How to Get Better Landscape Photos Through Correct Metering

Here's a test for you-

What do you believe would be the most difficult photographic situation, (in general), to get a proper meter reading from your camera’s light meter?

A glass of water, a puppy portrait, flowers in a garden, a bridal portrait, a plate of spaghetti, a lion sleeping in the Serengeti, a teenager waterskiing, a street performer juggling, the landscape of El Capitan at sunset in the Fall…

(Laughing) It was fun dreaming up that list… All of them could present problems.

However, I intend to make a case that metering for a landscape photograph is one of the biggest challenges that a photographer can face.





Why do I say that?

Of all the “situations” listed- a landscape is the one that you have the least amount of control over.

  • You can’t move it.
  • You have a limited ability to change or manipulate the lighting.
  • You may not be able to move the camera (depending on what angle you wish to photograph).

When it comes to metering any scene -what is the biggest bug-a-boo that you’re going to face?

Evaluating the contrast level, and then making a conscious choice as to what you’re willing to give up in your photograph.

“Wait a minute!” You’re thinking. “I have to give something up?”

Typically, yes.

If you didn’t already know this, I hate to break the news to you, but your camera has a limited ability to capture a range of tone.

This is known as “Dynamic Range”. Believe me, it’s not just your camera. Dynamic range has been an issue with photographers going as far back as… well… since photography was invented.

(Yes. Yes. Yes. I know that modern cameras have a greater dynamic range than in the past, and that using raw files adds to that range- as well some other software tricks (HDR) to restore details.)

Dynamic range should be of particular interest to landscape photographers. Why? Because the dynamic range for a landscape photograph is likely to be beyond the ability of the camera to capture.

Why do you think landscape photographers love to shoot during the Golden Hour?

One of the reasons is that the Golden Hour compresses the dynamic range of the scene!

What do you think HDR stands for? It stands for High Dynamic Range imaging. It ‘extends’ the ability to capture a range of tone! That’s why landscape photographers love HDR imaging.

Most of you have probably heard this photographer’s name- Ansel Adams.

He is perhaps one of the most famous landscape photographers in the history of photography.

His images are awesome. But, do you know what really brought him notoriety?

He was very concerned about capturing the widest possible dynamic range with his camera and film. He was obsessed with it really. He developed what became known as the, “Zone System”.

This system was one of the reasons that his images were superior to his competitors at that time.

The Zone System is still important today. I’m going to share just a tidbit about it here in this post.

You’re probably wondering- what does this have to do with proper metering for a landscape photograph?

Well, it has everything to do with it.

Before I show you why, let me give you a very brief primer on the Zone System.

Illustration by Kent DuFault

Since just about everybody in today’s world is a ‘digital photographer’, you are more likely familiar with the histogram than the Zone System.

Thus, I created this ‘comparison’ illustration so that you can visually see how a histogram would compare to- the Zone System chart.

You can see that the Zone System divided tone into ten steps- or levels- of black to white. 0 represents absolute black and 255 represents pure white.

The illustration shows the histogram for a photograph that did not have a full range of tone. The example photograph, that the histogram represents, is missing most of the brighter mid-tone to highlight values (between 70% and 100% on the Zone System chart).

That’s a very important point to grasp. Why?

As a landscape photographer you will have to make a choice on virtually every picture that you create.

What choice are you making? Your choice of exposure- based on how you meter the scene.

Uh huh! Here we are! Right back to “How to Get Better Landscape Photos Through Correct Metering”.

Before I start explaining- I want to give you a really good tip

Many photographers don’t truly understand this…

As stated above, “0” is absolute black and “255” is pure white. You want little, to none, of your final image to be in either of those zones. Why? Because in those tone values there are no image details at all- NONE. Is this an absolute rule? NO! There are no absolute rules in photography. But in general- you will want to follow that rule.

Here is a good guideline for you: you want your darkest black area to be around 8-12 on the histogram scale. Your shadows with detail should be around 15 – 40 on the histogram scale. Your specular highlights should be no higher than 250 on the histogram scale. Your brightest highlights with detail should be in the 235 – 249 range on the scale.

Are you going to be thinking about all of these numbers when you’re in the field shooting? NO! These numbers are important in your post-processing, and if you metered / exposed your scene correctly- you should be close.

(Hopefully most of you understand these numbers. If you don’t… go here to check out my eBook, Complete Landscape Photography over at Photzy.com)

Let’s look at two examples where metering played a significant role in the exposure decision, and how that decision affected the final outcome!

Photography by Kent DuFault

This image presents a beautiful landscape photography opportunity that far exceeded the dynamic range of the camera that created it. The excessive dynamic range was primarily due to backlighting.

I had to make a choice. The camera meter told him that I could not record detail in all parts of the scene.

What choice did I make- and why?

I chose to retain detail in the highlights because that was where the primary story was.

The details in the shadowed area of the mountains wasn’t important to the message, and in fact, by letting that area go “deep black”, it added an element of composition.

Let’s take a look at another example:

Photograph by Andrew E. Larsen

This photograph represents a much wider range of tone than the previous example.

However, it was still outside of the dynamic range of the camera. Detail had to be sacrificed somewhere. Can you tell me where the detail was sacrificed in this example?

The photographer decided the detail in the mid-tone range was more important than either the brightest highlights or the deepest shadows. He set his exposure based on his light meter reading to record mid-tone detail.

Where was detail lost?

The detail was sacrificed in the snow where the sunlight illuminated the mountains as well as in the darkest shadows along the ridgeline. The snow area would measure as a “255” on a histogram (or 100% on The Zone System scale). That area is absolute white. The deepest shadows would measure as a “0”, or complete black.

Let me show you a snapshot of what that looks like-

Original Photograph by Andrew E. LarsenIllustration by Kent DuFault

This illustration shows you the wide dynamic range the camera must attempt to capture- even in just one tiny portion of the frame.

So… how do you meter for a landscape photograph? I’m going to give you a bullet point list in a minute that will simplify the process.

First, let me show you how I metered the photograph of the Chugach Mountain range in Alaska.

Illustration by Kent DuFault

As I metered this scene, to determine my exposure setting, these are the positions (within the frame) that I looked at. At this point, you might be saying-

“Oh my God! All these numbers- I just want to take beautiful landscape pictures.”

I understand. Believe me. But, if you can grasp just the few points that I’m going to give you in the bullet point list- you’ll do much better in your efforts.

(By the way- just to make sure you understand. I did not discern these histogram numbers in my camera at the point of taking the picture. I measured them in Photoshop for this demonstration. When you meter you will see aperture and shutter speed combinations. You have to interpret that information. More on that in the bullet point list.)

All of this previous information is to give you the background for a better understanding.

Once you understand the concepts of tone value, tone placement, and exposure; you will grow leaps and bounds in your landscape photography.

In my Alaska photograph, I knew that I was going to let those deep shadow areas go to absolute black (as previously stated). I took a meter reading from the various spots highlighted in the example illustration. I determined that the majority of the tone values that required detail, fell into the mid-range to upper mid-range scale.

Therefore, I took my meter reading from the area where the circle is and set my exposure settings (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) accordingly.

My evaluation caused almost no loss of detail in the highlight end of the scale. I had complete detail in the mid-range tones. And, the most loss of detail was in the shadows, (which I had already determined was part of my plan).

Okay- you’re now ready for the bullet point list…

To properly meter for a landscape photograph consider the following-

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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

SUMMARY

  • 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!

I hope you’ve learned a bit about metering, the Zone System, exposure, how your camera works, and most importantly: how to correctly meter for a landscape photograph!

If you’d like to learn more about landscape photography, check out my eBook- Complete Landscape Photography, over at Photzy.com. It’s packed with info and tips on how to get the most out of your landscape photographic safaris!


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About the author

Kent DuFault

is a professional photographer and author. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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