How To Fool Your Meter In Bright Light

Well we aren’t actually going to fool the meter because it’s a machine and fooling really refers to someone not something. But I like the title because we are going to take some steps to make the meter do what we want it to do even though it is telling us to do something else. This refers, of course, to those tricky lighting situations that the meter, acting alone, will get totally wrong.

I’m going to use some grab shots of an osprey nest on Captiva Island that illustrate the point. They aren’t wonderful, but they’ll work perfectly for this topic.

Wait. Back up. Before we get to fine tuning the exposure, we have to be careful about where the autofocus is focusing when you have two objects that are close together. My sloppy technique caused a major autofocus meltdown in this shot.


Hey, wonderful foliage, but the subject is the nest, so this one is obviously headed for the delete file…

With the next one below, I shaped up and made sure the focusing square covered the area I wanted in sharp focus.

Much better…

My focus was so bad in the first image, that it was easy to spot it on the LCD screen. Normally, if you run quick checks of your focus on the screen, it is too small to show focusing errors—everything looks okey-dokey in the small frame. So to be sure, use your zoom setting to zoom in on the photo as you view it. If the focus is off, the enlarged section of the image will be blurry even on the small screen.

Ok. Focus is good to go. Now down to the topic at hand.

Shooting a subject with a lot of bright sky included will cause the metering system in your camera to go “uh-oh,” and the meter will make some automatic decisions you won’t like. It thinks, “This scene is too bright, so to achieve 18% middle gray, (all meters are calibrated to achieve 18% middle gray), I’m going to have to shut down a lot.”

When the meter shuts down, the dark image against the sky receives even less exposure. Jeez.

To correct this problem, flip your control dial to manual and set your shutter speed at 1/250th of a second (our go-to setting for shutter speed with animals). Then point your meter at something with a middle gray tone. Take a reading off that color value, set your aperture and shoot. (Hint…your aperture value will go down, so that the exposure will be based on a correct reading of the tones in the middle gray object you are metering.)

Here’s a photo with no adjustment to the exposure.

Now here it is below with the meter correction. In this case, I followed my old rule of thumb, which is to always set my shutter speed to 1/250th of a second to stop the animal movement, and adjusted the aperture accordingly. So the reading of the bird with the poor exposure was 250th of a second at f/16. To achieve a good exposure, I bumped down the aperture to f/8.

If you understand the concept, good for you! If you don’t, try a few exercises with your shutter set at 1/250th of a second and play with the differences in the exposure of the same subject by adjusting the aperture reading. Or, refer to the exposure exercises in my book where you’ll find the whole enchilada.

Good shooting!


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