Night (And Day) Photography Exposure—Taking A Meter Reading

Warning: This is a Soapbox post. Proceed with caution.

This is the first of a three-part article on exposure for night photography, as well as most other types of photography. In Part Two we’ll talk about choosing aperture, shutter speed, and ISO based on the scene. Part Three will look at how to evaluate the histogram to determine the best exposure. This one is mostly a personal rant about meters and the general approach toward exposure.

You have been warned. Twice.

Pentax Spotmeter V
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was shooting with a Pentax K100 and then the Nikon F3, this old Pentax Spotmeter V was always by my side. That was then. Times have changed.

I saw a post on Facebook awhile back that someone made about meters. After I stopped shaking my head, I thought I’d devote a few a lot of paragraphs to the subject. I sure don’t want to step on any toes or upset anyone, but I gotta tell you, some folks are making this thing a whole lot harder than it needs to be.

First, let’s talk about the meters themselves. There’s the one built into your camera and there’s the kind that’s not. The one in the camera is a called a “reflective” light meter, because it measures the light that has reflected off your subject. The kind of meter that is not in your camera is often referred to as a “handheld” meter, even though you also handhold the one that’s in your camera. A handheld meter can be a reflected type, or it can be an “incident” meter, which measures the light that is falling on your subject, not what is reflected off it.

If you are using a reflective meter, you point it at your subject. If you are using an incident meter, you point it at the light source.

Okay, listen carefully. That’s all you ever need to know about incident meters—the name and how it is different from a reflective meter. That’s it, because the only time you’ll ever truly need this information is if you’re in a conversation with someone who doesn’t even know that much about them. You sure don’t need to know anything more so you can use one of them in your photography.

Incident light meters died the day you got your digital camera.

How are those toes doing? Am I stepping too hard? Well, keep reading.

Actually, as far as I’m concerned, incident light meters died the day that the reflective light meters built into the camera became reasonably accurate, which has been all of my photographic life. (Nearly 30 years so far.) The problem with an incident meter is that it doesn’t allow for all the variables that are inherit with the light. Sure, it might be able to measure the light hitting the subject accurately, but it doesn’t account for variable aperture lenses, filters, magnification factors, and a host of other variables that can affect the actual light that’s reaching the sensor. You have to account for these things yourself by dialing in exposure compensation factors.

Gee, that’s exactly what I want to be doing when the sweet light is fading.

Why do all that? Why not just take a meter reading through the camera, which will automatically account for all these variables? I’ve been asking that question for, oh, some 30 years now.

I know some of you probably have never even heard of an incident meter and have never given any thought to meters besides the one in your camera. Good for you. Just keep thinking that way. But one day, you’ll run across a statement like this one I saw on the Internet: “…hand held meters offer the opportunity to take a much higher quality picture in a much wider variety of lighting situations.”

Uh huh. And the Internet offers the opportunity for a much wider variety of people to publish ridiculous statements.

There is absolutely no good reason for a night photographer (or a typical nature and outdoor photographer) to use a separate meter from the one in the camera. The meter in your camera is extremely accurate, it allows for all the variables that a separate meter doesn’t, and you always have it with you.

Let me try to head off some of you at the pass. Notice that I said “night” and “typical nature/outdoor” photographers. For some studio work, it’s a different ballgame, as it might be outdoors when shooting portraiture setups with multiple light sources. Plus, some medium- and large-format cameras don‘t have built-meters. I’m not suggesting that NO ONE should ever use a handheld meter. Even so, I think the studio and portrait folks could sometimes make better use of their in-camera meters. (Oh, and don’t even try to come back at me with the light meter app in your phone that you “always have with you so why not use it.” Sorry, but that’s no different from a regular handheld meter, except that it’s probably a lot less versatile, and I would argue, not as accurate.)     

So, how do you use the meter that’s in your camera? All of you have your steel-toe boots on? Okay, here goes. You push the shutter button to activate the meter and then you adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so that the meter indicates correct exposure. Then you take the picture.

Seriously? What about compensating for tonality? What about magnification factors? What about creative exposure adjustments? 

First, remember that when you use your camera meter, it is already accounting for magnification factors, variable apertures, and anything else that would affect the quantity of the light. All of the light that is being reflected from the subject has to pass through the atmosphere that’s between the subject and the camera, through any filter you have on the lens, and through the lens itself and the aperture opening, before the camera measures it. So it’s all being accounted for.

What’s not accounted for, though, are wide ranges in subject tonality and your creative objectives. You have to adjust for those yourself. But the best way to do that, at least for me, is to do it AFTER you take the first shot. Take the shot, then look at the LCD and/or the histogram and adjust the exposure as needed. Piece of cake.

I do this with EVERY photo I take, and I’ve done it ever since I stopped shooting film. The camera stays on matrix metering at all times. I never meter a subject and then decide how to adjust the exposure before shooting it. It is much quicker to grab the quick shot and then make adjustments based on the LCD and histogram.

I know what some of you are thinking. “But Kevin, what do you do in a situation where you are anticipating a shot that can’t be recreated, such as with wildlife or sports?” It’s a good question. For me, it’s not an issue because I don’t shoot wildlife or sports that often, but even if I did, it wouldn’t change my general approach. The only real difference is that I’d take periodic grab shots of the environment or sports venue in order to keep the exposure set properly and ready to fire when the action happens. In those rare situations where I anticipate a subject that is very dark or very light, such as with a black bear or polar bear, I’d compensate accordingly. But the underlying approach is still the same. I’d take a shot of the setting and adjust from there.

I’ve heard the argument that it takes too much time to take the shot first and then make adjustments. Really? If the exposure is one second long, it would take me about 6 seconds to take the shot, analyze it, and make any needed adjustments. How long do you think it would take to take a meter reading, analyze it, adjust the exposure settings accordingly, and then take the shot? I’m betting on longer than 6 seconds.

By using the histogram and LCD to make the exposure evaluation, you don’t have to think about subject tonality or metering patterns. No more of that crazy business of deciding whether the flower is one stop, or one and a half stops lighter than medium tone. I don’t know about you, but it took me a little time with each shot to make those determinations—a lot more time than it takes me now to grab a quick shot and evaluate the histogram.  

I’ve also heard that relying on your camera meter to do the job for you is sloppy and, believe it or not, that you have to take tons of photos to get a good one. This is simply nonsensical. First, I don’t take tons of photos just so I get a good one. I take ONE. After that one, I have the exposure nailed and if I take any additional ones, it is by creative choice. Second, what is sloppy about getting an accurate exposure in a matter of seconds, every time, guaranteed? Finally, in the real world that I photograph in, the meter in my camera is just as accurate as any independent handheld meter.

What about using a handheld reflective (not incident) meter? I know some people do that, but I don’t know why. Why not just use the one you already have, the one that’s always going to be right where you need it because it’s built into the camera? It’s just as accurate, and it measures the light after it has already passed through filters, magnification factors, and variable aperture lenses, so you don’t have to make any of those compensations. Oh, and did I mention that the meter in your camera is much more convenient to use because it’s BUILT INTO THE CAMERA?

One more thing about those incident meters. Besides not accounting for a host of variables that affect the amount of light that reaches the sensor, they don’t work well when you shoot closeups, backlighting, or with most any subject at night. And it’s just about impossible to measure accurately the light falling on a subject that is far away from you.

“But Kevin, there must be something more to all this exposure mess. I mean, people are still writing entire books on the subject.”

Yeah, and some people are still trying to figure out if that trillium is one stop, or one and a  half stops lighter than medium tonality before they take its picture. I’ve been accused of clinging to the past on a lot of things, but no one will ever accuse me of doing that with exposure. With film, you had to account for a lot of things that you don’t have to with digital. With digital, you can see the dang picture with your own eyes and determine if that flower is light enough or not.

But, of course, you know there has to be a catch. While you can easily judge composition and focus using the LCD, with exposure it’s not so straightforward. The preview image you see on the LCD is a JPEG rendering of the image file that the camera software has processed for you. Even if you shoot RAW, you’re still looking at a camera-software-generated JPEG on the LCD. So it could be a little lighter or darker than the way you would process it in your software of choice. The problem is there’s no way to know for sure with every photo, and if you make adjustments based solely on the preview image, you could be going in the wrong direction. The only way to be truly certain if you’re getting it right is to use the histogram, which opens up a new learning curve. We’ll talk about histograms in the next two installments. (And yes, I know that the histogram is also based on the JPEG rendering. We’ll talk about it.)

I should go ahead and mention that I have friends who never look at their histograms—only the LCD preview image— and they make great photos. In most situations that a typical photographer would be in, you’d be just fine with most shots. I mean, let’s be honest here. If the camera can take your RAW file and make a decent image from it, you should be able to do the same thing in Photoshop or Lightroom, right? Yes, you can, in most situations with most shots. But I don’t want to get good exposure most of the time. I want it every time! For that, you need to use both the LCD and histogram.
Okay, go put a bandage on those toes. I’ll try to step a little lighter in the next two installments.

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