Simon Thomas explains how to master the metering controls on your camera to help capture light perfectly in your motorcycle photography.
Have you ever taken a shot that you thought was going to be spectacular only to have it turn out too dark, too bland, or simply blown out and way too bright to be interesting? is one class will change that and dramatically improve every shot you take from here on. Ready?
Every shot we take, no matter the brand or camera model, starts with your camera’s light meter. The light meter in your camera is the instrument that measures the amount of light coming through your lens and is the starting point for setting your exposure. Understanding how your camera measures light is often the difference between you deleting just another shot that didn’t work out and it being a ‘holy sh*t wow’ image. You’re going to want to keep reading.
I could write an entire book on light metering, but this is an adventure bike magazine, so think of the next few pages as a CBT (Compulsory Basic training) of metering. Give me five minutes and your photographic training wheels will be coming off.
Let’s get stuck in. When we look at any photo, digitally on a screen, printed in a magazine, or hung on a wall, the first thing our brain does is decide if it’s too light, too dark or just right. It’s a Goldilocks kind of thing.
Most cameras have three or more light meter settings, which have icons similar to the ones below and which you’ll select with a dial or an on-screen menu. There are other light meter settings, but these are the main three and remember today is just a metering CBT.
Problems with measuring light
Camera light meters work brilliantly if your shot is lit uniformly. But it gets complex and challenging for light meters to select the perfect exposure when there are objects with different light levels and intensities in your shot. Let’s say you’ve ridden up to the coast and you are taking a picture of the sea with a cloudless blue sky in the frame.
Chances are the image will be correctly exposed, because there is just one light level for the cameras meter to deal with.
The job of the light meter gets tougher though when you actually ride to somewhere interesting (sorry to all those that live by the sea). Imagine for a moment that you’re taking an epic shot of your biking mates riding up a mountain as dark storm clouds roll in.
With your camera in hand, your light meter is going to calculate the optimal exposure for the shot based on all the differing bright and dark areas of the image.
It has to evaluate the difference in brightness of the sun lit sky, contrasting with the darkest areas of the clouds, the mountain and your mates who have parked up in the shadows. Bear in mind that if they can’t be seen in your photo, you’ll never live down the shame because it was you that asked them all to pull over, park up and stop. Well-done for that by the way.
With both very bright and very dark areas in your frame, your camera’s meter will try to come up with something in the middle. With very bright areas in your shot, you can easily end up with an under-exposed (darker) shot or a flat grey image, both of which are less than epic, and epic is what you were going for.
Matrix / evaluative metering
No, this has nothing to do with Keanu Reeves. Matrix metering or evaluative metering mode is the default metering mode on most camera models. There are a lot of clever algorithms and calculations going on behind the scenes, but fundamentally this mode works by dividing the entire image into separate areas, which are each then individually analysed for light and dark tones.
Based on the analysed information, the meter sets an exposure that is best suited to capture the medium tones in the entire frame. Bearing in mind that even the most expensive cameras can’t capture both the absolute blacks and brightest areas of the shot simultaneously. It’s just the limitations of the tech available versus the millions of years it’s taken to develop the human eye.
There are always shots where matrix metering isn’t the best option. Let’s say you’re taking a shot of your bike with the sun behind it, and you want to capture some of the bike’s details, not just your bike’s silhouette. This is when centre-weighted metering can be a photo-saver. Centre-weighted metering measures the dark and brightest parts of your shot from just the middle of the frame and its surroundings and ignores the corners and edges.
Centre-weighted is a great mode to switch to when the focus of your shot is in the middle of the frame and works great for portraits and close-up detail shots. Bear in mind that if your background is well lit, the centre of the frame will be exposed perfectly, but everything in the background will probably be a little over-exposed.
Unlike matrix metering, spot metering evaluates the light from just a small single zone around your focus point. So, to use the mode effectively, you need to make sure that your camera’s focus setting is set to ‘single point’. is will be set by a dial or an on-screen menu.
With most good digital cameras, you can select and adjust where you place the single focus point, which is great for when your composition is set, your camera is on a tripod, and you’re ready to shoot.
By moving the focus point from the centre of the frame (default), you can make sure that the main focus of your shot, be it a landmark, your mate on his bike or a rock in the foreground is absolutely in focus and tack sharp.
Spot metering will ensure that what you have chosen as the main subject of your shot is perfectly exposed, even if the subject occupies a small percentage of your overall frame. I use spot metering all the time when I’m photographing wildlife or portraits where there is a lot of both light and dark areas of contrast on the subject’s face.
It’s also great when you’re shooting your riding buddy (in my case the wife) riding into, or through, a big landscape. Using spot metering will ensure that the bike and rider are properly exposed. If the landscape turns out a little too dark or too light, you can edit that in a program like Luminar 4 or Photoshop.
Another great example of using spot metering is when you are photographing the Moon. Using spot metering means that your cameras exposure is just set based on the brightness of the Moon, which also makes the sky black or very dark blue. I wish I’d know that little gem years ago.
Download a free trial of my favourite photo editor LUMINAR 4. Link below.