Digital Zone System, Part 3 – Spot Metering

Typical D-SLRs have three metering modes

One of which is Spot Metering

Like most things it has its Pros & Cons

One pro – It’s almost Essential for Zone System work

One con – It’s not the easiest to use

This post describes

Spot metering pitfalls & tips

As they apply to digital photography


Bright on White

Spot metered (plus +3 EV) on the white background

This blew it out to near white

105 mm Nikkor 1:1 Macro with 1.4 X Teleconverter


This section will be repeated in each part of this series –
A useful reference
At the heart of the zone system is the zone scale which divides the tonal space from black to white into eleven zones.

Above & below – Wikipedia

A spot meter caution –

Don’t assume the metered area is literally a spot

It actually is a small area

D800E = 4mm across; >10% of the 36mm sensor width

If, in the viewfinder, your area of interest

Is smaller than the meter’s area

You will have to compensate somehow

Here’s an example –


Snapshot of the D800E Liveview display

Subject – a stack of printer paper boxes

The focus sensor area (orange rectangle); I didn’t draw this, it’s part of the actual LV display

Is less than 50% of the actual spot area

Not a major problem as long as you know this ahead of time

And below, a zone-display, shows the result.

Spot didn’t give the expected result

(area inside “O” middle gray)

because much of the spot area was light, not dark

due to spot’s coverage of the white text

The result (dark inside the circle is several stops below middle gray) is as expected once you understand the pitfall

This is because  although the meter was centered on a dark area

The average tonality of the metering was much lighter because of the spot’s actual size in contrast to the size of the rectangle

In darkening the lighter tones toward middle gray, as the metering should do, the dark (inside the circle) darkened also – thus the result

Double check your results

Use your histogram and common sense

Plus the knowledge you’ve gained here??

(I doubt you’ll find this info in (m)any other sites)

The above may sound complicated but with just a little reflection is should all make sense.

Choose a highlight or mid-tone or shadow area in your scene

It should represent the area most important to your vision

Spot meter on the selected area

Adjust exposure compensation as needed

Use your histogram as a double-check

If you chose highlights, make sure that area isn’t “blinking” (clipped)

Similarly with shadows

Easy-peasy 😉

After getting your capture exposure correct

The develop (post-process) step is next

When – Dodge & Burn meet the Zone System

Spot meter areas vary from camera to camera

Check your user manual (gasp)

But – before Dodge & Burn meet the Zone System

There’s one more “gotcha” when it comes to

Getting the tonal contrast you want

Tune in tomorrow for the battle between your eyes & your brain.

Hey! Time to stop reading.

Grab your camera and try some of this. Now! not later.

That means you Russ – & you too Al, Rose, Sarah, Pat,…. 😉

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