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Meter Maids – In Camera Metering | Day 10

I always think I’m so clever when I write titles at one in the morning. This post – among all of them – I hope unlocks the mystery of shooting manually for you. I have shared this not-really-a-secret-but-many-shoot-in-auto-people-don’t-know-about-it bit of info with some other newish camera owners, and watching the light bulb go off is uber-rewarding. I wish we could all sit together for this part.

Exposure TriangleReady? Brace yourself.

Your camera will tell you when you’ve got the exposure triangle right. You don’t have to guess.

I know, I know. Life changing!

That statement is true – however! My caveat… just because you have the exposure triangle right, doesn’t mean it’s the best equation for the shot. And you need to be sure your camera is metering the light on your subject. So you’ll still have to put on your thinking cap.

How to use your in-camera meter to judge exposure:

Inside your camera you have a series of tick marks that look like a number line. And while you are just learning, your goal will be to keep that number line at zero. Zero = properly exposed. This is admittedly a bit of an over-simplification, but it’s a great place to start.

in camera meter

This is what you see when you look into your view finder. In this above example, we’re shooting at a shutter speed of 1/60s with an aperture of f/2.8. And according to the tick marks we are a hair overexposed.

darcy's graphic in camera metering

Above is what you see, not looking in the camera but on the control panel on top of the camera itself. In this example, this camera is set to 1/125 sec shutter speed, aperture of f/13 and appears to be very underexposed. If shot like this, the result would be near-blackness.

So applying what we learned yesterday about scales, we can shift the meter in our cameras to 0 – indicating a “correct” exposure.

Think of your light meter like that level thing your inlaws got your husband to hang shelves. Levels have a bubble in the middle and you have to keep adjusting the level until the bubble bobbles at zero. Incidentally, many decent tripods have a bubble bobble level, too. You want your 3 elements of exposure – ISO, shutter speed and aperture – leveled off so your photo is neither under- or overexposed.

How do we level off the exposure triangle when the image is underexposed?

Underexposure happens when not enough light is reaching your cameras sensors. The result is lost shadows or dark image.
(Canon users, the + and – are opposite poles. Underexposure shows tick marks to the left.)

To allow in more light, you can:
slow down the shutter speed
increase the aperture
increase the ISO

How to we level off the exposure triangle with the image is overexposed?

Overexposure happens when too much light is allowed in. The result is white, blown out highlights or hot spots.
(Canon users, the + and – are opposite poles. Overexposure shows tick marks to the right.)

To reduce the amount of light you can:
increase the shutter speed faster
decrease the lens aperture
decrease the ISO

And this is where it gets tricky – the appropriate way to increase or decrease light isn’t the same for every situation.

If your meter shows the image is underexposed and you are shooting a toddler – reducing the shutter speed would not be a good solution. If your meter shows the image is underexposed and you are shooting food on a tripod – reducing the shutter speed is a great solution.

If your meter shows the image is overexposed and you’re shooting a subject with a distracting background, decreasing the aperture will only emphasize the chaotic background when you bring more of it in focus.

ISO should be the last thing you increase, since increasing it creates destructive noise to your image.

Tomorrow is a linky for shooting your experiments shooting manually. I’m warning you now so you can be prepared to write down info like shutter speed, ISO and aperture. If you have a program like Lightroom or Bridge, it will tell you that information. If you don’t, you’ll have to take notes.

Please visit my girls who are sharing this 31 Days journey with us:

31 Days of Grace :: Chatting at the Sky
31 Days to an Inspired Table :: My First Kitchen
31 Days to a Less Messy Nest :: Nesting Place
31 Days of Living Simply :: Remodeling This Life
31 Days of Autumn Bliss :: The Inspired Room
31 Days to More. . .With Less :: Beauty and Bedlam
31 Days to a Better Photo :: My 3 Boybarians
31 Days to Stress Free Entertaining :: Reluctant Entertainer


  1. youre right… the light bulb is coming on! its not totally bright yet- but certainly glowing 🙂 I think to make it brighter, I just need to practice. Get out there and do it. more and more and more. Cant wait for tomorrow 🙂

  2. awesome info darcy! you’re a really good teacher. can i enroll at your homeschool? pretty please?
    two questions? is it cheating to just increase the exposure using the exposure button? if you use that button, does the camera automatically just do it using one of the methods you’ve already discussed?
    number 2–are you going to give any suggestions for in depth online classes—because i don’t think 31 days is going to be enough for me? would you be willing to do one?
    loves to all,

    • I will talk about exposure compensation – you’re a bit ahead of the learning curve. But the answer is no – getting the exposure you need is *never* cheating. Using your camera to the best of its capabilities is smart photography.

      You’re not the first person to ask. I am considering offering lessons – or Photoshop lessons.
      For now – I love these resources:
      Jodi at MCP for Photoshop lessons
      Kent Weakley for specific lessons – I recently took his night photography class
      Angie Seaman offers online classes – I haven’t asked anyone who has taken one, but it might be worth investigating.

      But some photographers offer workshops and they’re worth traveling for. WPPI conference is full of classes and workshops.

  3. Darcy, I am LOVING this series! I only wish I had $200 for another lens . . . I really want that 35mm f1.8!

  4. Thank you so much Darcy! This info is fantastic…you are a great teacher. So excited to “play” with my camera today!

  5. Love this. I think it was only a few months ago that someone told me this and it was a bit of a duh moment. I prefer my pics a little whiter, so i go with a couple ticks to the left usually. I haven’t picked up my camera to seriously learn some new stuff lately but you have me wanting to now go for a walk and just practice. I can’t wait to see the experiments linky tomorrow!

    Your series is fantastic, Darcy!


  6. I learned this trick a year ago and instantly was comfortable shooting manual all the time. I was referring to in-camera metering and back button focusing a couple of months ago to professional photographers who are about a year ahead of me with their careers and they didn’t know about it. I was shocked!

    How does it make so much sense and yet, ends up being a happy little secret?! : )

  7. Oh my goodness! Wow… up until now it was just a guessing game and a constant raising of ISO or lowering shutter speed trying to balance it just right. I had NO idea! THANKS!!!!

  8. Aw, my dear Nikon Friend … your learn-your-camera tutorials are wonderful and clear and organized … and and and [in this case] Nikon specific in terms of overexposure to the left and underexposure to the right. Canon is exactly the opposite – thus the “expose to the right” phrase that we Canon shooters sometimes use. Not that this difference changes any of the nuts and bolts you’re discussing in terms of choosing your best exposure …

    Carry on the teaching torch!

    • It doesn’t surprise me at all!

      I tried to shoot yesterday with a friend’s 5d Mark II. Nearly everything is opposite. I got the machine in my hands to shoot and couldn’t do anything. I felt like a fish out of water.

      But I’ll definitely go back in and add notes for Canon users. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Thank you, learning a lot, slow learner though.:) Will continue to follow.

  10. Thank you so much for these wonderful tutorials!! Question for you though- are you going to go more in depth on the exposure and what to do in tricky situations?? I am having issues sometimes with the same example you used with the toddler and needing to slow the shutter but with a toddler, that’s not an option. Would LOVE some help with that!!

    • HI Leah,

      With a toddler – since stopping down speed isn’t an option, you have to adjust one of the other two. Either increase aperture or ISO. 🙂

  11. Thank you for the great tutorial. It makes so much more sense now!

  12. I opened your post so I won’t forget to read this later but just looking at the images you’ve posted make me queasy this morning 🙂

    ahhh the joys of school and learning are upon me once again…
    I know once I come back and actually read I’ll learn something major. I’m truly loving all the hard work you’re putting into this challenge. Thank you!!!!

  13. Light bulb ON! 😀 Wow, I always wondered what that hash line thingy was…obviously I didn’t care enough to check my manual! Thank you so much for doing this series. I’m learning so much that I either thought I knew, but didn’t and/or stuff I didn’t even know existed! And you’re doing this for free, which is a huge blessing!! Thanks so much for taking time to share your knowledge with the rest of us!!! It is very much appreciated!

  14. Oh, My!!! Aha moment. I had no idea my camera had this meter. wow, that is so helpful! Thanks again!!

  15. Hi Darcy,
    i’ve been slack in not jumping in before now and saying thanks putting all of this information together! I’ve been camera-less the past few weeks (feels like losing a limb!) and it’s been frustrating not being able to practise some of the practical exercises. Hopefully all will be remedied soon 🙂
    Thanks again!

  16. Dear Darcy,
    I love you.
    That is all.

  17. I just stumbled across your website about three days ago and I LOVE IT! We are a homeschooling family and thankfully, we are on Fall Break until tomorrow which has given me time to go back to the first lesson of the series and work my way to the present. I am so excited, because the lessons are EXACTLY what I was looking for- short, neat, to the point, informative and actually being involved in the lessons. I am so excited! Thank you so much!

  18. Darcy – this post was another one of those light bulb moments for me! I have been searching and asking questions on this for a long time and finally, you explain it so clearly and so well that it finally sunk in! I feel so smart! haha!

  19. Great info! Thanks so much! Here’s a question…if an image is showing under or over exposure…can I just adjust the EV compensation so it is back in the middle? For instance…if I don’t want to slow shutter speed and I’m wide open already and don’t want to increase my ISO….can I just adjust the EV??

  20. Hey Darcy,
    I’ve just joined the food+foto group on flickr and have been reading through your 31 days. So far so good. It’s fabulous!
    I have a question, which you may have answered after day 10….
    I understand the exposure triangle and that you can use a couple of different combinations to get the exp balanced, but from a stylistic point of view. Do you get a different quality to the light if you change each of these different elements? I’ve noticed that with slow night exposures, a small aperture gives cool star shapes to lights. Large aperture is better for bokeh… Hopefully I’m making some sort of sense. Can you give any insight?
    Thanks!! I’ll continue reading!

  21. Just thought I’d share this. The default setting for all Nikons is + on the left and – on the right, but you can change this. I have a D90, not sure if it in the same place for all nikons, but I’m sure you can find a site where Ken can help you out. Ken explains it well and all about custom settings. Go to site I share and find f7 Reverse Indicators to change the exposure meters. If you want to learn all about the Custom Settings go to the bottom of the website to the menu. http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d90/users-guide/menus-custom-ctls. I also posted this same message on Katie L’s blog.

  22. Thanks for this explanation of the in-camera meter. I have asked so many people if this meter should be set on 0. No one knew for sure. I have even asked professional photographers and they didn’t know either.

    So much to learn – so little brain power!!!

  23. Darcy,

    In your first photo here of the 3 boys at the lake, the camera is registering f/2.8 and shutter speed of 60. Why is the photo focused all the way through with an f/2.8? Wouldn’t it have a shallow dof at this point?

    • The graphic for the in-camera meter was recreated in a graphics program. That shot itself was actually taken with an iphone.
      So those aren’t the settings of that particular photo.

  24. Beverly says:

    Hi Darcy,
    Last evening I was directed to your blog via another blog where the author talked about how your series on 31 days to a better photo really changed her photography. Just last week a strong recommendation was given to me, again, to learn to shoot in manual mode to get the best images. For over two years I have been using Aperture mode with very good results, but from others experience it sounds like manual mode is the best. So I am beginning the series tonight. Thank you for sharing with us. Using Nikon D90 so hope I can master this soon. (I’m originally from Ft. Madison, IA). 🙂

  25. Jessica M says:

    AHA!!!! I HAVE seen this meter before but I have never put 2 + 2 together!! Oh thank you!! Off to do a photo shoot!!

  26. I’m about a year behind this original post date, but the wonderful instructions you give will never be out-dated! Thank you for the time you invested in these posts, and thank you for giving me the boost (and insight) I needed to move to manual!

  27. I have been trying to figure out shooting in manual for years! I think it may have just clicked thanks to you. I have been shooting in P but I think I will venture out and try M!

  28. Do you prefer to keep the number at zero or just a little more overexposed?

    • Depends. In a natural light studio at a low ISO I tend to shoot a stop underexposed if I’m shooting caucasian skin and 2 stops under if I’m shooting darker skin. If I have to pump up the ISO, I like to shoot a stop or two overexposed to avoid noise in the shadows. It really depends on the subject and exposure.

  29. i really like following your blog as the articles are so simple to read and follow. excellent. please keep up the good work. thanks.

  30. Annalisse says:

    Up until today, I have been doing “lighting tests” every time I start a photo shoot or when the light changes. In other words, I guessed what the settings should be, took a picture, looked at the histogram, adjusted, tried another picture, checked the histogram, adjusted– and so on– until I got the ideal histogram I was looking for. I really did fall over when I comprehended what your post was saying.

    I wish I had discovered this series earlier. I have figured out almost everything in this series using my owner’s manual and persistent practice– over a period of 5 years. Luckily, most of the rest of the series simply affirms what these 5 years have taught me.

    This is going to be as revolutionary to my photography as The Great White Balance Revelation of 2012. That is when another photographer made a passing reference to custom white balance; it rocked my world.

    Thank you so so much!


  1. […] Meter Maids – In Camera Metering […]

  2. […] is on manual, with the aperture wide open (f 1.8) and the speed set one notch over-exposed on the light meter in camera. I made sure all my settings were pretty before this little one was in front of me – because […]