2279-PSU Lighting Article Photographs

Exposure can be really confusing. It’s particularly so with modern digital cameras. Why? The type of light meters built into cameras is a big reason. Those meters are reflective meters. They measure the amount of light bouncing off of a subject. A reflective meter’s exposure makes what ever it sees 12.5% gray. Always.

Here’s an easy experiment that shows how they work. Take a white card and a black card outside on a sunny day. Put your camera on P (for Professional–er, no, that’s actually Program mode.) Set the camera on the spot metering. Put the white balance on Daylight or Sunny. Fill the viewfinder with the white card then take a picture. Put the black card over the white card, again fill the frame with the black card and make the photo. You have a photo of a white card and a black card right? Well… check your camera’s monitor.
2806-008-refelected metering2633-_0144
What do you see? That’s right–two almost identical gray cards. What’s happening here? Well, the reflective meter returns exposure settings to make what ever you aim it at turn out 12.5% gray.

When shooting someone in a white shirt (or a bridal gown) this is a problem. Huge. The photo will be underexposed by more than two stops. Not a good thing.

Here’s an example. The red circle (in the figure below) is the spot reading point. The model’s blouse is gray as predicted. For the image on the right, I added 2 and 2/3rds f/stops of light to get that blouse white with detail. Everything looks much better with the right amount of light.


2392-Catherine Norcom

Where does that “right amount of light” become the “right amount?” Guess work. Nope. It’s really quite simple. Sort of.

Start with the reflective meter. It gives an exposure that makes what ever it sees 12.5% gray. The “correct” exposure wants to be a little less than 100% reflectance. 100% is white after all. The chart below shows difference between what the meter says and what the exposure wants to be. Shifting the 12.5% reading to almost white now makes sense. 2644-exposure and reflectance percentsAdd one stop of light. The reflectance becomes 25% because a one stop add is twice as much light. That doubles the reflectance. Add one more stop of light. The reflectance is now 50% since the amount of light has doubled again. The blouse has to have detail so another full stop is too much. Two thirds of a stop more is just right pushing the reflectance to a little more than 80%. Perfect.

A reflected reading overexposes the black card. It’s reflectance wants to be somewhere between 1.5% and 3% or two to three stops less exposure than the reflective reading. Here’s how reflective readings render a subject when reading a black card, a gray (12.5%) card and a white card. The results are, from left, underexposed, correctly exposed and overexposed. Notice that the areas in the red circle that were read with the spot meter are all 12.5% gray.

2279-PSU Lighting Article Photographs

The reflectance chart can help unravel exposure issues. It helps interpret what the meter sees to what you actually want the photograph to be. It’s a good guide although not completely accurate.

There is another way. Next time let’s talk about incident light meters.

To lean more about Kevin visit www.kevinamesphotography.com.  Kevin is also a featured speaker at the upcoming Photoshop World conference.


This Post Sponsored by:

The Digital Camera Store At Amazon


Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on eat the pic and commented:
    Perfect tip for exposure tactics found at Photofocus today.

  2. Excellent basics needed to understand how your camera sees exposure!

  3. Good to remember if you are shoot someone in white or a darker skinned person. Manually over or under expose for the shot.

  4. […] two types of light meters–incident and reflective–do to measure light. If you read the reflective and incident posts in my Exposure Tactics posts you have a working knowledge of the […]


Let us know your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

About Kevin Ames

Photography is life. Kevin Ames is living it to the fullest. His career encompasses commercial photography, authoring books on Photoshop, Lightroom, as well as on photographing women, two magazine columns (Digital Photographer’s Notebook) in Photoshop User, (Lighting Photographer’s Handbook) in Light It! and speaking engagements in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia at Photoshop World, WPPI and Photo Plus Expo. Through it all he maintains his studio in Atlanta, Georgia working with clients including A.T.&T., Westin Hotels and Honda Power Equipment. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Atlanta Sports and Fitness and exhibited at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and on corporate websites, brochures and catalogs. Kevin is a Sigma Pro and Dynalite VIP. Read his blogs on: www.kevinamesphotography.com and www.blog.sigmaphoto.com.


Gear, Lighting, Photography, Shooting


, , ,