Light Metering

010_AbqRailRunnerSleeperAnd now some bad news … light meters cannot be trusted at night.

But the good news … there’s no big mystery to understanding how light meters respond to nocturnal lighting conditions.

First of all, light meters don’t work in the dark, otherwise they would be called dark meters. When light meters fail, you are literally left in the dark, not knowing what to do next.

Secondly, light meters are overly influenced by light sources. Excluding light sources from your metering frame will remove the interference. Pointing your light meter in a different direction with similar lighting is the best approach.

If you are anticipating an expanded moment with incoming or outgoing light, you can trust a light meter reading taken without light sources. It is safe to vary your shutter speed a bit to capture the changes you’re after.

You need not worry about metering light sources directly, they will take care of themselves, as will lighting changes introduced during exposure.

Light meters only help us find the best “starting point” exposure. Keep in mind, you still need to Bracket to cover your ass.

Follow these steps to determine your “starting point” exposure when using your light meter:

HOW TO : Light Metering

  • review Bracketing steps outlined in Exposure Guidelines
  • pick your own aperture, or use the setting recommended in Aperture Settings
  • make sure your digital Auto Exposure (AE) is set to MANUAL

HOW TO : Light Metering Conditions

  • if light metering with light sources, go to Action #1
  • if light metering without light sources, equal shadows and highlights, go to Action #1
  • if light metering without light sources, more shadows than highlights, go to Action #2
  • if light metering without light sources, more highlights than shadows, go to Action #3
  • if light meter does not work because it is too dark, go to Action #4

HOW TO : Light Metering Actions

  1. use metered shutter speed for starting point exposure
  2. use double the shutter speed for starting point exposure
  3. use half the shutter speed for starting point exposure
  4. use 15 seconds for starting point shutter speed

IMAGE : Rail Runner & Sleeper, Albuquerque, NM

In 2010 I was one of six photographers selected by the Albuquerque Arts Program to photograph the city. My portfolio, “Rhythm of the Night”, depicts people and the city in motion. This is one image I shot for the assignment.

The Rail Runner is a commuter train that runs between Santa Fe and Belen. I went to the downtown station, and the first thing I noticed was this guy asleep on the bench.

To capture him with a train pulling into the station, I first set my aperture to f16 to handle the long depth of field.

The bright lights impacted my light meter, so I pointed my camera down, excluding the direct lights, to measure the proper shutter speed. I then doubled the shutter speed to record the details in the shadows.

Four trains came and went, and the sleeping guy never budged. This gave me the opportunity to capture more than one exposure of a train arriving while he slept.

The trains approached me very slowly, giving me the time I needed for my exposures. Eventually a train left and the guy was gone. I guess he woke up at the right time.

The small aperture setting created thinner light trails. It also increased the aperture starring of the bright lights.

The wide angle image was a 30 second exposure shot at f16 with TMAX 3200 film.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryWarmCool

I selected a warm tint with cool highlights to strengthen the tonal separation and enhance the clean, sharp look of the lights and light trails.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App SuiteProfiler. The Profile was derived from the “GalleryWarmCool” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Light Metering

Challenge yourself by photographing scenes that are “too dark” and “too light”. That is, search for subjects that are difficult to meter, as well as ones that include light sources.

Follow the light metering steps to determine the “starting point” shutter speed for your desired aperture setting. Perform your bracketing steps as usual.

When there are light sources in your composition, practice metering by excluding the lights from your reading.

Record the exposure choices you made to begin each bracketing session. Review the results to learn from your experience using your light meter.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

NEXT TIME : “The Eye In Discovery”


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