Understand the Light Meter
So how do you know which settings to use? Good question. Well, I would say to you trial and error is one method. Another method is lots of practice and experience. The more experience you have, the more practice you do, the better you get at the trial and error. But the nice thing is that you actually have something in your camera built right in called your light meter. And your light meter is gonna help you start with this. It's gonna give you a starting point. So let's talk about what that looks like. Somewhere when you look through your viewfinder you've probably seen something like this. This is basically your light meter. The numbers that you have on it may range from camera model to camera model. Generally, you're gonna range from minus two to plus two, but I've seen some go as far as minus five to plus five. It just depends on your model. What this is telling you is the camera is measuring the light coming in. And there's all different ways to measure. There's different types of...
metering. We're not gonna get into that. Just know that it exists. But we're just gonna talk about in general. So light's coming in, the camera is measuring it, and it's showing you some sort of meter rating here. What it's doing is saying, whatever settings you currently have, so if I'm in manual mode, my camera is on, I take the lens cap off, I point it at something, the light meter is gonna tell me something. All it's saying is, with the current settings that I have for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, I either have too much light or not enough, or maybe it's just right. Does that make sense? It's relative to your current settings. Other places we see the light meter show up, again on this little display on the top of your camera, if you have it, or you will also see it when you look through your view finder. If you're shooting manual mode and you can control all of the dials and everything, you're probably holding the camera up here, so I would say for ease of operation, if you're not in the habit of shooting with the camera up to your eye, you probably wanna get there because it just makes life a lot easier and more fluid. Trying to hold your camera here and then change your settings and stuff gets a little awkward. So you wanna get used to looking at that. Let's talk now about how this works, and we're keeping this really general right now because I think it's helpful. Because I want you to understand the theory behind this and not get caught up in what's my f-stop, what's my exact shutter speed? Don't worry about it. Understand the concept, okay? Here's a very simple, crude graphic that I made up. Let's say we're pointing our camera at something. These are our settings. Notice there's no specific numbers. We're just looking at amount of light. Our shutter speed is letting in a lot of light so it's a slower shutter speed. We've got a lot of light coming in. The aperture is somewhere in the middle. ISO is up there. It doesn't really matter, the numbers, we're just talking about concepts. Our camera is pointed at a scene. Our light meter is telling us we are one stop, remember light is measured not in cups, like sugar, but stops. So we're one stop from what the camera thinks would be a good exposure. The little indicator is on the negative side. That means we're negative light. We're missing light. We need more light, the camera says, in order to get a good exposure. What could we do with our settings here to add more light? Anybody? Get a microphone so you guys can talk to me here. People at home are maybe, let me hear you. What could we do? We could adjust the shutter. If we need more light and we chose to get it by adjusting the shutter, what would we do with the shutter? Speed it up or slow it down?
[Male Audience Member] Down.
We'd slow it down so that it's open longer and it's getting more light. We could do that. I'm trying to remember where I went with this. We could adjust our aperture. We could adjust our ISO. Let's just say, again, this is where you make choices and there's not a wrong answer. Let's just say that we're like, I really love my shutter speed and my aperture here, so I don't wanna change them because I don't wanna change the way my action is being recorded and I love the exact depth of field that I have right now. How could we change this, then, with our ISO to increase the light in our scene? Anybody?
[Female Audience Member] Increase the ISO.
Increase the ISO. Oh look at that, we increase the ISO and look how happy the meter is. It's right in the middle now. Yay. Good job everybody. Next example, let's say, oh my gosh, now we're pointing our camera at some scene and whatever settings we've got going on here, we're looking through our view finder and the camera's going, light bright, light bright. We're two stops overexposed, or more. If your meter runs out at plus two, you could really be at plus five, but your meter just doesn't go there. So just know that. We're up against the wall over here. So we're at least two stop above. What could we do with our ISO, let's just say, to shave off that extra light?
Lower the ISO.
Lower the ISO. You guys are so smart. There we did, so we lowered the ISO and oh, it only saved us one stop. We're still one stop too much light. So, let's pretend that this is as low as it goes. We can't go any lower with the ISO. What else could we do? We have a shutter and an aperture. Let's say that we're shooting something that's motion dependent. So that's our main thing. We don't wanna mess with the shutter speed if we don't have to. Let's say, what could we do with the aperture to shave off that extra light? We're gonna open it up or squint it down.
Open it up.
If we open it up, we're gonna widen it, so then would we be getting more light or less?
Oh okay, yes.
We wanna squint it down, right? Because right now the meter says, you have too much light. Light bright. We have got one cup of sugar too much light (laughs). So we're gonna squint the aperture down, reducing the amount of light the aperture is letting in, and look now our meter is happy. Now let's go back. So let's say, here we are again. We've lowered our ISO so we're at plus one now. We're closer, but it wasn't enough. Now let's say, maybe we don't wanna change the aperture. We're against the wall here with ISO. Now let's say, well this time, let's adjust the shutter speed. And we need to get less light so would we speed it up or slow it down? Speed it up, right? So now we speed up the shutter, which reduces the light, and now the meter is happy again. Yay, okay so let's look at real photos and how this works. Here are numbers, so now don't panic. Hopefully by now you at least get the concept, right? The numbers are just numbers. Don't hang your hat on them. Here we have a scene in New York City and the camera says it's properly exposed, so the meter's happy right in the middle. And these were the settings that I used when I shot it. You could have shot the same photo over my shoulder with slightly different settings or completely different settings. It doesn't matter. But this is what I had for this and it was properly exposed and the action in the scene is frozen. Even at just a shutter speed of 1/ because people weren't sprinting to work. They're just walking. So I was able to freeze the action, even at 1/100, which is not a super fast shutter speed. And this was my f-stop and that was my ISO. Let's say that we want to blur the action in this. Let's say we wanna take this picture with motion streak. We're gonna go and do what with our shutter? If we wanna blur the action, are we gonna slow it down or speed it up?
Slow it down.
Slow it down, so now we have more light. So look, our meter is telling us, oh my gosh, plus two. I'm depicting the scene being blown out here. Just for your visual help here. We've slowed down the shutter, so I slowed it all the way to 1/4th of a second. I should have had a tripod. I don't know that I did. I held my breath in. You can also try to press your elbows against your ribs. I did that because I don't do tripods. I just, I don't know, can't do it. So I had slowed down the shutter, which brought in a ton more light. So the light meter's screaming at me. Plus two, plus two. So what can I do here to adjust that? Well I chose in this example to leave my ISO where it was, and I squinted my f-stop down, I squinted my f-stop down to f/22, shaving off all that light, and I got an equally properly exposed photo, so not too bright, not too dark, but now we can see some action, blur, happening. Does that make sense? You can even shoot the same scene in two different ways just in how you choose to combine your settings. And you just keep adjusting them until you get something that is agreeable with the light meter. Hopefully this is ringing some bells.
It absolutely is. Got a couple questions about metering. Do we wanna go through a little bit more or do you want me to ask them now?
Ask me now.
Perfect. First of all, people do talk about metering and what do you meter off of is a phrase that people use. Can you explain what that means for people who may not know. And then explain for Laura B 330 and one other, how do you choose what to meter off of in your scene.
There's different types of metering. There is something called evaluative or matrix metering which is basically a big generic average of light. The camera is looking through the lens and going, okay, there's this much light and here's a meter reading. You can also do what's called spot metering, where the camera is gonna meter from the very center only. Whatever's happening, if you have bright stuff going on on the sides, the camera doesn't care. It's only metering whatever is under the center of your frame. And then there's stuff in between, like there's center weighted metering, which is like centered, plus a little bigger area. There's all different kinds of metering. You just want to experiment and figure out what works for you. And honestly, the way that I work, I don't even get super obsessed with my metering mode because I'm using the meter, here is my next slide actually, I'm using the light meter only as a guide. Because it turns out, even if you're using center metering and whatever, you're just helping the camera try to help you with a more specific measurement, but it's still just, you're ultimately the boss. You either decide yes I like it, or no I don't. So it's still just really a guide. There are different options. I would say explore them if you're really curious about it, but again, you don't have to hang your hat on it or live and die by your light meter or your metering mode or whatever, because it's really just a guide. Let me show you, and maybe this will help.
Really quick, that was perfect because Melody Arodando and two others wanted to know whether you'd go over metering in those different modes and when to use them, etc.
I never change my metering mode, if that helps. Never. But that's just me, everyone is different.
And Jay Loza and three others wanted to say, when on manual mode, why do people sometimes meter on something else near the subject and then photograph the subject? Is it to lighten or darken the image?
To lighten or darken the image you do that by changing your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It may be that, for example, if you're shooting a bride in a big, white wedding dress, and if you're metering off her face, then you might end up making your exposure brighter, well you would, and her dress would possibly get blown out, meaning it's overexposed her dress because it's white, it's reflective so you may not see the lace or the beading or whatever is on it because you metered off her face so maybe her face looks good but her big, bright, white dress is now too bright. So sometimes people will meter off the dress so that they're making sure the dress is properly exposed, and then who cares about her face. I'm kidding. Then maybe you have a reflector or something throwing some more light on her face, or I never use reflectors either, but maybe split the difference. Or if you're shooting RAW, you can pull back maybe a little bit of detail in the dress, or you could dodge and burn their face. There's all kind of ways to work with that. You could also move your subject to a more even lighting environment as well to help with some of that. Good question.
Let's keep going.
Let me show you an example here. Again my son, what do you know, big surprise. Here's a picture of him. He's laying on our bed and I'm shooting directly into a big window. When the camera is looking at this, and I, again, I'm not changing my metering mode, so if you were in spot metering mode, this would be a situation where it would be helpful. But I think mine's just in evaluative. I never change it. Whatever it's in. The result, when I point the camera here, is the image ends up being underexposed because all this bright light is screwing up the measurement. So the camera is looking at this going, oh, there's so much light. You don't need to have a wide aperture or anything like that because there's so much light. Here's what the settings actually were. The meter was telling me this was a good combination of settings. And the settings I had at that moment were a shutter speed of 1/320, I had an aperture of f/2, and I had an ISO of 1600. And the meter said, yep, that looks good. And I said, uh no it doesn't. So, and this comes with experience. The more you practice and the more you shoot in manual mode, the more you start to go, yeah thanks for the little help meter, but I'm gonna do it differently. I know, because I very often almost always backlight my subjects like this, so that means that the light is coming from behind them, and I don't usually fill with the flash, so what I need to do is brighten the whole scene so that he is properly exposed, and then my backgrounds just disappear, which I like. I do that on purpose. What I do is I readjust my settings, and my meter is actually gonna say light bright, light bright. It's gonna be plus two, screaming at me, you're overexposing the scene, you're ruining everything. And I'm like, I know better than you meter, it's okay. So I changed my settings to brighten the scene and I got this, and he was even smiling about it. He was like, yeah mama, that's right. That's better. So here's what I did. I was 1/320 before on the shutter speed, so I didn't touch my aperture, I didn't touch my ISO, I just slowed my shutter speed down so I got my light through my slower shutter. And then the meter was freaking out yelling at me, but he looks good. So that's where it's really important to take test shots.