Sunny Day Metering Tip

"Thin Ice" by D. Travis North

"Thin Ice" by D. Travis North

Here’s the scenario – it’s a sunny day with blue skies and you’re shooting in a wide open space. The light is harsh, shadows are dark and well defined – a contrasty scene. What do you meter? You could carry around some gray cards, but on a sunny day like this, who needs them when you have something better: Blue Skies above.

The blue sky is dependable and trustworthy. If you meter off the sky, you will see predictable results. It is unbiased by the season – it works just as well shooting in the snow as it does shooting on a warm summer day. It is not influenced by the time of day – it works equally well in early evening, dusk or even high noon. Faces won’t disappear into shadow, nor will they get blown out. Shadows won’t appear too dark or too bright. The blue sky metering method is perfect for any outdoor shooting. Best of all, it’s easy:

  1. Flip to Manual Mode – don’t be afraid, it’s painless. Manual mode is necessary so that your camera won’t try to alter the meter between shots. You’ll set it and forget it until you want a different aperture or enough time has passed that the light has changed.
  2. Set the Aperture – pick an aperture that is ideal for your subject. Be aware that if you want to change your aperture, you’ll need to adjust your settings: Just return to this step.
  3. Point to the Sky – point your camera to the sky to check your in-viewfinder meter. You’ll need to point away from the sun. Pick a point about half-way between the sun and the farthest horizon. This is especially important near sunrise and sunset.
  4. Adjust for Shutter Speed – With your camera pointed at the sky, adjust the shutter speed until your meter reads neutral. If you’re not used to manual mode, it’s simple enough – just increase or decrease your shutter speed until the indicator points to “0” at the center of the scale.
  5. Set it and Forget It – Now that you’re metering is set up, you need to forget all about metering until enough time has passed that the light has changed, or until you want to change the aperture setting. Do not trust your meter once pointed at the subject. Try as it might, your camera meter is not as trustworthy as the big blue sky.
  6. Reframe and Shoot – you can now shoot in any direction at any subject and the metering should be perfect. I cannot stress this enough: Do not change your settings until the light has changed or you want to change aperture. Don’t trust your meter, trust the sky.

There are some caveats to this method, of course. If you’re shooting a subject that’s completely in shade, this method will not work. You will also need to adjust your settings after a certain amount of time. During mid-day, you can get away with a half our before adjusting. But during the first few hours and last few hours of the day, you’ll want to tweak your settings more regularly; every 10-15 minutes at most.

This trick is especially useful when you have a lot of bright colors or a lot of white (like snow) in a scene. Your camera is biased towards gray, and it will try to find the middle ground. The bright colors will trick your camera, and it will try to meter those things as gray. The result is under-exposed shots. But if you meter off the sky, those colors will pop like they should.  It works equally as well for color shots as it does for black & white shots – there really aren’t many limitations.  So next time you’re shooting outdoors, try this handy trick. It may just be your new favorite metering trick.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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