My favorite way to meter in camera and get beautiful and intentional SOOC (straight out of the camera) images is with the Zone System method of metering.
The Zone System method was developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in the 1930’s for film photography but it is also a great tool for digital photography.
When I first started researching the Zone System I have to admit that I was very overwhelmed. Now, instead of worrying about zone numbers, I only worry about the actual color of what I am metering from.
To explain it very simply, each color tone falls into a particular zone on your camera’s meter. Because each color correlates to a particular value on your meter, you are able to tell the camera exactly how to expose the image using spot metering.
The Zone Method has 10 zones but for digital photography, there are only 5 zones that apply to your camera’s meter. This is key because it means that you won’t always be trying to get your in-camera meter to 0.
By thinking of your metering values in colors, it doesn’t matter what kind of light you are in, you will always able to achieve correct exposure. The metering value itself for each color never changes but your settings (ISO, shutter speed, aperture) will change each time to adjust for the light.
When looking at your cameras meter, you will see smaller dots/lines that each represent each 1/3 of a stop and larger dots/lines that represent a full stop of light each.
Once you learn the metering value for each color, you will move your in-camera meter by changing your settings (ISO, shutter speed, aperture) to be at that corresponding spot on your meter for correct exposure. For example, the color white will always meter at +2 (2 full stops from 0) on your camera’s meter.
Like I mentioned above, a common mistake is assuming that you will always meter at 0 no matter what color you are metering from. This was a mistake that I practiced when I first starting shooting in manual mode.
When I would hear about metering something above 0, it sounded like my image would be overexposed. I thought this way for a long time and didn’t realize that exposing this way was actually exposing correctly.
Have you ever tried to meter white at 0? The image will be underexposed and look dark – not truly white.
This chart below shows very simply how to remember the value for each color. Like I previously mentioned, the color white meters at +2. Pastel colors meter at +1, middle gray/primary colors meter at 0, deep colors meter at -1, and black meters at -2.
Of course, you can get more specific for each color on your meter using 1/3 of a stop but those general guidelines are a great place to start. The best part is that once you learn the values for each color/tone, it will never change.
If you are not sure about a specific color, start with those general guidelines and then always make sure to watch your histogram for a more exact metering value and exposure.
When you use spot metering, your camera samples from a small area in your viewfinder.
On most Canon cameras, the metering area is the very center of your viewfinder – right where your middle focal point is. No matter if your focal point is in the middle or somewhere else, you will want to make sure that you place the color you are metering from in that middle area.
On a Nikon camera, your active focal point is where your camera meters. Just simply place that active point over the color to meter. Filling as much of the frame as possible with that color is not necessary but can be very helpful. Our in-camera meters can be tricked easily and so using a solid color that fills the frame can help eliminate some potential troubleshooting issues.
Once you move your camera away from that solid color, it is normal to see your meter jump around. I most often meter somewhere completely different than where I am focusing. When I take a step back to focus and compose the shot to how I would like it in-camera, I will see my meter jump all over the place because multiple colors are now being seen by my camera.
Once you have metered and changed your settings (ISO, shutter speed, aperture) for the light, your metering value is locked in until you change those settings again. You won’t need to change your settings until the light changes. Simply ignore your jumpy meter.
Having a simple and yet very consistent system for metering can give you more confidence and freedom in your ability to shoot in any situation. It isn’t always practical to meter from your subject’s cheek (think fast moving toddler or a bride walking down the aisle) and using the Zone System to meter makes it possible to meter from anywhere in the scene that is in the same light as your subject.
No matter what method you are using to meter, you are metering for the light.
Metering from the brightest spot of light on your subject (or somewhere else that is in the same light as your subject) will help you avoid any true overexposure in your highlights.
Your settings will change each time you pick up your camera, but the Zone System color values will be constant and give you beautiful SOOC images.