Master Light: Metering Modes, Angles, and Moods

Before we dive into the discussion on the importance of light, metering modes, angles, and moods, we need to have an understanding of the word “Photography“.

The word photography comes from a synergy of two Greek words – “light” and “graphé“. Where graphé connotes drawing and we all know what light signifies.

Photography = Drawing + Light

Together, the two Greek words mean drawing with light, which is a beautiful way to express the art and the science of photography. As a matter of fact, photography is a synergy of both these forms of human knowledge.

What you will Learn:

Why Light Matters

The thing is all types of photography are dependent on light. So, regardless of whether it is a portrait image that you are taking in bright outdoor conditions; say at the park, or whether you are shooting the Milky Way on a pitch black night somewhere in the middle of nowhere, you need light.

Beginner photographers often ask, “Why does light matter so much?” it is like questioning the existence of gravity. “Is gravity even real?” Of course, it is. We are all neck deep in it!

without light there cannot be any photography whatsoever.

The very basics of photography revolve around the ability of your camera to capture light.

Sans light our frames are in perpetual darkness. It is light and sometimes the lack of it that makes sense out of that fathomless darkness. So, it is imperative that you understand how light works, its nature, its changing mood and most importantly, how to work with it in a variety of situations. A good photographer is someone who has an excellent command over not only light but also camera settings and the techniques of post-processing.

What is Metering?

Metering is a term that you will hear quite often in photography. It denotes assessing the ambient light in the scene based on what your given parameters are and then deciding what camera settings to use in order to produce a well-exposed photo.

Confusing? Let’s elaborate this further.

Metering Explained

Metering is the assessment process of the camera to determine what combination of shutter speed and aperture would be good enough for a good exposure of the scene. The camera does this by using an array of techniques. But primarily it looks at the various tones in the scene, takes into consideration the scene mode that you have selected as well as the metering mode that you have selected to determine this.

You might be thinking, “How do I even select the metering mode if I don’t know what metering mode is?”

Don’t worry, the camera is set by default to Matrix metering mode, which is like the work in 90% of situation kind of mode. You should think about changing the metering mode when you improve as a photographer.

Built-In Meter vs. Hand-Held Meter

There is something else that you should know about in terms of metering and the built-in metering system on digital cameras. Digital cameras have an advantage in the sense that they have a built-in light meter. It was not the case with the older film cameras of yesteryears. That is precisely why you would find almost all photographers back in the old days carried an external hand-held light meter.

Related Post: Handheld Light Meter vs. Built-in Light Meter

Disadvantages of Using Built-in Light Meters

Coming back to the digital light meter thing (built-in light meter). The average camera has a meter that is designed to look at a given scene and then considers it to be of average brightness. This average brightness translates into something as 18% gray.

18% Gray = Average Brightness

18% gray is something that has an average reflectance. But all scenes are not 18% gray! Thus, if a scene is brighter than 18% gray the camera will pull down the exposure to make the scene 18% gray. And if the scene is too dark the camera will increase the exposure to make it 18% gray.

Now, this approach has an interesting implication. Let’s say that you have somebody standing in front of a black wall wearing a black dinner jacket. It’s horrible I know, but let’s just assume for the sake of this experiment. The camera which is trained to look at everything as if it is 18% gray will go bonkers when presented with a scene such as this. It will assume that the scene is super dark and therefore it will try to up the exposure. Doing so will take all the contrast in the scene out of the window.

Let’s take another example. Let’s say that your model wears a milk-white bridal gown and stands in front of a bright white wall (the reverse case scenario). The camera will again, assume that the scene is too bright. Which is not right. All there is are white walls and a white dress, but the average reflectance of that is too high and that’s what skews things.

In this situation, the camera will try to compensate for the brightness and pull down the exposure.

Related Post: Exposure Triangle Explained

Metering Modes

Metering modes denote how the metering system of the camera will assess the scene and then dial in the exposure settings. There are three main metering modes on most cameras. These are Matrix metering, Spot metering, and Center-weighted metering. Canon camera systems have a fourth metering system known as partial metering. Let’s take a closer look at these.

In the auto mode, the camera would meter the scene and determine the right exposure on its own. All you need to do is aim and press down the shutter button. While learning the light in photography you also need to understand the importance of the various metering modes as well as when each of the modes is applicable.

In others, you cannot use all of them in all situations. You have to assess the scene and the lighting and then choose the metering mode that is applicable in the situation.

👉 Matrix Metering

Matrix metering is a comprehensive metering mechanism that takes into account the whole of the scene when assessing the exposure values; i.e., aperture and shutter speed. Usually, when you unpack a camera out of a box, it will be set to this metering mode by default. It has its pros and cons.

As explained above the frailties of the modern built-in digital meter means it is always susceptible to the brightness of the colors in the scene. As the metering mode tries to ‘average’ the exposure across the scene, some parts of the scene will be too bright and others will be dark. In the case of scenes which are normally bright, they will appear darker because of this. The same way scenes which are normally dark will appear brighter than they are.

👉 Spot metering

Spot metering, on the other hand, is all about finding that one spot which is close to being 18% gray and then using that as the metering reference for the rest of the scene. This metering mode samples only about 1.5% of the entire frame. It is not small enough to compare with the accuracy of normal hand-held light meters.

Nevertheless, it is still smaller than center-weighted metering and therefore should give you better metering accuracy. One of the specific uses of Spot metering is when I am shooting landscape. Then another example of the use of Spot metering is when you are shooting in difficult and uneven lighting. I actually have my camera set to spot metering 90% of the time and it works for me.

👉 Center-Weighted Metering

Center-weighted metering is about using the Matrix metering mode that we learned above with a slight twist in the tale. This metering system places greater importance towards the center of the frame. But it does consider the rest of the frame too when calculating the exposure values. Thus, this metering mode is perfect for scenes where the subject is at the center of the frame. A portrait is the first example which comes to my mind.

Another instance you could use center-weighted metering in is when shooting backlit shots. Though the rest of the frame will also be considered, as the face is backlit the exposure will be more accurate than when using matrix metering.

👉 Partial Metering

This particular metering is available only on Canon system. Partial metering works as the go-between spot metering and center-weighted metering systems. This particular metering mode is perfect for scenes where the subject is towards the center and that too is slightly closer to the camera. Because this metering mode uses about 6% of the frame for assessing the exposure value. Flowers and faces and products would be ideal to shoot with this metering mode.

To recap metering modes you may want to watch this video from SLR Lounge:

Camera Angles

There is something known as camera angles in photography. The view looking at your subject can sometimes influence the way the subject is represented in the picture. Also, using the right camera angle is just as important as the right light in photography itself. The right camera angle can actually accentuate the light and make things appear more epic.

👉 Eye-Level

The most commonly used camera angle is the eye level. Looking straight towards the subject and taking a picture is the most natural thing to do. But there are many other camera angles that you can use.

The low angle, e.g., is one which is very rarely used but gives a completely fresh perspective to everyday moments. Sometimes low angles can help you achieve the perspective when telling a story from the point of a view of a child or a pet. This particular angle is hard to fathom but produces really cool images when done well.

The higher camera angle is yet another interesting way to capture photos. These days with the help of tools such as drones, it is possible to capture a higher angle very easily.

Taking a cue from filmmaking techniques, we now look at a couple of camera angles that are popular with filmmakers.

One of them is the medium shot and the other is the medium close up shot. The medium shot covers the head up to just below the waist. Video camera angles are always landscape and therefore expect to capture a reasonable amount of the immediate environment.

Related Post: How to Shoot Full Body Portrait Photos (Light & Lens Tips)

This works great as an environmental portrait shot. Preferably when the subject is off-center. The medium close up takes the head and the bust up to the chest. Which is also great for interesting portraits and includes some of the immediate environment.

👉 Over the Shoulder

Over the shoulder is a camera angle that is sometimes used to capture the image from the perspective of the subject’s POV. It is an interesting camera angle and very rarely used in still photography. But it is more frequently used in video work. Nevertheless, this is something that you can experiment and use in your work.

Light Sets the Mood of your Photographs

One of the important things to master when it comes to light is how light can set the mood of your photo.

By mood, I mean how cheerful or how dark or sinister the protagonists in the image would appear according to the changing light.

I have detailed the various types of light that you can shoot in. Beginner photographers would often start shooting in natural light. Which is perfectly fine. This is because even though it is difficult to shoot with there are no demons in natural light. It is perfectly possible to capture great images in natural light any time of the day. You just have to know how.

Types of Light

In one of our previous discussions, I wrote at length about the various types of light, i.e., hard, soft and how to work with each of these types of light. I am not going to reiterate them here. Just a few examples of how you can use light in different ways to set the tone of your images.

The early morning and late afternoon light (also referred to as the golden hour) is often spoken about as the best light to shoot in. There is no doubt that this light is beautiful. Portrait photographers (as well as landscape photographers) prefer to shoot outdoors during these two times of the day.

But did you know that this light is also beautiful for shooting landscapes? A mountain range, for example, can be captured the best when you use a strong directional light of the morning / late afternoon.

Related Post: Best Time To Take Pictures Outside (Blue and Golden Hour)

Hard light is often the bane of photographers. But hard light can be interesting when it is used in a controlled environment. A studio perhaps, where you can use hard light to set up a really moody portrait shot. Placed directly above the subject, a hard light will produce those raccoon eyes that can make the portrait appear really eerie.

You can place a light towards the side, and create what is known as partial lighting. It is yet another example of a hard lighting set-up which works for a moody, textured portrait.

Fog and Haze

An impressive aerial top view of the Dubai Skyline on a foggy day.
An impressive aerial top view of the Dubai Skyline on a foggy day.

Foggy and hazy weather is probably something no one wants to photograph in. That is until they see some of the most breathtaking photographs that have fog/haze in them and shot against the backdrop of iconic structures. Sometimes you can deliberately underexpose your subject to the point that it becomes nothing more than a silhouette. If you are wondering whether it would look great, be rest assured it will. Read more about shooting on bad days.

Related Post: Best Low Light Cameras

Rain

Still on the subject of bad light and bad weather. I have seen beginner photographers avoid bad weather like the plague. But time and again bad weather can produce some very interesting shooting situations. Such as rain and backlighting with your subject silhouetted is a potent mix for an interesting shot. Read more about the different times of the day when you can take photos here.

Capturing Silhouettes

Military silhouettes of soldiers against the backdrop of sunset sky.
Silhouettes of soldiers against the backdrop of the sunset sky.

Silhouettes (both of humans and architecture) is a nice way to utilize natural light. The outline of someone or something are not that difficult to find. They are more readily seen when the light is lower down the horizon like in the image above.

You can also capture silhouettes when there is no ambient light at all and the scene is only lit using artificial lights. Such as a flash going off behind the subject in a foggy weather or a rainy scene in which a couple is standing under an umbrella with a speedlight firing behind them like in the image below.

A silhouette of a couple under an umbrella in the rain at night.
A silhouette of a couple under an umbrella in the rain at night backlight by an artificial light source.
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