Back to Basics: Metering & Exposure Compensation

Andrew Beck Andrew 2 Comments

Okay, so there is one more pretty technical piece that we need to cover in the Back to Basics series before moving on to the more exciting stuff. That is exposure and exposure compensation.

I’m going to try and make the various metering modes simple to understand using a couple of “out of the box’ illustrations which I hope will resonate with some of you.

Metering

Every camera has a sensor which, when exposed to light, creates an image. The camera also has a secondary sensor which measures the light that’s coming through the lens and determines how much is needed to produce a “well-exposed” image based on the scene you’re pointing your camera at. As light is reflected from a scene or subject through the lens, it hits the mirror in front of the imaging sensor and is reflected up to the camera’s focusing screen and metering sensor and the camera assigns a shutter speed (in Auto, P and AV) modes.

Cameras these days allow you to control how much of a scene is taken into account when calculating the exposure of an image through a number of metering modes and, if you’d like to find out more about that right now, you can check out this post. Otherwise, lets assume that you are using the most common of these modes, evaluative or matrix metering.

In this metering mode, readings from around 80% of a scene (with a slight bias towards your active AF point) are taken  in order to calculate the shutter speed necessary for obtaining a “correctly exposed” image.

Got it?

Good…

Now, lets see how this works in the field.

Assume we are shooting in evaluative metering mode and we have selected the right hand focus points to achieve focus on our very bright white egret to the right of frame. The camera will now measure light across pretty much the entire frame with a bias towards the active focus point.

Evaluative Metering OEV

Now, this is where I’m going to share how my mind works to try and illustrate what happens when the camera meters of the scene and gives you a shutter speed based on your desired aperture value and ISO setting. Please keep in mind that these are not actual values but I’m using this to illustrate the way evaluative metering mode works – bare with me on this one!

In order to correctly expose the darker areas of a scene the camera would need to use a slower shutter speed (1/125) in order to allow sufficient light in and correctly expose these shadows or darker areas. At the same time the camera is picking up average shutter speeds for the mid tone areas (1/250 – 1/320) and then a very fast shutter speed (1/1000) for the bright egret which takes up only a small portion of the frame.

Evaluative Metering With Shutter Speeds OEV

Based on all of this information the camera then averages out the shutter speeds to keep the exposure “in the middle” and not too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed). In this instance the camera may have chosen an average shutter speed of 1/320 to capture this scene. As you can see, the egret ends up being overexposed but we can see some detail in the shadows.

Thats an example of a bright subject on a dark background, now lets look at the converse.

Here is an Open-billed Stork set against a bright background and, in evaluative metering mode, the camera once again measures light across pretty much the entire frame with a bias towards the active focus point.

Evaluative Metering II OEV

Using my hypothetical analogy of assigning shutter speeds across the scene where the camera is metering from, the camera may have decided on something along the following lines.

Evaluative Metering with Shutter Speeds II OEV

Clearly the scene is dominated by faster shutter speeds (1/1250) assigned by the camera to ensure that the bright water does not end up being over exposed. Unfortunately for us, the dark subject which occupies only a small portion of the frame has only two shutter speeds of 1/125 assigned to it. In the bigger picture (pun intended) the bright water wins the battle and the camera would have chosen a shutter speed of 1/1250 which is too fast a shutter speed to render our subject correctly exposed.

Does this look familiar to you? If you have ever tried to photograph a Lilac Breasted Roller or any other bird in flight against a bright sky in evaluative metering mode you will almost always end up with a dark subject and a beautifully exposed sky.

This will explain why you will often look at an image of a scene on your camera and feel disappointed. Perhaps your subject is too dark or perhaps too bright based on what you had hoped or envisaged. Its all around how the camera doesn’t actually know what creative effect you are wanting to achieve or what kind of light your subject is actually reflecting. The camera is simply trying to give you the best of both worlds and balance out the entire scene.

Not ideal though right?

Thats where exposure compensation comes into play.

If you’ve grasped this concept the next step in the puzzle should be pretty simple.

Exposure Compensation

Example 1: A Subject against a bright background

In evaluative metering, the camera will be giving you an exposure value based on the entire scene. In this instance the camera would balance out the bright sky and the dark subject resulting in an image which is pretty dark. Using manual exposure compensation we can dial in an exposure compensation value of +1 which, using the initial metering as a base, will force the camera to brighten (over-expose) the scene by one full stop.

Manual-Exposure-Compensation

Whilst the sky may not be as dark and may even be leaning towards being over-exposed, I am not phased by this as the exposure of my subject is much better with detail in the shadows and even the mid-tones being presented in a much more appealing way than the cameras initial evaluation.

Example 2: Shooting with a Wide Angle Lens

Shooting with a wide angle lens, whilst including more of a scene, often results in the camera having to deal with a greater range of light intensities across a scene. Even with a very cloudy top 2/3 of the frame, the camera’s initial evaluation of the scene results in a rather dark image – especially if we are judging this by the exposure of our subjects in the bottom of the frame.

Understanding that the camera will assign more priority to the sky which takes up 2/3 of the scene we can make a manual exposure compensation adjustment which tells the camera to brighten up the scene by +2/3 and then +1 full stop which results in a better overall exposure.

Manual-Exposure-Compensation-II

Again, in aperture priority this is achieved by a change (reduction) in the shutter speed which allows more light to fall onto the sensor. Sometimes the exposure compensation adjustments may result in a less than optimal shutter speed (eg less than 1.focal length) which may then in turn require you to increase your ISO.

It all comes back to Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

Example 3: Creating Mood in an Image

One of the reasons that photographers love that early morning and later afternoon light is the fact that it creates depth in a scene. It is often the keylighting that falls on a subject whilst the rest of the frame is dominated by the long shadows that adds that little something extra to a scene.

Evaluative metering, by virtue of the fact that the entire scene is evaluated, often ends up washing out these kinds of scenes as the camera tries to bring back details into the shadows. The example of this young hyena photographed in the early morning light is a great example of how some sort of manual exposure compensation is need in order to preserve and enhance the mood of the scene.

Manual-Exposure-Compensation-IV

Underexposing by 1 full stop here darkens all of the shadows in the and really makes our subject pop from the scene. Without exposure compensation the shadows become a washed out grey and the bright light falling onto the hyena almost results in our subject being a bit overexposed.

Another example from the Kafue National Park shows how underexposing what is predominantly a dark scene with soft keylighting results in an image with a lot more mood.

Manual-Exposure-Compensation-III

Apart from preserving the details in the fine areas of white on the chin, underexposing makes the dark areas darker and just makes the areas with good light more prominent.

Example 4: Sunrise & Sunset

Again, looking at how the camera will evaluate this scene we have a ball of bright orange and a predominantly dark landscape. The camera, in evaluative metering mode, will try to find an exposure which copes with the bright sun whilst trying to expose/preserve some of the details in the shadows. The result, a washed out scene with an overexposed sun.

Manual-Exposure-Compensation-IIII

Underexposing by a full stop (-1EV) preserves more of the highlights in the sun and preserves more of the yellow, orange and red tones. Underexposing by two full stops (-2EV) does so to an even greater extent. Perhaps too much so.

Which is correct?

That’s up to you and what you are wanting to capture and create.

In Summary…

Evaluative metering does a pretty good job 90% of the time but being aware of whether you want to make the scene and your subject darker (underexposing) or brighter (over exposing) can make a massive difference to your final image.

In the way that I analyse a scene and capture an image, I am constantly aware of the light within the scene and will more often than not, make some sort of manual exposure compensation adjustment which uses the cameras initial evaluation of the scene (based on evaluative metering mode) as a starting point before being adjusted to either underexpose (darken, faster shutter speed) or overexpose (brighten, slower shutter speed) a scene.

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About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

Comments 2

  1. Sandi Allan

    I only recently started experimenting with exposure compensation and it has had a positive impact on my images .

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      Hi Sandy, it is a vital concept to understand and one which will have a dramatic impact on the overall mood of your images.

      Looking forward to seeing the results on IG!

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