The problem with landscape photography is metering
March 11, 2016
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This is a thing I have to say on just about every camera course I teach. It seems everyone likes to take landscapes, not me so much I have to add, (why, oh because they involve so much walking and carrying gear to places that are difficult to get to). As dear old Ansel Adams taught us (he is probably the greatest landscape photographer of all time) metering is the essence of getting a landscape picture right, see this picture of his
So it was with relief that I found this post by Kent DuFault on Lightstalking that address all the issues surrounding metering and landscapes. Just give it time to get past all the jokiness, it is worth the effort.
He proposes that the Zone System, originally developed by Ansel Adams and that involved metering, film development and printing can still be used in digital photography, I agree with this and taught it on our Black and White Digital Photography course. It takes a bit of understanding and careful metering as well as command of Photoshop but is worth the work. The basis of the Zone System was that light meters as you have in your camera provide aperture and shutter combinations that would create a mid grey or 18% tone, understanding this allows you to meter into the darkest shadows/brightest highlights and then adjust your exposure through managing aperture or shutter as you prefer (usually shutter). This may sound complicated but it is the foundation of all photography that relies upon a light meter and should be understood by anyone serious about their photography and especially landscape photography. Here is the summary from Kent but I would recommend that you read the whole article
To properly meter for a landscape photograph consider the following-
Illustration by Kent DuFault
- Once, you have decided on a scene; evaluate the contrast range with your eyes. Take notes (I do). Note your brightest highlight area that you wish to maintain detail. Note your darkest shadow area that you wish to maintain detail. Note an area that you believe to be a mid-tone (127) area.
- Use your longest focal length lens (or a handheld spot meter). Set your metering pattern to “spot”. Take a meter reading of the three areas that you noted in step one. Write down the exposure settings. (For the sake of example- I’ll make some up: Shadow area 1/2 sec at F/1.4: Mid-tone area 1/2 sec at F/8: Highlight area 1/2 sec at f/45) This represents a 10 stop dynamic range. Most DSLR cameras can record a dynamic range of about 5 to 6 stops. The super high-end professional DSLR cameras may go as high as a 10 to 12 stop range. For most of us, we are looking at a 5 to 7 stop range.
- Make a determination of where you are willing to lose detail: highlights or shadows? Set your exposure with a bias to the end of the scale that you want to have detail. Using my example meter readings above- if I wanted to bias my exposure maintain detail in the highlights, I would set my camera to 1/2 sec at f/16. If I wanted to bias my exposure for detail in the shadows, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/4. If I wanted to record as much mid-tone levels as possible, and sacrifice a little detail at both ends of the scale, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/8. I’m not going to go deeply into this- BUT- you may have heard of “Shooting to the Right”. This refers to biasing exposure to the shadows thus over-exposing the highlights. The theory behind this is that digital cameras, shooting raw files, can recover more detail in the highlight end of the scale- than they can in the shadow end of the scale (in post-production). And while this is true, you should strive for the best exposure setting possible (based on your mind doing its work).
- Finally, shoot a picture and look at the histogram on the LCD screen in preview. Are you getting the correct bias that you wanted? For example, if you wanted to maintain detail in the shadows, but the shadows are being clipped off on the “0” end of the scale- you need to increase your exposure. The opposite would be true if you were looking at the highlight end. If they’re being clipped off, you need to reduce exposure.
Illustration by Kent DuFault
- Evaluate the tone range of the scene.
- Make a determination which tone values are most important.
- Set your equipment to take a meter reading of the smallest area possible (spot setting)- take a meter reading of the shadow, mid-tone, and highlight areas you identified in the previous steps.
- Determine the dynamic range.
- Set your exposure using ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed to place the “window” of dynamic range in the right location on The Zone System Scale.
- Shoot a test shot.
- Evaluate the histogram.
- Adjust exposure as necessary.
- Enjoy your wonderful results!
Sadly I no longer run the Black and White Digital Photography course due to lack of interest but would be happy to do so again if there were enough interest. If you are interested send me an email
Here are some more Ansel Adams for you
Ansel Adams Wilderness, California. Afternoon Thunderstorm, Garnet Lake.