We all have had experiences where the lighting isn’t perfect — either inside or outside. And we might think we need to boost our ISO, change our aperture or play around with exposure compensation.

Often, there’s one simple switch you can make. Instead of using matrix / evaluative metering (which is usually the default on today’s cameras), switch your camera to use spot metering.

What is Spot Metering?

Unlike matrix / evaluative metering, which averages the light across your entire frame, spot metering evaluates the light on your sole focus point. This means you have the leading focal point of your photograph exposed perfectly.

This is perfect when you’re dealing with backlighting, and you don’t want your subject to be underexposed because of the harsh sun. Spot metering would set your exposure around the main subject in your frame.

It’s great for stage performances, when you have a main spotlight on a single person, and other subjects surrounding that person are in shadow. You want the main person to be perfectly exposed.

Any time you have a high-contrast environment, spot metering is a great way to expose for your subject while telling your camera to ignore other lighting in the frame, because it lets you control the amount of light on the primary subject in your photograph. It also helps keep the details in your shadows and highlights.

Spot metering can help separate the subject from a dark background, while still retaining shadows and highlights.
Spot metering can help separate the subject from a dark background, while still retaining shadows and highlights.

Things to Keep in Mind

Obviously, using multiple focus points won’t work here. You need to use single-area AF mode, or AF-S.

You’ll want to be sure you can lock your exposure and focus, so you can re-compose as necessary. You can do this through the AE-L / AF-L button on your camera (the default action for this button), or add it to your shutter button when you half-press. If you use back button focusing, keep in mind you might need to change your settings for the AE-L / AF-L button in order to use that button (you might not have AE-L on anymore). You can always apply AE-L to one of the custom buttons on your camera, too.

If you have a newer Nikon camera, like the D750 or D810, there’s a new metering mode called Highlight/Weighted Metering Mode. This is specifically for situations where a subject is against a dark background, and harsh lighting is present. Using this new mode may be a better option for performances. Keep in mind though this mode will only work with certain Nikon lenses — specifically Nikon G, E or D lenses.

By using spot metering, Burt and Mary were exposed perfectly, with the rest of the performers still evident.
By using spot metering, Burt and Mary were exposed perfectly, with the rest of the performers in the shadows.

Conclusion

If you’re like me and you deal with harsh lighting situations on a regular basis, spot metering is an ideal mode to switch to. Whether it be shooting in dark lighting situations like a wedding reception or performance, or if you’re shooting in harsh backlight, spot metering will let you have amazing exposure control over your photographs.