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Scenario 3: metering a high-contrast scene

On page 2, I wrote that there is some combination of shutter speed, aperture size, and imager ISO
that will perfectly expose a grey card in a given amount of light. Thats grey cards. In the real
world there is no such guarantee. !ig " is a perfect example of a high#contrast scene, which
cannot be perfectly exposed because no current imager can handle the extremes of brightness it
High-contrast$ %hen the extremes of brightness in a scene exceeds the capabilities of your
imager there is no ideal exposure and &uite possibly no usable exposure.
!ig ". '2#(2
)otice first that where sunbeams fall on the grass the imager *colour neg film in this case+ has
been totally over#exposed, turning the grass white. ,rass blades are fairly shiny and so act as a
mirror to reflect the intense sunlight into the lens of the camera. This is called specular glare and
is even more of a problem with water, glass, and chrome. Specular glare can sometimes be toned
down to a limited degree by using a polarizer, but otherwise it plays havoc with light meters. -ut
specular glare is not the main problem for metering this scene. .bout half of the scene is
extremely bright and the other half of the scene is correspondingly very dar/.
!ig (0. Same image showing *.+ spot readings and *-+ centre#weighted average reading
.t first blush, center#weighted loo/s ideal. One problem is that *as anyone with an older camera
learns from painful experience+ even though the sun and specular glare represent only an off#
centre fraction of the scene they will s/ew the reading dramatically toward under#exposure. %e
could use an incident meter but do we read light in the shadows or in the sun1 %e could use a
spot meter to read off the grass 2 but where1 )otice that a spot reading off the sun or the
specular glare of the grass will go right off scale. The grass in shadow and the grass in sunlight
give different readings. .n evaluative meter will li/ely give a usable reading *probably (23
+ but
not necessarily the setting you want.
. second problem with centre#weighted and incident in high#contrast situations is that there
really is no middle#point or ideal exposure to target for. 4ou will have to sacrifice some
highlights and5or some shadow detail. It really comes down to a matter of 6udgement 7 do you
try to minimize the amount of over#exposure of the lawn, which can be ugly1 Or do you try to
/eep from seriously underexposing the houses and other detail in the shadows1 .nd, in fact, if
you are using slide film or shooting 89:,s with a digital camera, you dont even try for this
scene 7 any exposure that will /eep the direct sun and specular glare from washing out the entire
frame will result in nothing but in/ blac/ness in the rest of the scene$
!ig ((. Same scene, wrong imager
Slide film or JPEG digital$ the only solution would be to use a tripod and exposure brac/et the
scene by two stops under and over then combine the resulting frames digitally to merge the
properly exposed bright areas from one frame and the properly exposed shadow areas from
another. This is only do#able if there is no breeze or other sub6ect motion.
Slide and digital photographers have two other tools in their belts to handle high contrast$ neutral
density graduated *); grad+ filters and fill#flash. *)either would have helped to capture !ig ".+
,iven neg film or a digital camera with good dynamic range, we can rescue this scene with
careful use of a spot meter. <eres the general recipe for using a spot meter on a problem scene$
Spot-metering recipe 1 (full version):
(. =eter the brightest area you want to retain detail
2. =eter the dar/est area you want to retain detail
>. If the difference between them does not exceed the dynamic range of your imager, use the
middle value between the two? otherwise choose whether you wish to sacrifice the
highlights or the shadows.
!namic range$ simply means the total range of brightnesses in a scene that an imager can
handle between its blac/ point of total under#exposure and its white point of total over#exposure.
The dynamic range handling@ of neg film varies but is rarely less than " stops. The dynamic
range handling of a digital camera depends upon the physical size of each pixel. .s I write this, a
typical .9S#sized imager dSAB has about C or " stops, while with digital 89:, capture assume D
stops. Slide film has 3 stops ;B *a few exceptions weigh in at 3E stops+. <owever, there is a
Highlight latitude$ both digital and slide film have a sharp cutoff point for highlight exposure.
!or example, a bright s/y in a contrasty scene will be captured as a white s/y even if it is blue or
grey to your eyes, if you expose for the middle value of the entire scene. Fsing slide film you
cannot exceed 2E stops above middle grey without blowing the highlights. %ith a digital
camera, experiment to find your highlight latitude, but > stops is probably a safe assumption for a
Aets put the recipe to use on the scene in !ig ". %e already /now we have no hope of saving the
specular glare areas that go off scale. The rest of the readings range from a brightest of (5(000

sec to a dar/est of (5C
sec, which is G stops. If we are using neg film or shooting raw in digital
we can simply use the median value, about (5"0
sec, but we would do better to do some faster
frames as well in hopes that one would give usable dar/ areas with minimal burn#out. If we are
using slide film, as we see from !ig ((, theres not much hope short of digitally combining
exposures. Still, our best bet for a single frame with slide film would be to drop down 2E stops
from our highest reading *(5(000+ for something between (5230 and (5(23, and let the shadows
fall where they may. In practice this means$
Spot-metering recipe " (shortcut for slide#digital in high-contrast light):
(. =eter the brightest area you want to retain detail
2. Set exposure to that value minus the imagers highlight latitude *#2E stops for slide, often
#> stops for digital raw+
>. 9ress shutter release.
!or more detail about recipe 2, including how to determine your cameras highlight latitude for
step 2, see Huic/, .ccurate <igh Iontrast :xposures for ;igital Iameras.
# # # # # #
@ 9urists distinguish between the dynamic range of the scene and the exposure latitude of the
imager. :xposure latitude is how much of the scenes dynamic range the imager can capture.
=ostly you will hear the term dynamic range being used to cover both concepts.