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Using Your Light Meter
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Using Your Light Meter

If built-in exposure meters are as sophisticated as camera manufacturers claim, why do people still get poorly exposed pictures? The truth is that while most built-in meters are fabulously accurate, they can be fooled. Fortunately, there are ways to wrestle difficult subjects into submission, provided you can recognize a difficult situation.

Light meters are calibrated to give you good exposure for subjects of average brightness; fortunately, most outdoor subjects are of average brightness. Problems pop up when you want to photograph subjects that are much lighter or darker than average. Rather than recording such scenes as you see them, the camera will see—and record—them as a medium tone. Instead of pristine white snow, you'll get a drab gray winter wonderland; instead of an inky-black horse, you'll get a gray nag.

If your subject is nearby, or very large, the simplest solution is to take a close-up reading and then adjust the exposure using your exposure-compensation dial (or manually) by a stop or two. To photograph this swan, for example, the photographer took a direct reading of the swan and then added 1 1/2 stops of exposure. This recorded the swan as white and still cast the water into blackness. To photograph a black bull in a meadow, take a reading from the animal and subtract one to two exposure stops to keep it black.

The problem gets tedious when you are photographing a relatively small average-toned subject against a very dark or light background—a friend lying on a bright sandy beach, for instance. The best recourse here is to use your spot-metering mode and take a reading of just the subject. This way, your main subject will be correctly exposed, even if, because of the contrast, you lose some detail in the background. Yet another solution is to scout the scene for something of average brightness—green foliage is good—and set your exposure for that.

Next: "Lights in Motion"