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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!

Photography Tips: Exploiting Overcast Days

Skill Level: Professional

In landscape photography, we are often at the mercy of the weather. Sometimes it's a fortunate coincidence of great weather when you happen to be out shooting, but more often than not, the weather just doesn't cooperate. Nature doesn't want to make photography easy for you.

I'm a big fan of making lemonade when nature gives you lemons. It has the sweet taste of victory. So I'm going to show you how to make lemonade out of a lemon of a sky. Specifically, overcast days.

Overcast days don't give you the most stunning light for landscapes. Great for macro work, but generally bad for landscapes. If you're going to conquer the scene in front of you and make an awesome photograph regardless of the dreary sky, you have to take what you're given and exploit it.

What you're given is dark, bluish light and cold weather. So instead of fighting these things and trying to make a typical sunny landscape, take that dark feel, that blue tone and that cold sensation and exploit it. Highlight it.

The first way to do that is to underexpose your landscape by a little bit. Maybe 2/3 to 1 stop. For instance, in this shot, let's say I would normally meter that rock at -0.7 on a typical sunset with less cloud-cover (shooting in Manual, of course). With this overcast sky, I'm going to underexpose the scene by a little bit to create a mood that matches the dramatic, overcast sky. So instead of metering that rock at -0.7, I'll meter it at -1.3. That brings the entire exposure down by 2/3 of a stop to create a darker picture that jives better with the dark weather.

Rock Metered a Little Darker Than Normal

Same goes for the sky. Let's assume I'm going to use some split NDs to get the sky properly exposed. To render the clouds "accurately," I'd want them to line up around -1.0 on the meter. But I want to underexpose this shot. So instead of using filtration to get the sky to -1.0, I'm going to use a little bit stronger filter to get it around -1.7 (2/3 of a stop darker).

Filter the sky a little darker

The result is an image that's darker than real life. But just because it's darker than real life, doesn't mean it's incorrectly exposed. Correct exposure simply means the exposure turned out how you wanted it to. You wanted this shot to be darker so as to better match the sky and to create a mood. So, it's a correct exposure.

That's how you exploit the dark light you get with overcast skies, but what about the bluish tone and the cold weather. That's where white balance comes in. In order to get accurate colors out of this landscape, you'd choose a "cloudy" white balance setting. Only problem is...that's boring. Here's what you get:

Cloudy WB Setting

Instead of going for accurate colors, exploit the bluish, cold light by using a WB setting that will give a bluish hue to the shot. Daylight or 5200K should get the job done, but if you want even bluer, try the tungsten setting (that will be really blue), or dial in about 4800K.

Finally, a long shutter speed of 15" blurs the water into an ethereal fog that goes perfectly with the cold, dark mood of the shot.

Corona Del Mar, CA

With the darker exposure, bluish WB setting and long shutter, you get an image that has much more mood than an "accurate" shot. Now you're telling a story instead of just documenting a mediocre day at a mediocre beach.

Photography Tips: When to Break the Rule of Thirds

Skill Level: Beginner

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes." It's just a little tidbit taken from Week 1: Compositional Basics.

The rule of thirds is a pretty common compositional tool (notice I said tool, not rule) for creating better compositions in most scenarios. It's covered in beginning books everywhere and is one of the first composition tools you'll learn in photography. The idea is simple: just imagine your frame divided into thirds horizontally and vertically like so...

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

Then, place your main subject on one of the crosshairs and/or divide your landscape into 2/3 foreground and 1/3 background/sky. It will often times result in a better composition, but not always.

It's a great tool no doubt, but I've found that in landscape photography, there is one particular situation where breaking this rule of thirds and doing the dreaded "horizon through the middle" actually works much better. That's when you want to highlight symmetry.  In these instances, it can be most beneficial to put your subject or horizon right in the center of the frame. Doing so highlights the symmetry better than placing it off-center, per the rule of thirds.

For example, all of the following images are about symmetry through reflections. You'll notice I divided the frame into 1/2 foreground (e.g. lake, sand) and 1/2 background (e.g. sky, mountain, rocks) instead of the guidelines laid out by the rule of thirds.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

This last example is a little less obvious, but I wanted to highlight the symmetry between the texture of the rocks with the textures of the clouds. The clouds seemed to be mimicking those rocks and I wanted to show that in the final image. Breaking the rule of thirds and putting the horizon through the center was just the right recipe for showing that symmetry.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

There you go! So don't be afraid to break the "rules"!