Ever gone out and started photographing a scene or portrait session and then you look at the back of your camera and it is totally not exposed correctly? Yeah, happens to me too. I often tell my clients that my camera is fighting with me. Why does this happen? Well, it is likely because of some disconnect between the scene you are photographing and the natural limitations of the camera meter and is not quite that your camera meter is lying to you. So let’s dive into when and why this happens, as well as how to easily fix it before it happens.
there are 2 types of light meters
First thing to note is that there are two types of light meters—incident and reflective. Your camera has an internal light meter, called a reflective light meter. A reflective light meter measures the amount of light coming into the camera from the entire scene and makes a judgement on what your settings need to be in order to properly expose the film (or your digital sensor). Before cameras had internal light meters there were only external light meters, called incident light meters. An incident light meter measures the light that is actually falling on your subject and does not take into consideration the surrounding area, giving you the best measurement of light. But, they are very inconvenient because you have to bring an additional piece of gear and you have to walk up to take a light reading directly where your subject is. In both cases your light meter can lie, but let’s discuss the in camera reflective light meter.
How does the camera meter lie to us
So how, exactly, does a camera meter lie to us? Well, the light meter really has one major job: make everything 18% gray. Yup, the only job it has is to make sure it balances everything to a perfect middle gray. So it takes all the dark shadows and lightens them to make them middle gray, and it takes all the bright highlights and makes those darker to make them middle gray. For example, say you are photographing a person with a sunset behind them. The light meter is going to try and darken the whole photo to compensate for the bright background. This will essentially make your subject a silhouette. And although that is a cool effect, if you are trying to properly expose for your subject you are going to have to overexpose what the camera meter calls for to get a proper exposure for your subject. Alternatively, if you are photographing a subject against a dark background—like a shadowed garage or a dark wall—you will need to underexpose in order to compensate for the camera meter. Each time it feels a little like the camera meter is lying to you, but really it is just trying to get you the best exposure for your particular scene.
How to fix it
Now that you know what your camera meter wants to do it makes it much easier to fix it. Remember it wants to actually help you and is only trying to do its job, your camera meter truly is not lying to you. Everything is a lovely middle gray in the world of the reflective camera meter. So if you know you want it brighter then you should overexpose, if you want it darker you should underexpose. It truly is as simple as making your own decisions while behind the camera. With a digital camera you can also just check the back of the camera and make your changes from there. But no matter how long you have been photographing you will still occasionally be very surprised by the camera meter, don’t be afraid to go outside of neutral exposure to get the look and vibe you want from your imagery. It may even become a part of your known style.