Travel Photo Tips: What is metering, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is metering

Up until now, we’ve covered three of the more basic, essential aspects of understanding the minutiae that goes into composing a photograph. While traveling, it’s easy to run into vastly different scenes from hour to hour, making it all the more important to understand how and why your camera reacts the way it does. The goal here is to get you more comfortable with manually controlling your camera so you can accurately capture whatever it is you’ve traveled to see, and while it’s not nearly as simple to grasp as ISO, aperture or shutter speed, getting a basic understanding of metering is essential to understanding how exposure works.

When you think about exposure in general, you think about how brightly lit or how dark an image is. We’ve all seen the wedding rehearsal pictures that were so underexposed that everyone looks like a silhouette, and we’ve all seen the sunrise shot from the beach where everything looks white — a telltale sign of overexposure. In this guide, we’ll provide you with the knowledge you need to know in order to grasp metering and how it affects the exposure (darkness / brightness) of your travel shots. And we’ll also refrain from drowning you in technical knowledge that you have no time to ingest. Read on to get one step closer to mastering metering.Metering is a broad topic. Discussions could go on for hours if you wanted to dig into the technical aspects, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll simply be focusing on the three main metering modes available on most modern DSLRs. On your camera, you’ll probably have a small selector dial with three options on it; a single, tiny spot, a larger spot with a thin band around it, and an even larger spot with a full border around it. This will obviously vary from camera to camera, so consult your owner’s guide if you’re having trouble figuring out where you metering toggle switch is. Below, we’ll discuss the three primary modes and give you examples of when you should (or shouldn’t) use each one.

Be aware that these only automatically adjust when using the camera in a mode other than ‘Manual.’ If shooting in manual mode, you’ll have full control over the metering prior to shooting each shot, so you’ll need to make adjustments based on what your camera says; in other modes, the camera will determine the metering for you based on which of the below selections you have made.

what is metering

Spot Metering. This is that tiny circle we referred to above. If you select this, your camera will only focus on a very small portion of a shot, which you can direct in your viewfinder. The camera will then adjust exposure for only that, and ignore the surroundings entirely. If choosing a spot that isn’t an obvious focal point, you’ll need to manually focus. When is this useful / not useful?

  • Use spot metering if your subject is brightly backlit, and you have no real concern for the background being “blown out,” or appearing white, so long as your subject is exposed properly.
  • In macro shots, spot metering can be useful to get the exact exposure on the objects in the center of the frame.
  • If you’re attempting to photograph the moon, spot metering accurately disregards the expanse of black around the moon itself.
  • If you have a landscape shot with lots of shadows, you can adjust the spot so the camera exposes for a non-shadow.
  • Don’t use spot metering if you have any concern at all about the entire image being exposed properly.

Needless to say, spot metering is a niche option. It’s only useful in a handful of situations, so it shouldn’t be your go-to selection. Moving on, there’s a Center Weighted Average Metering option. Think of this as the “splitting the difference” option. In a nutshell, this will average the exposure of the entire frame, but give extra consideration to the center area of the image. When is this useful / not useful?

  • For portraits — maybe a couple on a beach, or a family at dinner — this option works well.
  • If your subject is brightly lit, but you do care about the background (a cityscape behind them, for example), give this option a whirl.
  • If you find that your Matrix metering option isn’t providing accurate suggestions or giving you enough control over what is focused on, this weighted option might be the ticket.

what is metering
Matrix Metering takes the entire image into consideration and exposes accordingly.

The final major mode found on the bulk of DSLRs is Matrix Mode. This is both the most complicated to explain and (in general) the most useful. Each camera handles it differently, but the idea is that multiple zones are evaluated, and then all of them are weighted together and evaluated as a whole using algorithms that you probably have no desire to understand. Just trust us: these algorithms are usually very small, and oftentimes provide the best direction for exposing shots where the entire frame is important to consider. When is this useful / not useful?

  • The rule of thumb is to always use Matrix mode unless you can think of a specific reason why you’d need Center Weighted Average or Spot Metering modes.
  • Even if you think Spot or Center Weighted modes would be useful, we’d recommend shooting first in Matrix. Today’s DSLRs are surprisingly good at judging exposure based on calculated matrixes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of metering to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in metering for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, selecting the best metering mode for snowy vacations, or for capturing macro shots of foods or signs that’ll remind you of your journeys. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO, aperture and shutter speed, you’ll be four steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • Metering is important because it determines the exposure of your shot, or how brightly / dimly lit it will be.
  • Use Matrix Mode on your DSLR unless you have a very specific shot or reason to use another option.
  • Spot Metering is useful only in niche circumstances, such as brightly backlit sporting events, shooting the moon or certain macro shots.
  • Center Weighted Average Metering is best reserved for portraits.
  • Even when metering, you can (likely) adjust your exposure up to two full stops in either direction; since Matrix is the least predictable, be willing to tweak things a little brighter or darker depending on preference.
  • If you’re overly concerned about metering, but have little time to adjust things on the fly, shoot in RAW — metering can largely be adjusted after the fact with no real deterioration of quality if you do so. With JPEG, you will notice a decrease in quality when dramatically changing the exposure in post-processing.

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO, aperture and shutter speed can be seen here.

Travel Photo Tips: What is ISO, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is iso

ISO. Three little letters which stand for International Organization for Standardization (not exactly thrilling) and make a monumental difference in the outcome of images, particularly in low-light scenarios. It’s one of the most prominently featured specifications of any modern digital camera, and it’s one single aspect that can make a night-and-day difference in the outcome of your shots. If you’re on the road, on vacation or just galavanting about with your new camera, there are a few key pointers you need to know about how ISO works, and how it can affect the snapshots your take. We’ll spare you the behind-the-scenes, science-y explanation on ISO though and get right to the heart of the matter.

While film and photography purists may balk at the assumption, the average photographer really only needs to know a couple of things about ISO — particularly the novice who simply needs their vacation photos to look at least somewhat like how they remember the scene looking.

FIn general, if a camera has a wide ISO range then it can capture faster moving action in low-light settings. Also, higher ISO ranges enable handheld shots to be taken further into the evening (and without blur). The gallery below highlights every single ISO stop between 200 and 104,200 on a Nikon D3s. Few cameras will offer an ISO range similar to this, but walking through it shot-by-shot gives you a great view of how a boosted ISO alters the outcome of a shot. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as they say. All of the other settings were kept constant for these shots (Shutter Speed: 1/8 of a second; f/5.0; 50mm focal length, no flash fired; auto white balance; tripod-mounted shot). Click the ‘Read More’ link here for a deeper dive into ISO, along with loads of pointers on how and when to tweak the value when shooting.

%Gallery-112103%Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have an ISO range from 200 to 800. A few of the nicer models extend from 200 to 1600, and an elite few at the highest-end extend from 200 to 3200 (Casio’s EX-H20G comes to mind). We’ll focus on the majority here in order to drive home a point. Chances are, the average point-and-shoot that you pick up will top out at ISO 800. If you force this camera to shoot at ISO 800, you will still have trouble shooting handheld images in low-light scenarios. Why? The inverse relationship between ISO and shutter speed.

You see, when shooting in low-light, there are five main things you can rely on to get a decent, visible, usable shot:

  1. A flash. This works almost every single time, but it usually blows out your shot, makes everything in the center a blinding white, and generally makes pictures look “fake.” Consider the use of a flash your last resort, but on a point-and-shoot, it’s likely to be a must.
  2. More light. If you have an indoor family portrait that you’re struggling with, try taking things outdoors. The sunlight vastly improves shots, and you should always seek outdoor light first and foremost before turning to a flash, a heightened ISO setting or a slower shutter. Natural light is king.
  3. Increased ISO setting. In general, the higher the ISO value, the faster your shutter speed can be while still grabbing a usable shot. Conversely, your shutter will need to be slowed as your ISO value is dropped in order to prevent an overly dark photograph. Unfortunately, specks of “noise” and grain are introduced with each heightened ISO value, so it’s never as simple as just “maxing out the ISO,” at least not if you care about image quality.
  4. Slowed shutter speed. If you slow your shutter to 1/8 of a second (as an example), you’ll probably be very impressed with how much light can be captured. Unfortunately, anything slower than 1/60 of a second is nearly impossible for a human to shoot handheld without introducing blur, and that’s for still life. If your subject is moving, you’ll need to shoot at around 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure that nothing is blurred. Of course, if you use a tripod and / or a remote shutter trigger, handling these slowed shutter speeds becomes much more possible, though the setup process is far slower than simply pulling a camera from your pocket, pointing, and shooting. Sadly, most P&S models will not allow you to manually slow the shutter (or adjust the f/stop, for that matter).
  5. Lower (“open”) your aperture. If you have an interchangeable lens camera or DSLR, and you can adjust the f/stop of your lens, tweaking that number lower will allow more light to flood in but will simultaneously give you a shorter depth of field. This means more of the background will blur (introducing an effect known as “bokeh“), but it’s a great way to grab more light. Most P&S cameras will not give you this option.

For example’s sake, let’s say that you’re no fan of your camera’s inbuilt flash. Let’s also say you don’t have a tripod handy. Finally, let’s say that you’re stuck indoors in a low-light situation with no way to increase the amount of ambient light. This scenario is more common than you may expect. This is the exact scenario that most encounter when going out for a family dinner. This also describes most wedding receptions. Sadly, this also describes most hotel rooms that you’ll want to capture on vacation.

what is iso

Now, with your camera set at ISO 200, you’ll notice one or two things. One, there’s essentially no grain or noise to be found. But unless your shutter speed is extremely slow (approximately 1/60 of a second or slower), your image will be almost completely dark. That’s no good for anyone. For example’s sake, let’s set the shutter to 1/160 — assuming you have a camera that allows you to adjust this setting. In a dark room, with the shutter at 1/160 of a second or so (fast enough to shoot handheld without blur), and ISO at 200, with the flash off, you’ll basically get a black shot. Go ahead and try it. Your results will almost definitely be too dark. Here’s where you realize what kind of magic lies in the ISO value. Keeping all other settings the same, bump that ISO value to 800, or 1600 / 3200 if your camera supports it. Now take the same shot. You’ll notice a much, much brighter imagine, albeit one with some level of grain or noise. In some cases, even “maxing out” the ISO isn’t enough — you’ll simply be forced to slow the shutter and use a tripod or let the flash fire.

what is iso

But since we’re focusing this article on ISO, let’s talk a bit more about that noise and grain. Basically, you’ll be able to take clearer, more visible shots in low light as you bump the ISO value higher (assuming your shutter speed remains the same!), but the compromise is that you allow more noise and grain into your shots. It’s a tradeoff, so to speak. The inverse is true as well. As you back the ISO value down closer to 100 or 200 (whatever the minimum is for your specific camera), you’ll see darker images, albeit ones that are very sharp. The goal is to strike a balance. Find an ISO setting that introduces a bearable amount of noise, yet still gives your camera the ability to take more visible shots in dim situations.

If you’re able, it’s always preferable to slow the shutter speed in order to take the pressure off of your ISO value. But unless you have a tripod and / or subjects that aren’t moving, that’s not always an option. This very reason is why ISO values on cameras are so important, particularly high ranges. The higher the ISO range on your camera, the better off you are after sunset and indoors. If your DSLR, for example, can reach ISO 6400, you can manage to grab more visible shots than a similar DSLR with an ISO ceiling of just 3200, all other settings being equal. Taking that to an extreme, Nikon’s D3s has a native (non-boosted) ISO range of 200 to 12,800. Needless to say, having an ISO value of 12,800 at your disposal means that you can take very useable images in near-darkness, but of course you’ll have noticeable grain to deal with. But when it really comes down to it, you’d probably rather have a noisy shot of your anniversary dinner than a shot distorted by blur or simply too dark to make out what’s going on.

what is iso

In case I haven’t convinced you, buying a camera with a wide ISO range is very important. You’ll probably end up taking more low light pictures than you’d expect, and it’s always nice to have a high ISO range to resort to if you simply must get the shot. In general, the higher the price on a camera (be it a point-and-shoot, an interchangeable lens / Micro Four Thirds camera or a DSLR), the higher than ISO range will be.

My overly simple advice here is to buy the camera with the highest ISO range that you can afford; you can never have too high of an ISO value at your disposal. Nikon’s D3s is the current ISO king, but retails for over $5000. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH2 Micro Four Thirds camera just recently started to ship in the U.S., and it has set a new bar for ISO range on a Micro Four Thirds camera. It can reach as high as 12,800 and retails for just $900. Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G has a surprisingly great ISO 3200 setting, and it’s amongst the best out there for low-light shooting in the point-and-shoot arena at $350.

Let’s recap:

  • The higher the ISO, the greater your camera’s ability to shoot in low light (with the shutter speed remaining equal)
  • The higher the ISO, the more noise and grain are introduced into your images
  • The lower the ISO, the more you’ll need to rely on external light sources, a flash or a slowed shutter
  • “Maxing out” your ISO can help you capture a shot you otherwise wouldn’t get, but if it results in too much grain when you preview it, you should consider using a flash, slowing the shutter speed, using a lower f/stop (which decreases the depth of field and blurs more of the background) or seeking more light via lamps or by heading outdoors

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding shutter speed, metering, f/stop, white balance and more!

Dana Murph is a creative photographer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can view more of her work at Dana Jo Photos and contact her via Twitter at @danajophotos.