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How to Spot Meter for Portraits

Brandy Kimble , Dec 16, 2013; 11:53 p.m.

I am a newborn photographer and most of my images are taken indoors with soft natural window light.

I wanted to know how spot metering works and how to use it?

Thank you!


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Mukul Dube , Dec 17, 2013; 12:33 a.m.

Brandy, a spot meter reads light only from a small, defined area. It has a narrow field. In general, several readings are taken and then combined (a "weighted average"). For portrait work you will probably be better off with an incident light meter. If you have only the spot meter, place a piece of white card or paper in the same light as your subject, take a reading off that, and open up the lens two and a half stops more than the indicated value (or adjust shutter speed to get the same exposure). Film speed must be set on the meter beforehand.

Jos van Eekelen , Dec 17, 2013; 04:59 a.m.

In camera spot metering can be used for measuring a person/face when you have a brightly lit background. Mostly the viewfinder has an indication of the part of the scene that is measured. So you can measure the face and give that the proper exposure. Very likely the background will be over/underexposed but the spot metering technique works well.

Bill Jordan , Dec 17, 2013; 06:05 a.m.

I'd just like to say you write very well for a newborn ;).

David Henderson , Dec 17, 2013; 06:43 a.m.

The thing to remember about spot metering is that if you set on the camera (or allow the camera to set, depending on whether your meter is in-camera or separate) the same value that your spotmeter records for a particular place , then that place will be rendered as a mid-tone. So spot metering is not just a case of pointing the meter at one small area , taking a reading and setting the camera at that exposure. You always have to think about how you want various parts of your subject rendered- whether at mid-tone or a stop (or two) lighter or darker. Thats why the first respondent said that in general several readings are taken, and you decide -or calculate- the exposure based on what gives you the best fit with how you see the picture.

Spot metering can be an extremely accurate way of controlling exposure, so the photographer understands how the brightest and the darkest parts of the scene will be rendered. But there's a learning curve involved, and you will make mistakes while you're on it. If you're metering with a handheld meter, I'd also suggest that incident metering may be easier for you. Otherwise matrix or similar and bracket.

Ellis Vener , Dec 17, 2013; 09:56 a.m.

Well you've been given some good tips. The only one I'd add is to use your camera's spot meter and set your camera's exposure biasing for +1.0 if you are reading the baby's face. If the baby is dark skin and the overall contrast (the range from highlighlights to shadows in the scene isn't great keep biasing at normal.

Do you have a WhiBal target? If so , use it.

Also shoot raw.

Finally: play.

James Dainis , Dec 17, 2013; 01:06 p.m.

Spot meter a white piece of paper and take a photo of it using the indicated exposure. You will get a photo of a gray piece of paper.

Spot meter a black piece of paper and take a photo of it using the indicated exposure. You will get a photo of a gray piece of paper.

Now you know how a spot meter works. It will try to set an exposure to render a middle gray, Zone 5, result. A spot meter does not give you the correct exposure unless the subject is already a middle gray. You have to learn how to adjust from the indicated middle gray exposure to the correct exposure for the subject. Generally, that would mean take a spot meter reading of the person's face and open up one stop or, as Ellis said, have the camera biased for +1.0.

Robert K , Dec 17, 2013; 04:30 p.m.

Congratulations on wanting to use spot metering. It will allow you to control the camera, not vice versa. But like many good things in life, it will take some work.

As others have suggested, after spot metering a tiny area (on my dSLR a 3mm or 0.12" circle, really tiny), you will need to determine if biasing is necessary. Take this photo of yours as an example.


If you spot meter on her chest under her chin, there is little need to bias since that spot is close to 18% gray. But if you spot meter on her shiny cheek, you will need to bias by overexposing one stop or so.

Spot metering on a dSLR poses another challenge. On a dSLR the focus point and exposure point are tied together in the default settings. In your photo, the critical focus point is obviously the eyes, but that's not where you would want to spot meter. OTOH, if you spot meter on the cheek or on the chest, you would be focusing there as well, which is not the critical focus point.

One way to disengage the focus point from the exposure point on a dSLR is using Back Button Focusing. That will allow you to focus on an eye and lock the focus, and then spot meter on the chin or the chest.


Bill Jordan , Dec 17, 2013; 05:45 p.m.

Just to add to what Robert said, an alternative is to spot meter on an area that you'd consider 18% gray (it doesn't actually have to be gray though), and use the AEL button on your camera to lock the exposure. You might have to check your camera settings to determine how long the lock will hold. Another option is to spot meter, then put your camera on full manual mode and set the shutter speed and aperture to match the readings that correspond to the spot metering. So many options, so little time...

Dan M , Dec 17, 2013; 08:04 p.m.

As long as you recall that what you are metering from will be rendered as a mid-tone, you will get the hang of it if you practice metering off different parts of the face in different lighting. Elli's suggestion works well for Causcasian faces that are not in shadow. I spent years metering off the palm of my hand and opening up one stop when I had a Canon FTb, which had no automatic anything and only a spot meter.

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