Music Photography Tips 4: How to use spot metering

Episode 4 is the biggest secret behind great music photography – spot metering.

Matthew James Oxlade
Updated on

Music Photography Tips Episode 4 has been released! Episode 4 is the biggest secret behind great music photography – spot metering. If you are just getting started with concert photography or are wondering what is missing from your music photography – spot metering is it!

This is what made the biggest difference in my gig photography, but I never hear people tell each other. I think it’s because it’s photography’s biggest secret to getting a dynamic photo! The photo that is the focus of this lesson is actually one of The Smith Street Band, because it’s the one that reminded me to do this lesson.

What is spot metering?

Spot metering is taking a sample from a certain area of the scene and properly expose it based on one area. You don’t have to use manual mode to use spot metering.

For a quick review, the different types of metering systems available on most digital cameras are:

Evaluative metering

Evaluative or matrix metering is basically an average metering mode. It takes meter readings from all areas of the photo and tries to make a correct exposure based on that.

This is the mode you should use for most of your lighting situations, because it produces a correctly exposed image in most common situations.

Center weighted average metering

Center-weighted average metering is when the camera makes a choice of the correct exposure by considering what is in the center of the frame.

Remember that problem you’ve always had when trying to take a photo of someone with the sun behind them, and the person comes out looking like a silhouette? It’s a high contrast situation where you can’t even see the skin tone of the person. This metering mode is the solution to that, providing the subject is standing in the center of the frame, of course.

Spot metering

Spot metering only considers the light at the point you’re focusing on. If you focus on an area that is brighter than its background, using spot metering on the brighter area is going to give a result where the focal point is exposed correctly with a dark background.

Using spot metering allowed me to get the beams of light bright, without over exposure, but also protecting the colour.

Spot metering at Skegss Up In The Clouds Tour
Photo of Skegss, using spot metering.

How to spot meter with music photography

If you haven’t experimented with spot metering yet, you haven’t enjoyed the benefits of one of your cameras best features for live music photography. If someone asks me how to get both deep shadows and balanced highlights in their photos, I usually find that haven’t tried the different metering modes on their camera.

Metering is simply the measuring of light and letting your camera tell you the settings needed for a balanced exposure based on the light passing through the lens. The most common metering type beginner photographers use is evaluative metering – probably because that’s what their camera is on when they bought it.

But evaluative metering tells your camera that you want the exposure to be calculated based off the light that is shown on the focus point – but to also have a look around that focus point and try to balance that light too. When you have strobes and other blasts of light passing over your subject, evaluative metering just isn’t accurate enough for me. I use spot metering when I shoot gigs. Spot metering takes a measurement of light exclusively off a single point and excludes all other references of light that I see through my viewfinder.

It’s one of the most important things to consider when pressing the shutter, because it will tell you what settings you should use based off your desired reference point. No matter if you shoot in aperture priority, shutter speed priority or program mode, it will give you greater control at gigs when working with various lighting setups. You can lock your camera’s decision on lighting by pointing your camera at the desired lighting point and locking the exposure. Check your manual if you need more information on how to spot meter.

While other photographers are shooting the first song, I often sit back and look at the various lighting patterns to see where an artist moves and if there is a common sequence with the light. This might seem like a waste of time when you only have three songs in the pit, but I find it gives me a better plan for the following two songs. It might net me less photos overall, but I find I have more keepers than I would if I just went in without a plan.

I get the best results when I use spot metering to meter off the light passing through smoke or haze. Lock your exposure on the smoke or haze, then focus your shot and capture it. Similarly, metering off the light as it is on the artist, then timing your shots as it returns to the artist is another way to get a good dynamic tonal range.

So my routine is:

1. Choose a lighting area to use as my target average

2. Lock the exposure for that light amount

3. Compose my shot and focus on the artist

4. Capture the shot

Simply – Lighting, focus, shoot. Lighting, focus, shoot. Lighting, focus, shoot. If you lock the exposure off a certain lighting level, you can go – lighting, focus, shoot. focus, shoot. focus, shoot. If you don’t take a photo for five or so seconds, the exposure lock will automatically disengage.

You want to lock the exposure off the light at around half of its total strength. Haze and smoke makes this super easy because it acts as a natural diffuser for the light.

Metering off the haze to get your average point will give you two things:

1. A background that is not over or under exposed

2. Protecting the vibrant colours from being too washed out or dark

I don’t worry if my subject is a little too dark when metering like this. It’s far less work to edit a person than it is to edit an entire background. Vibrant, colourful photos will catch peoples eye, so nailing the background is just as important as it is to capture the artist. I aim for a sharp as nails focus on the artist, and a super colourful background when using this technique.

If you master the metering of light, you’ll master the art of capturing a dynamic image that is full of colour.

I posted a one minute version on Instagram due to their limits, but this is the full four minute version on how to use spot metering with music photography.

Hope it helps!

Want to learn more about music photography?

There’s plenty more to learn about music photography. Check out the learning hub to learn more about spot metering, see real examples of the editing process, or simply are interested in improving your music photography.