I use spot-metering more than any of my photographer friends. But then, I shoot stage performances more than they do. Nikon’s matrix metering, which is a little bit like Ansel Adams’ zone system in a computer, works well in a majority of situations, but last week’s Ojai Storytelling Festival provides some good illustrations of situations that would fool matrix, or even center-weighted, metering.
Here’s the sort of situation that would fool matrix or center-weighted metering. Patricia Cardinali’s face is much brighter than anything else in the frame, so an average-based exposure of this scene would overexpose her. Spot metering takes the meter reading from the place where I’m focusing.
Likewise, the dark background and dark costumes here would result in the grease-painted faces getting blown out. Fortunately, the Nikon D7000 offers enough dynamic range to hold detail in both the faces and the costumes, but this requires careful exposure. I take my meter reading off the faces to make sure I hold detail there; any shadow detail is a bonus. If push comes to shove, this is a situation where I expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.
In a backlit situation, I use spot metering to expose for the subject and let the highlights fall where they may. I don’t mind blown-out highlights unless they create a distraction. Here, I think they make a nice bland background, leaving Baba Jamal Koram properly exposed.
Now, you might say, “But Dean, won’t spot metering on these white masks cause you to underexpose the image?” You are very astute, as always. Yes, and generally I would use exposure compensation to under- or overexpose based on skin tones and their relative relationship the the meter’s 18% grey assumption. But in the fast moving stage environment, I just shoot in RAW, knowing I’ll have enough latitude to correct for slight exposure errors. I use spot metering to keep those errors SLIGHT.
It takes a lot of people to make a festival work, and I enjoy an opportunity to capture these stalwart warriors in their element. With time to make the shot, any metering method will work, but with a fraction of a second to catch the scene like this, I’ll go with spot metering. I could have post-processed the overexposed areas to bring them down a bit, but if you manipulate the highlights and shadows too much, you lose a sense of ambiance. There was tremendous contrast in the scene; why not show it?
I choose my meter pattern based on the situation at hand. I leave the cameras on matrix as a default. I tend to use center-weighted for dance events when I’m tracking one or several dancers over a busy stage. But when the stage lighting gets dramatic, I go with spot metering and hope there’s a focus/metering point that suits the composition.
I got an opportunity to experiment with a wide-angle lens and fill flash during the FamilyFest portion of the weekend, and that will be the subject of the next post. I’m not sure when I will publish it, since I have no Internet service at home (I’m writing this at a bar!). And just to prove that every dissatisfied customer is a terrorist: AT&T SUCKS.