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

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.

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.

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 aperture, and how does it affect my pictures?

You’ve schooled yourself on ISO, and you’re starting to get a handle on shutter speed. Next stop? Aperture. This particular setting is exceedingly important when trying to wrap your head around the basics of manually controlling a camera, but it’s also one of the more confusing. For starters, not every camera and lens can achieve the same f/stops (in case you couldn’t guess, aperture levels are measured as f/[number]), and similar to shutter speed, changing the f/stop does more than just one thing.

Tweaking the aperture can change the outcome of your photo in a drastic way. But before you go cranking that number beside the “f” on your camera screen, let’s break down the basics on what aperture is, what it affects and why you should care. Read on for a few pointers that every shooter should know.Have you ever noticed those black blades within your lenses? In optics, an aperture is simply the hole through which light travels. As you can imagine, changing the size of that hole can make a huge difference in the look and feel of your photographs. There’s an exhaustive definition of the topic over at Wikipedia if you’re interested, but we’re assuming you stopped here because you’re just looking for the long and short of it. Here are a few general rules to understanding aperture:

  • The lower the f/stop, the more light is allowed in.
  • Exceptionally low f/stops (f/1.2 through f/2, for example) are only found on a handful of lenses, primarily professional DSLR lenses.
  • Most point-and-shoot cameras only stop as low as f/3.5 (at best), limiting the amount of light you can fetch when shooting in dimly lit scenarios.
  • You’ll pay dearly for exceptionally low f/stops. A Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 can be found for ~$100; the same lens with an f/1.4 rating (just one step lower) is three times more expensive at ~$300.
  • Lower f/stops narrow your depth of field; a shot at f/2 will have a very tight focal point, with a tremendously blurred background, whereas a shot at f/14 (as an example) will focus on the foreground and background with essentially no ‘bokeh‘ to speak of.

Now that you’ve got a grip on that, we’re going to break down the most common uses of aperture when it comes time to compose a shot.

  • A lowered f/stop can be artisically chosen if you want to focus in tight on a foreground subject while introducing a silky, beautiful blur (that’s the ‘bokeh’ we mentioned above) around the subject. This is great for focusing on a person with a less-than-exciting backdrop.
  • A higher f/stop is useful for capturing vast groups, where you want the persons on the edges to be just as sharp and in-focus as the person in the center of the image.
  • A lower f/stop is very useful for letting more light enter an image during dimly lit or dark situations; this prevents you from having to boost your ISO (and thus, inject noise and grain) or dramatically slow your shutter speed (and thus, potentially introduce unwanted blur from hand-shake).

Let’s look at an example of how lowering your f/stop can be beneficial at night and in situations where you want oodles of bokeh surrounding the subject. The image below shows an identical shot at f/1.4 and at f/8, both taken in a dimly lit room with very little ambient light around. Lowering the f/stop allows a tremendous amount of light to flood in, in turn giving us a useful image without resorting to firing a flash. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop when you’re in dimly lit areas — your images will thank you!


Now, let’s look at an example of injecting bokeh into a shot. These two pictures were taken with a f/1.4 (left) and f/16 (right) aperture. You’ll notice the shot on the left has a soft, silky, progressive blur surrounding the focal point. This highlights the subject and simultaneously hides the ho hum background. The f/16 shot has most of the background in focus, effectively destroying your ability to focus only on the foreground subject and disregard the lackluster backdrop. On the flipside, your backdrop is in focus, so if that is your goal for a shot, now you know how to accomplish it. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop if you want to introduce bokeh, bring out the foreground subject and blur the background; raising the f/stop will help you to focus on a larger image, such as capturing an entire soccer team.


Our suggestion now is to give it a try! If you have a camera where you can adjust the aperture manually, try placing your camera in Aperture Priority (the “A” mode on the dial) and stopping it completely down as low as it’ll go. This will vary based on the lens, but toggle the f/stop and lower it to the smallest number allowed by whatever lens you are using. Focus close on a foreground object, and snap the shot. Check out that bokeh! If you’re having a hard time getting the bokeh effect, try holding an object out in your hand and focusing; that’s an easy way to get the background to blur nicely. Now, try that same shot with an aperture of f/8 or greater in order to see how wide your focal range becomes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of aperture to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in aperture for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the aperture to help you focus on your kids while blurring crowds behind them, ensure that your entire background is in focus in self-portraits, and more. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO and shutter speed, you’ll be three steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • The lower you set your f/stop, the more light you’ll have access to. This allows you to rely less on a boosted ISO and a sluggish shutter speed to still get a usable image in low-light situations.
  • If you need to focus on a large group of people, or you want the ocean behind you to be sharp, use a higher f/stop.
  • If you want to introduce artistic blur (or ‘bokeh‘) into your images, use a lower f/stop.

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

Kindle tips for travelers

The iPad may be the current darling of techie travelers but some of us are waiting for the first generation kinks to be worked out and a decrease in price (or a sudden cash windfall) before taking the plunge. While still a “monotasker” compared to a tablet or laptop computer, Amazon’s Kindle is still a great tool to carry books on the road with a lightweight design and almost limitless capacity to store whatever travel guidebooks, beach reads, or other reading materials you desire. Combined with the easy ability to search within a book for a place name or keyword, a much lower profile than carrying a tourist map, and limited but free web browser, Kindle is a good choice for travelers. Here are a few other ideas beyond ebooks for your next trip:

  1. Google Maps are a fantastic resource when traveling, but lose their usefulness once you are without internet access or unwilling to pay for data roaming. Whether you download individual maps of city neighborhoods or get all fancy with creating your own Google Map of destinations and recommendations, having a “hard copy” on your Kindle is handy when you are offline and want to quickly locate that vintage store in Berlin a friend told you about.
  2. Many free PDF travel guides are available online including In Your Pocket and Arrival Guides. While not as extensive as a guidebook, they provide a few suggestions for where to stay, eat, shop, and what to do in many cities and often cover less-traveled destinations such as Eastern Europe. Lonely Planet has also introduced Pick and Mix chapters for purchase, perfect for when you only need a chapter of a guidebook rather than a whole country book.
  3. Create your own travel guide by saving magazine articles, blog posts, and web pages for your destination with content more recent, relevant and varied than any guidebook. Tote along Gadling’s guide to Paris’ Japanese quarter, The New York Times‘ 36 Hours in Copenhagen, or the Wikitravel page for Mumbai.

How to save documents for your Kindle: most Mac browsers have a Print to PDF feature and PDFs are easily read on the Kindle. PC users can download a program such as PDFCreator to save PDFs. If you have another format including HTML or a Word document (good if you are copying and pasting text), you can email to Amazon and they will convert and send back. Then you can add documents via the USB cord to your Kindle, simply drag and drop into the Kindle documents folder. While many files don’t have the same functionality as ebook format, you can zoom in and often search many of the file types.

While many of these documents can simply be printed, printer access is often scarce on the road and this method saves a lot on paper. Any other travel tips for Kindle? Leave ’em in the comments below.

Naive Travelers Pay $200 for Snack in India

It’s one of those tricks you learn in “How to Rip off Travelers 101”: act friendly, provide food or a service and then reveal that you are charging an exorbitant price. The traveler is at a disadvantage because they have already used the service or eaten the food. In general, they will pay all, or at least a major portion, of the price you are asking.

This is what happened to a Dutch couple recently in the Indian state of Bihar. They enjoyed some samosas (spicy, fried dumpling-like snacks), which usually cost well under $1 ($1=49 rupees). When they were finished, the proprietor of the market stall demanded payment of 10,000 rupees (just over $200). He claimed that the samosas were made with rare herbs that were natural aphrodisiacs. After arguing, the couple paid. It was an expensive but valuable lesson, right? Except that the couple went to the local police station and complained. The police made the samosa-maker return the money, except for 10 rupees, the actually price of the snacks.

[Via Reuters]

Check out the world’s dirtiest cities

Galley Gossip: Packing Light – Rome, Italy

“Okay,” said the husband, shoving his cell phone into the back pocket of his blue jeans. People, all of them very fashionably dressed, whizzed by us while we stood on the cobblestone street outside a large glass window displaying freshly baked pizza. We had just exited the train station in Rome and were looking for our hotel, The Gregoriana. “The guy said to walk up the Spanish Steps, turn right, and the hotel is at the end of the block.”

“At least we’re close,” I said, eyeing a slice of pizza. It looked amazing. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.

Sighing, the husband grabbed his black rolling bag, slung a backpack over his shoulder, and said. “So…any idea how many steps there are?”

“A lot,” I said with a laugh. Though I did not know the exact amount of steps (I do now), I had an idea there would be more than we’d like.

We turned a corner, walked a good ten feet, all the while taking in the history and beauty that surrounded us, and five seconds later found ourselves standing at the foot of the steps. “Oh. My. God,” said the husband.

“Good thing we packed light,” I said, and meant it, because we had, in fact, packed light, very very light for a ten day trip to Italy. And then I laughed, because all I could do was laugh, as I took in ALL THOSE steps, as well as all those people sitting on the steps. There were well over a hundred – People and steps! I’m not sure which frightened me more -the people or the steps!

One thing a flight attendant knows how to do is pack light. We do it every day. My secret to packing light, wearing only black, white, and brown, along with a couple colorful accessories. That way everything goes with everything else, creating several mix and match outfits from just a couple basic pieces. Of course, the other secret is to roll your clothes, not fold.

“Roll them military style,” advised Dee, a flight attendant I worked with from Dallas to La Guardia a few months ago after I told her I was going to Italy for ten days and would only be taking along my flight bag. “You can get more in the bag that way.”

I’m not sure what she meant by military style, but I figured it had something to do with rolling my clothes tight, really tight, which is exactly what I did, getting way more than I anticipated into my crew bag.

“You are not going to need all that,” said the husband, as he watched me on the floor from the bed.

“You don’t know that,” I said, as I proudly zipped up my bag – one bag. And a tote.

That was not the first time I had uttered that particular phrase, “Good thing we packed light.” Nor would it be the last. The first time I said it was in Venice. We had just arrived at our hotel in Cannaregio after walking the winding cobblestone streets for a good twenty minutes, going over bridges and across canals and through narrow alleyways, too many times to count, making our way from San Marco Plaza to Cannaregio, also known as the Jewish Ghetto. The last time I had mumbled that one particular phrase had been that very morning as we lugged our bags up the steep flight of stairs on-board the Eurostar train that would take us from Naples to Rome, after having visited Positano for a couple days, which is now one of my top five favorite places to go in the world. I do hope to make it back soon.

“Give me your bag,” ordered the husband, his eye on the prize as he wiped the sweat from his brow. We were still standing at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

“I’ve got it!” I said, grabbing the black plastic handle of my Travelpro bag a little tighter, because I did, indeed, have it. Though at that moment I must admit that I kind of wished I did not have it, even though all I had was just a rollaboard and a small tote bag. But since I was the one who had packed it (okay fine, over-packed it!) I’d been prepared to carry it. That was only the fair thing to do.

“Give it to me!” demanded the husband, who had become, upon arriving in Italy eight days prior, very macho in the bag carrying department. Before I could resist he grabbed my bag, and with a rollaboard in each hand and a backpack over his shoulder, he began his long journey to the top of the stairs.

Behind him I followed, huffing and puffing the entire way up as I carried that one little tote-bag, which, as I took each step, began to feel not so little, along with a beautiful black leather briefcase the husband had found in a quaint little shop under a bridge in Amalfi. Together we zigzagged between all those tourists sitting on all those steps. For sure there were well over one hundred steps. I never thought we were going to make it to the top.

Finally, we dropped our bags and took a break, looking down from where we had just come, before continuing on to the hotel which was just a short block away. I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s sweaty face when the desk clerk greeted us with a curt glance and said, as his fingers typed away on a keyboard, “I forgot to tell you, there’s an elevator in the train station.”

Forgot to tell us? Yeah right.

Nor will I forget the sight of my husband as he stood, panting for air, behind a junky souvenir cart at the top of the Spanish Steps trying to catch his breath. For a good ten minutes. Maybe longer. Or course I took a picture. I’d love to share it with you, but he’d probably kill me, so you’ll just have to settle for these….

(Been to Rome? Share your favorite places to go and things to do here by posting a comment below)