluative (Canon) or Matrix (Nikon) is the best choice. In this mode the camera uses readings taken from various parts of the scene to calculate an average.
If your scene is mostly mid-tone or is a good mix of tones, such as a sunlit landscape under a blue sky, then evaluative is fine, but if you’re shooting a subject that has a lot of very light or dark areas (or both) then using Spot metering is the answer, as this allows you to meter very precisely from a mid-tone in the picture.
Choose an exposure mode
Exposure modes can be fully automatic (e.g. Program or P mode); partially automatic (e.g. Aperture or Shutter Priority mode); or fully manual (Manual mode).
For complete control over exposure, Manual is the best option, and it’s well worth mastering taking a meter reading using this mode.
Aperture Priority mode is often the next best option as it enables you to select the aperture and let the camera work out the shutter speed.
Shutter Priority mode can be useful if you need to set a specific shutter speed (to capture motion blur, for example), whilst Program mode relinquishes full control to the camera, which is not a good thing.
Canon metering modes: how to get perfectly exposed images in any situation
Beginner photography tips: the most common mistakes and how to avoid them
Histogram – photography cheat sheets for achieving perfect exposure
What is ISO: camera sensitivity settings and the best ways to use them
How to choose the best AF mode
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