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If you shoot with a digital camera, you've probably experienced the ease with which you can adjust the exposure of your shots. For example, if you take a shot in the Manual mode and the result on the LCD looks too dark, you can simply adjust your shutter speed or aperture settings to increase the exposure level and then take another shot. And by observing the Exposure Level Indicator as you shoot, you will get better at capturing a good exposure the first time (check out the lesson on this site entitled, "Getting The Best Possible Exposures, And Then Some" for a closer look at the Exposure Level Indicator).

However, there are inevitably those fleeting situations where you don't have the time to figure out the best Manual exposure settings and you need to get the shot off right away. How you set and operate your exposure meter will greatly affect the way your exposures, as well as how your compositions, will turn out.

This lesson examines how to shoot in the Spot-Metering mode to ensure optimal exposures.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • A look at different metering choices
  • Shooting in the ESP meter mode
  • How to shoot in the Spot meter mode
  • Determining the optimal meter point
  • Creating perfect renditions of high contrast scenes
  • Similar examples

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


  • Olympus E-1
  • Olympus 512MB CompactFlash card
  • A sturdy tripod

    With most cameras, there are a few exposure-metering modes to choose from. Depending on the lighting situation, you can select the best mode to capture the optimal exposure. Here, we will examine the ESP and Spot modes in the Olympus E-1 camera. Keep in mind that these metering modes apply to most other cameras as well.

    In the E-1, there are 3 different metering modes: ESP, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The chart below illustrates the differences between these modes:

    Metering Modes

    Metering Modes

    Under most lighting conditions, you will do well to leave the metering mode set to the ESP (or Matrix) mode. In this mode, as is mentioned in the chart above, the camera meters the overall scene and determines the proper exposure settings. However, in high-contrast or backlit situations, the ESP mode may not be suitable to properly expose your subject matter.

    For example, we recently took some shots with an Olympus E-1 digital camera in this snow-strewn field to demonstrate how high contrast scenarios can affect your exposures (figures 1 & 2).

    First, we decided to take a shot with the metering mode set to ESP. To set the mode to ESP in the E-1, turn the power on, press and hold the Meter button located to the left of the viewfinder and turn either the Main dial or the Sub dial until ESP appears in the control panel (figures 3 & 4).

    Then set the Mode dial to one of the auto exposure modes (P: Program, A: Aperture Priority, S: Shutter Priority) and frame up your shot. As is illustrated here, we typically like to shoot in the Aperture priority mode for auto-shooting, since this allows us to determine our depth of field. You can use either the Main or Sub dials to adjust your Aperture setting.

    After we set the exposure mode to Aperture and set the aperture to f/4, we then set the FOCUSING mode to MF, set the ISO to its lowest setting (100), set the RESOLUTION to TIFF, and set the White Balance to DAYLIGHT to match the color temperature of the sun (5500 K). Once everything was dialed in, we took a shot (figure 5).

    Figure 5

    As you can see from the result, the exposure is pretty good, considering how high the contrast is, but that there are areas that are both underexposed (the trees) and overexposed (the sky). While there is no exposure setting to properly expose the trees and sky in such a situation, there is a method you can use to expose the important part of the image where you want it. This method is called Spot Metering.

    Both Center-weighted and Spot metering modes are good to use in high contrast situations where you know that certain parts of the shot are going to be either over-exposed or underexposed. However, Spot metering allows you to be more precise in most situations, so that is what we typically use.

    To properly expose the important part of the shot in a high-contrast situation, first set the metering mode to Spot (figure 6).

    Next, aim the camera so that your subject (or tonally optimal section of the shot, which we'll illustrate later) is targeted in the very center of the frame, and press and hold the shutter halfway down. Then re-compose the shot if necessary and press the shutter the rest of the way down to capture the image.

    Figure 6

    In this first example, we positioned the camera so that the trees were in the center of the frame, pressed the shutter halfway down to lock exposure, reframed somewhat and took a shot (figures 7 & 8).

    In the result shot, you can see that even though the sky and foreground are heavily over-exposed, the trees and hay bales are rendered well. (Remember that in many cases, it is okay to have certain areas of your shot be either over-exposed or under-exposed, as it can help to draw the attention to the important part of the shot.)

    Let's look at some other areas in this scene that we can meter. Next, we swung the camera up so that the sky was in the center of the frame. We locked exposure by pressing the shutter halfway down, recomposed the shot and pressed the shutter the rest of the way down (figures 9 & 10).

    Now the exposure is rendered at the other extreme. There is good detail in the clouds, but the rest of the shot is heavily under-exposed. And because the composition was not chosen to draw attention to the sky, the image is not very interesting.

    Now let's try to achieve a middle ground, as it were, by locking exposure on the middle hay bale (figures 11 & 12).

    This result is much more balanced, although the detail in the foreground seems a little too bright. Keep in mind that whenever you meter off an object that is cast in shadow, regardless of its tonal neutrality (an object or area that is midway between black and white), you will often find that the areas not in shadow will become over-exposed.

    When conditions permit, it is often ideal to meter off a neutrally toned object that is not in shadow to optimally balance the exposure. In this case, we swung the camera over to the right, locked exposure on the brush, repositioned the frame and took another shot (figures 13 & 14).

    As you can see, this is probably the most tonally balanced shot of the bunch. Even though the sky is over-exposed, it doesn't really interfere with the rest of the shot. The snow in the foreground is bright, but not blown out, and there is good detail in the hay bales, brush and even in the trees.

    Here is a side-by-side comparison of the shots taken so far (figure 15).

    Figure 15

    For those of you who want to create perfect exposures of high-contrast situations, it is possible to exceed the ability of the camera by digitally merging layers of the same image at different exposures.

    Here, we set the camera on a tripod and took several shots at varying exposures. Once we were back in the studio, we used Layer Masks in Adobe Photoshop to create a composite of this scene. Notice the tonal differences between our optimal exposure taken off the brush and our digitally modified result (figures 16 & 17).

    By merging the different exposures together, you can have every element of the shot exposed where you want it. To learn more about merging images together using Layer Masks, check out the lesson on this site entitled, "Getting The Best Possible Exposures, And Then Some", located in the Outdoor section.

    Here is another example of how using the Spot Meter can make a critical difference in your exposures. In this same field, we came across another high contrast situation: a few tufts of field grass in front of a background of trees and sky.

    First, we set the meter mode to ESP and took a shot (figures 18 & 19).

    Again, the overall exposure is pretty good, but the grass seems a little under-exposed, so we decided to hone in with the Spot meter.

    We set the meter to Spot and for comparison purposes, we first metered off the trees in the background (figures 20 & 21).

    As you might have guessed, locking down an exposure reading off the darkest area of an image will render an overexposed image. This was no exception.

    Finally, we took a reading off the neutrally-toned tuft of grass itself and took a shot (figure 22).

    Figure 22

    As you can see from the results, the Spot metering technique gave us the better exposure

    Here you can see the differences between the exposures (figure 23).

    Figure 23

    Keep in mind that while it's good to read and learn about how metering works, we strongly recommend that you spend some time practicing these techniques so that they will become second nature to you. Once that happens, you'll be able to get the exposure you want very quickly. And that can make the difference between a great shot and a missed opportunity.

    Equipment Used:
    You can click on the blue links below for more info.


    • Olympus E-1
    • Olympus 512MB CompactFlash card
    • A sturdy tripod

      Recommended Links

      • To learn more about Photoflex equipment, go to www.photoflex.com
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        up for access to the Member Lessons.

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