S&D Pub: Metering the Dynamic Light in the Street

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by ds_meador, Oct 22, 2009.

  1. As one who is fairly new to photography, not just street photography, I have a lot of questions that I think are fairly basic, perhaps even mundane, for those who are more experienced photographers. As photography is “capturing light” or “writing with light” I guess the most basic place to start would be by asking a question related to light. There are several genre of photography that have fairly controlled light, or fairly constant light, but I don’t find that to be the case with a lot of my experiences in the street. One minute I’m in shade and the next I’m in sun light. If I shoot for the whole day, I may (rarely) have early morning “golden hour” light then shift to the stronger daylight and end with the evening “golden hour” light. Honestly, I’ve never shot for a whole day in a way as to have both golden hour lights, but I think what I’m trying to express is clear. With constantly changing light, how do you meter the light for your street photography? I like to use the Spot Metering option on my Canon XSi, but I find that when I meter and then recompose, the spot that is metered can change color or tone enough to throw off the exposure. There is not always time, at my skill level, to switch metering modes as something develops. I also usually shoot in aperture priority. Do most of you use complete manual control in the street, or do you let the camera control part of what is happening. I guess I have three questions here in relation to street photography.
    How do you meter light?
    What mode do you prefer to shoot in?
    If you vary metering and mode, how do you decide which to use when?
    I don’t know that this will generate many picture as examples, so I hope that is okay.
    Thanks in advance for you help here.
    DS Meador
  2. In the previous photo I spot metered on his green shirt and then recomposed a little in an attempt to frame the eyes behind him. In the next picture he was seated and I was zoomed in, so I didn't recompose any after spot metering on the green shirt. At least that is what I tried to do with these two example photos. I wish I had better examples from this open stage, but I have already edited to the trash bin.
  3. I generally take a reading before the first frame, as an anchor point, then manually adjust as I walk into different light. I'll take another reading where the light changes radically and I'm not longer sure, but not for one-three stop changes. This is for black and white film, which I use 95% of the time, slide film and digital are less forgiving, I still take the same approach, but with more metering.
    Often, I just meter the pavement, as it's close to medium grey, then I've got the exposure pre set, preset focus, and I'm ready to click if I see something interesting.
  4. Don't worry about spot metering unless you have enough time, first of all. Aperture priority works well but how well in more complex lighting depends
    on the metering system on the camera. With a center weighted meter aperture priority can be fooled by either a very light
    or dark backdrop that contrasts with the main subjects. Same issues with sky in the upper half. That's a time when you
    might want to use manual metering or meter with aperture priority lock. It works if the light is consistent to meter an approximate 18% grey area, as
    mentioned, and then just shoot. In manual it's pretty easy to have a good idea what the setting should be in 4
    types of light- for example: bright sun, not so bright sunlight, bright or medium overcast or shade, and dim overcast. Areas
    under canopies or into interior spaces become more difficult to judge without a meter.

    The easiest thing to do is either use a film with a lot of latitude like Tri-X, color film use print film, or if using a digital cam, shoot RAW.
  5. I use a hand held meter; the Sekonic L-508 for both medium format and 35mm. It too has a spot meter, but never seem to use it. I rely on incident reading which I think is the most accurate method. If I'm in the open sun, I down rate my film a stop. If I'm in a shadow like on a side of the street where there are tall buildings obscuring the sun, I'll reset the meter to box speed. Of course there are times where I forget to down rate once I'm in the sun and I suffer a slight loss of shadow detail but that's life. An incident reading will be the same as a reflected reading off 18% grey.
  6. In-camera spot metering I've never been a real fan off and really, matrix (or any other multi-segment) metering mode in modern (D)SLR's has become so damned good that you can handle most of what you encounter without a second thought. About 95% of lighting situations will lead to correct exposures using this. But it's often in those remaining 5% that the most challenging and interesting lighting situations can lead to beautifull results if handled correctly. For that I prefer a 1 degree handheld spotmeter.
    I've worked for years with the Zone system and manually sure has its place if you know what you're doing (which btw isn't exactly a dark art, Ray is right about that) but by now it seems to have led to a bumper sticker mentality of "Real Photographers do it Manually" with a lot of people on this and other sites as you can read in a lot of discussions (as has working with high ISO). It's nothing more than pretentious BS.
    I appreciate new developments that make life easier.
    As for which mode, I mostly use aperture priority which I find very convenient
  7. With constantly changing light, how do you meter the light for your street photography?
    The light isn't constantly changing. For most of the day, you have two basic lighting conditions that change quite slowly: direct sun, and shade. Sometimes you'll have a couple of varieties of shade (open shade on a broad street, more top-lit shade in narrower alleys), but you're usually shooting in one or the other of these. Once you figure out the exposure for subjects in direct light and subjects in shade, it's simply a matter of switching between those two exposures depending on the location of your subject.
    Another situation where you do have somewhat rapidly changing light is when skies are partly cloudy and the lighting varies between overcast and direct sun.
    One of the reasons that using manual exposure is popular is that, in a lot of ways, it's actually simpler than using the automatic metering in your camera. I can use the TTL metering in my SLR effectively, but using an incident meter with a fully-manual camera often requires less thought.
    You shouldn't try to make things more complicated than they are. Try to sort out the basic lighting conditions that you're likely to photograph at any given time on the street and figure out the exposures you need for those. You don't need to figure out a much different exposure for every single shot.
  8. I agree with Mike.....out and about on the actual street there are really only two exposures to concern yourself with....in the sun, and in the shade.........and they tend to be 2 stops apart in most places. Then there are the subways....at least here in NYC....and those are essentially the same idea....directly under the lighting, and where there is little or non direct lighting.
    I use aperture preferred and rely heavily on the exposure compensation dial/button/option. It's quick and easy to use on almost every camera I own.
    When things get a little less of a pattern, I'll switch to manual exposure, and I'll use the palm of my hand. I'm caucasian and so if I measure the palm of my hand and get a meter reading I know that my palm is in zone VI (caucasian skin gets placed on zone VI of the zone system) and my meter is designed to average all readings to zone V.....so then I'll open up 1 stop from my readin and that places my palm back to zone VI. Now the trick is to get my palm in the same light as my subject......and then the exposure is dead on.
  9. Everyone has their own way of working these things out, DS, but what it comes down to is knowing your camera. And I don't think you can really know what a camera, or any camera, can do, if you don't experiment with shooting manually.
    This isn't, to use Ton's phrase, "pretentious BS"... and, no, "real photographers do it manually" is not the point. The point is that you have equipment, you learn how to use it, what will give you a certain effect, more contrast, sharper or more blurred imagery... Why limit yourself?
    Also, shooting manually, even as an exercise, is more fun, more of a challenge, and it requires that you become more involved in the process. You'll get to know your exposures faster because you'll make more mistakes, miss more shots, get more frustrated, but, in the end, you'll have a greater understanding of your camera. And, the big bonus is, you can always shoot in program, aperture priority, etc. And with every 1000 images shot manually, you also get a little badge in the mail (it's a plastic 6-pointed star that looks like a pentagram).
    I agree with Ray, Thomas and Mike... it's not really that complicated.
  10. Fi, Everyone knows that a 5-pointed star cannot have six points! Hope you have better luck shooting in manual!
  11. I'm with Fi on this.
    I think it comes back to the idea of "amputation" introduced in the last thread. While I didn't like the word amputation as it was used there, here it makes sense to me, in terms of Fi's question "Why limit yourself?" Any habit I get into that feels like I'm limiting myself could really be an amputation.
    I shoot manually because it helps me be flexible in my approach and vision, in the variety of energies I feel at the moment and in the variety of energies I want different of my photos to have. I shot on auto and priority a little bit at the beginning, for really just a couple of months. But as soon as I began wanting to see not in any sort of standard way, I changed to shooting manually and, for me, it's opened a lot more doors visionwise. Like Fi says, there are missed shots and mistakes but there's also a lot more variety and lack of assumptions on my part. I rarely look at a scene and say to myself, "what's the best or the correct exposure to use here." It's usually more about what can I find or what can I create. The more in tune with my camera I become, the more those questions can be asked and answered instantaneously.
    For me, it's a little like discussions about shooting RAW or jpg. I want to maximize flexibility. Now, true, with RAW I am actually getting more digital information. With manual shooting, I process more information and add more choices.
    I don't think about two or three exposures or lighting situations when I'm walking on the street. I try to create lighting situations of my own by thinking about what different settings would accomplish in conjunction with compelling light I often seek out.
  12. Why limit yourself indeed!!? Ha ha. I guess I didn't, and I may be in for a roller coaster ride when I see some of my films
    from NY. Not only did I intentionally try to shoot Tri-X at 1250- 1600, but looking at this thread last night made me realize I was metering light
    toned sidewalk for grey card grey. So in effect I probably shot some 400 film @ 3200.. Doh! What was I thinking? It's the
    price I paid for dropping my AE cam and using a manual camera, the type I haven't used in several years. jeeez!

    I wouldn't dismiss AE though. It's a handy tool... missing shots is not exactly something to be happy about. And I have to
    disagree with Mike and Thomas to the point that I think 2 types of light is a bit simplistic.. 2 basic lighting situations yeah,
    but real street shooting situations surely get more varied than that! Bright sun- deep overcast- I think we're talking 3-4
    stops diff, no??
  13. Fi I did nowhere say that shooting manual is BS merely that some people have turned it into a cult and that's BS. Mastering your craft and use whatever does the trick is important not a single mode.
    Maunual is a means, not an end.
    Shooting Zone is fully manually, I'm just not above using things that often are in fact making my life a bit easier in a dynamic environment.
  14. Ton, I wouldn't be part of any cult that would have me as a member...
  15. Thought I'd chip in for the first time.
    I shoot with all manner of cameras from an Yashica me-35 for zone focus from the hip shooting which unfortunately does all the metering for me but at least tells me the aperture and speed at which it will shoot, through to completely manual use of my Zorki 4k and Canonet QL17. I find for best light control I prefer to use manual cameras and meter off my hand (with an old western II selenium cell light meter) which I hold at an angle to represent the light I see falling on the people’s faces I'm about to photograph. I walk through strong light, shade and heavy shade all the time as I move around, so I use HP5 (400 iso) black and white film, I choose my favourite aperture based on what the light allows ie f8, then I find the speed settings for each major light situation and rotate back and forth through the speeds as I walk from one area to another. This means I can be standing in sun and photographing into the shade quickly without needing to meter. I just occasionally check on my hand and rely on my brain and the flexibility of my film to do the rest. Its fun, kind of a drug... I enjoy it that’s why I do it that way. For my normal every day work shooting I use a DSLR, so its nice to do something different for my hobby. P.s Im an agricultural consultant not a pro photographer.
    Oh, and the best thing with these old cameras (apart from the feel and conversation piece and non scary look of them) is that they have depth of field markings, and with a good aperture you can even stuff up the focus yet still get a reasonably sharp image, especially when shooting discretely from the hip
  16. Great topic, DS. I've been looking forward to reading the responses from the regulars on here. It is a tricky subject, after all, photography is all about light and how we manage it. Lately, I've been carting around a Mamiya 6MF and I use the meter on it sometimes. Most often I'm using an M3 or a SL2 with a broken meter, so I just guess and try to salvage something from the rolls of crap I churn out using photo-shop...yes, flog me, I said it. Like Fi said it is challenging, and I have the feeling that if I spend a few more years doing it, I might get better.
  17. In the end for my personal choice I have to go along with Ton on this. I get more consistent exposures with AE than
    anything else, even with a Leica, which is center weighted meter. For many years I shot Sunny 16 (no meter- read the film box)
    and it's good to do that along with shooting manually and understand it, and yeah, it may be fun in and of itself. But I'm
    out to get the best shots I can with the least hassle and concentrate on what's going on with movement of the subject. And there are things that happen so quickly off to my side under the shadow of a doorway that I want to shoot that I can't adjust as fast as an auto exposure system. It's easy enough
    if you have a tricky lighting situation to meter, use AE lock, and recompose- in the 10-20% or whatever situations you find
  18. Thanks for all the input! I really appreciate all of you taking the time to share with me. There are several different approaches, which I expected, but some of the ideas for simplification I hadn't even thought about. Now, time to digest the information and experiment. It is, either way, a matter of practice and knowing your equipment. I've had my XSi for less than a year and have already shot about 11k exposures. However, knowing which questions to ask and how to approach variation in technique helps in the learning process.
    Thanks up to this point and I'll welcome any other input anyone wants to offer.
    DS Meador
  19. DS--
    A friend of mine was reading through the thread and commented on something which is worth bringing up. None of us, including ME, asked you what you are after. When he said that, it rang a bell for me. You've recognized, and it's true, how many different approaches have been described. And I'm sure that's helpful. But also important is what you want. For many purposes, fully automatic shooting would seem very appropriate and reasonable. For others, completely manual shooting would probably work well. For some ways of shooting and seeing, depending on the goals, the vision, etc., thinking of the street as having two basic types of lighting situations would be reasonable and helpful. For others, that likely wouldn't work out so well. Can you speak more about your own goals? What are you looking for with street photography? Are you documenting, into creating, into a personal vision or a more objective vision, etc.? Answers to those questions will likely guide the considerations you give to exposure and many other technical aspects of photographing.
    Another thing this friend mentioned which is worth considering is color, even when the final image will be black and white. Different colors reflect light differently and can play a vital role in how we expose. A red shirt on a passerby that is important will often demand a different approach than will a white shirt or even a blue shirt. The relationships of colors will also be a key, both if the image will stay in color and if the image will be converted to black and white. Background colors will influence tonality a lot when converting to black and white. Exposure will be considered in relationship to more than just light.
    Also, reflected light will be a key. Walking among downtown city buildings, I am often aware of how light reflected from windows impacts greatly the way I will expose, so if I pay attention only to the ambient "shadiness" of a street, for example, I may miss opportunities that the refractions of the city will offer. Even light reflected off passing cars, buses, trolleys can really impact exposure decisions.
  20. Fred (et. al.),
    Thanks for asking for more details. As I read some of the responses the approach seemed to be more "artistic" than I'm looking for at this point. I'm not looking for blur in most of what I shoot, though occasionally I find it useful when I'm taking a more documentary approach.
    A lot of what I want from street and documentary could almost be termed cultural anthropology. I want to record life around me as it is and as it takes place so I can look at it and learn more about the people amongst whom I live. Currently the location is Santa Catarina, Brazil. Four months ago it was Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. I was in the mountains, but now I'm on the coast. I'm trying to get the local flavors of the people. I'm not certain that makes sense, but I hope it does.
    That said, I'm not looking for just snapshots. I want the pictures to at least appear like there is an attempt at composition. I've not really experimented with juxtaposition much at this point.
    Most of what I've been shooting stays in color. I've started trying some B&W conversion, but haven't really done enough to know what I'm working with yet. The two pictures I posted to start the thread don't actually look very different in overall result, but I think the conversion to jpeg reduced the differences that I saw in RAW. Yes, I shoot RAW for the increased versatility in post processing (which I'm also just learning).
    I shoot mainly in aperture priority because shutter speed variation usually has less impact on what I shoot than aperture variety would in trying to maintain a fixed shutter speed. I have not used full manual much up to this point. I did use it at the beach one day because it was full sun and there was not any noticable change in lighting for most of the day. I have also used it some in shooting close ups of flowers and similar controlled environments. When I know I have time I don't mind using manual and experimenting, but I'm just not practiced enough to use it in a situation where I would be rushed in shooting.
    Maybe this information will bring out some more responses. I'm looking to learn, so the more help the better. Still, the previous responses do give me areas to explore.
    Again, thanks - DS Meador
  21. Metering is over rated - except in the most technical of situations when using multiple strobes for example trying to get the light where you want it at the intensity you want it at. On the street you bend with the light and therefore are presented with less conundrums. Force yourself to shoot manually and pixel peep for a while - your guessing will improve very fast and you will feel really good about removing a step from the process.
  22. I think the suggestion to spend some time shooting in full manual is a good one (not because that's how "real photographers" do it, but because it will make you very conscious of the typical lighting in different situations in the street). Reviewing exposure data after the shot isn't nearly as effective in helping you become adept at metering as making deliberate decisions about exposure before you shoot.
  23. I agree, when i look at a roll of film i manually meter, its very consistent. When I look at a roll shot on aperture priority the exposure varies more. Even the matrix metering on my DSLR is not as consistent. Just do it! you wont regret it, then when you shoot normally you'll be so much better and faster and you will know when your light meter or camera is misleading you!

    Seriously carry a small light meter, or use the on in your camera on your hand, find an aperture you like, then check the speed difference required for say, bright light, shade and heavy shade. Once you have this in your head, you will find yourself absent mindedly adjusting the camera as you walk around. Then when you see a shot click.. you have it.

    To go one step further once you know the depth of field associated with your chosen aperture, you can pre set your focus to say 3m, then with acceptable tolerance and no lag from autofocus, go click at the decisive moment and get that shot!!!
  24. I use my Rangefinders light meter. I preset my focus; bounce between 5-10ft. in most cases. Be sure speed is at 1/125 or better. I like to get close and some times dive right into the action (packed street corner or people bumping into each other in front of a store).
  25. I tend to work in full manual mode, usually using a camera which doesn't have any automation anyway. I also use a hand held spot meter
  26. Following on from Mike D's comment above. You have 2 or 3 basic lighting situations (shadow, overcast, full sun). A little preparation makes it simple. Meter on your hand for each of the three. Add a stop (for caucasian hands). Remember either the 3 apertures or the three shutter speeds depending on your preference. Set appropriately and shoot away. Then all you have to do is worry about focus :). And composition. And subject movement...

Share This Page