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Photography Tips: Manual Photography & The Munker-White Illusion

Skill Level: Professional


"Can You Trust Your Eyes" by ASAP Science
Check out their post here.

The good folks at ASAP Science posted an interesting video titled "Can You Trust Your Eyes?" In it, the narrator demonstrates how colors and tones will appear lighter or darker depending on what tone they're next to. As the video so eloquently illustrated, this phenomena - known as the Munker White illusion - can make tones that are actually the same brightness appear to be vastly different.

Photography Tips: Manual Photography and the Munker-White IllusionThe "A" column appears darker than the "B" column,
but in actuality, they are the same tone.

I teach a process for shooting in manual mode that depends heavily on the shooter's ability to analyze tones (covered in my How to Shoot in Full Manual online course here). So this video got me thinking about how we are basically doomed to make metering errors in our photography purely by nature of this illusion. No matter how experienced one may be in the manual metering process I teach or the somewhat similar Zone System by the great Ansel Adams, you will never escape this inherent failure of our eyes to accurately analyze tones.

Understanding this effect may not be vital information for the manual shooter, but it certainly couldn't hurt. For instance, let's say I'm spot metering off of a section of granite rock on a sunlit mountain side. And let's say the spot I'm choosing to meter off of is immediately adjacent to a dark patch of trees. In this situation I may analyze the tone of that granite to be about a +2/3 on my meter - in other words, I think that granite is just a shade lighter than middle tone. So I point my meter up to the mountain, line my meter up at +2/3, then recompose and take my photo. Everything comes out great.

But what if this spot was immediately adjacent to something light rather than that dark patch of trees? What if instead of the dark trees, there's a big swath of bright white snow next to it? According to this Munker-White illusion, I'll perceive my metered area as a different tone. When it's next to the trees, I perceive it as a shade lighter than middle tone (+2/3), but when it's next to the snow, I might perceive it as a shade darker than middle tone (maybe -2/3 or so). Of course, the rock hasn't changed its tone, it's purely my perception of the tone dependent on what tone it's next to.

Simply depending on what tone it's next to, I'll perceive my metered area differently and, thus, get a different exposure.

So this information may not fall in to the category of "photography tips" for everybody, but if you're an adroit user of your camera's light meter, you may want to be aware of this illusion. Try to block out the tones around your chosen spot meter area to avoid the trickery of this illusion. Here's one way to do it: just form your hand into a circle (like you're holding a pipe) then look through it like a telescope pointed at your chosen metering area. This will block out the surrounding tones and allow you to analyze the tonality of the subject untainted by the Munker-White illusion. Or if you don't want to look ridiculous, just spot meter off of tones that cover sufficient area to fill your viewfinder.

Common Misconceptions: How to Use a Light Meter

This is the first in a brand new series of posts called "Common Misconceptions." As a teacher with well over 100 clients, I've run into just about every single common misconception there is to be found in photography. So with these blog posts, I aim to spread the word on what's wrong and what's right!

The Misconception:
When shooting in full manual, the correct way to meter is to line up the light meter indicator at zero, like so:

Shooting in Full Manual

Why This is Wrong:
The zero on your meter does not mean "correct." The zero is simply a reference point for your meter. Just like altitude has sea level as a reference point, your camera's light meter has a reference point. With altitude, you can go above sea level and below sea level, but sea level (which would be "0") isn't any more correct than any other value. Same with your light meter - you can go above zero and below zero, but zero isn't any more correct than anything else.

If you always line the meter up at zero when shooting in Manual, you'll find that many of your pictures come out too bright or too dark, like so:

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

In both of the above examples, zero gave me a bad exposure. So, you see, zero doesn't mean correct - it's just zero.

The Truth:
There a few different techniques for how to use a light meter correctly. The Zone System is possibly the most well-known and easily one of the most effective, but I teach my own brand of manual photography that involves an easy-to-apply 3-step process that's just as effective and even easier to learn than the Zone System. But whatever metering technique you use, lining it up at zero does not result in a correct exposure. And regardless of whether you're using the camera's built-in light meter or some sort of handheld light meter, you don't just get the meter to zero. The other numbers on the meter are there for a reason. You have to know how to use them. If you're interested in learning my easy-to-apply metering process for manual photography, I've dedicated an entire 6-week online course to learning it. More details about that course and a free preview can be found here.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I run into this misconception all the time. It drives me nuts. It doesn't drive me nuts that students think this is the correct way to meter - after all, this is what they were taught by someone who was supposed to be knowledgeable and I can't expect students starting out to know how to manually meter for real. What drives me nuts is that a lot of reputable (I use that term loosely) photography instructors actually teach this as the correct way to shoot in manual! I've even heard that instructors from Adorama are teaching students to line the meter up at zero all the time!

I'd love to have a word with these instructors because the truth of the matter is they themselves have no idea how to shoot in manual but they are too proud to admit they don't know. Instead, they just spread their ignorance to eager amateur photographers who are then left wondering why more than half their pictures come out wrong. There are far too many people out there teaching photography who really have no business doing it.

My question to these inept instructors is "If you just want to get it to zero, why does Canon and Nikon even include the -3, -2, -1, +1, +2 and +3? If it was just a matter of getting it to zero, all they'd need is a little red light on the top of your camera that lit up once you got the correct exposure." Those other numbers to the negative and positive must be there for a reason. And by the way, if it's just about getting it to zero, save yourself the effort and put your camera on full auto, because that's all full auto is doing.

So don't buy into this misconception! Learn to shoot in manual the REAL way!