How to use spot metering for portraits

spot metering mode dslr
Using spot metering on your DSLR

I recently read a blog post from a pretty competent photographer who said that there is no reason to use spot metering.  Spot metering is where the camera determines a proper exposure not on the average brightness levels of the whole frame, but just of one specific spot.  This photographer, like me, is principally a landscape photographer.  Admittedly, I have never felt the need to use spot metering in my landscape work but it is extremely useful for shooting portraits.  Let's learn why….

While I'm sure landscape photographers could find some use for spot metering occasionally, we're usually working our hardest to get everything in the scene properly exposed.   It drives us crazy when we can't get the sky properly exposed.  Portrait photographers, on the other hand, often let the background blow out into white so they can properly expose the model.  Spot metering is perfect for this situation because it tells the camera not to be tricked into trying to find an average of the whole frame's brightness levels, but instead to only pay attention to the model's brightness levels.

The image featured on this page is a perfect example of spot metering.  If evaluative or matrix metering were used for this shot, the model's face would be darker and muddier looking because the camera would have averaged out the whole scene, which is pretty bright.

The bright look in photos has become quite popular in portraiture lately.  Nearly every engagement photo I see these days is of the couple standing there holding hands with the sun and sky over exposed behind the couple.  I like this technique because it always makes the photo look clean.

9 thoughts on “How to use spot metering for portraits”

  1. I have been struggling with the use (and understanding) of metering. The situation I find most frustrating is shooting indoors with low or imbalanced light. Any advice??

  2. The best advice on portrait shooting is to go full manual since you want to have complete control over the light.

    Automatic metering can be very tricky and you’d either end up switching between metering modes anytime the type of scene requires it or staying with spot metering and adjusting the exposition compensation according to what you actually take picture of. If the subject is much brighter compared to the rest of the scene you need to tell the camera to overexpose (as it automatically attempts to prevent overburning the image and would underexpose it as a result) and vice versa… See http://www.digital-photography-school.com/exposure-compensation-manual-shooting-without-being-in-manual

    Well, there is another option. Using Exposition lock button on your camera – how to use it should be in your camera user guide…

  3. So in the example above of the woman leaning against the wall, which part of the picture was used for the spotmetering? Her skin, her hair, her shirt, the background?

    1. Debbie, metering and focusing are two separate operations. In this instance, meter off her face in manual, then, using single point focus, focus on the eyes and lock focus, then recompose if necessary, and shoot.

  4. 1. Select spot metering in manual mode.
    2. Point the centre of the viewfinder at her skin.
    3. Get desired aperture (usually high to blur out the background and further isolate the subject).
    4. With the VF still aimed directly at her skin, Adjust shutted speed so that the metering indicator is in the middle.
    5. Leave the exposure settings (shutter / aperture) ALONE. Your camera is set.
    6. Focus as normal.

  5. Ok but, If I just first want to meter how would I activate the exposure metering first?? Because as soon as I half press the shutter button the focus point comes active.. So how would I first meter the skin and then focus the eyes??

    1. @Yesenia,

      You will want to use back button focus for this. Back button focus means setting up one of the other buttons on your camera (usually located on the back) as the focus button rather than that happening when you press the shutter half way down. You can see an article on the topic here. There is also a Photo Taco episode explaining why and how here.

  6. I have not seen anybody yet to mention that Caucasian skin reflects 36% of the light falling on it. Assuming the meter is followed the skin will be reproduced as an 18% gray which is 1 stop underexposure. For a dark skin we have to reduce the exposure from meter reading. Latino skin is usually 18% gray.
    I use spot metering for landscapes and it is precisely spot metering my favorite metering technique.

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