I have a Canon XTI which I've been using for a few years now. Most of the time I'm been shooting in one of the "semi-manual" modes like aperture priority or shutter priority, but now I'd like to try using full manual mode. I should have a new EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 delivered when I get home today. Before I was using a variable aperture Sigma 17-70 which made manual mode more difficult with the aperture changing arbitrarily.
I understand the effect of changing aperture and shutter speed, but right now I'm accustomed to only controlling one at a time. The camera is usually setting the other to get the right exposure automatically for me. So if I'm controlling both how do I know I have the correct exposure? I understand I need to use the metering in my camera but I'm not sure exactly how do do that.
First when should I be using each of the metering modes (Evaluative, Partial, Center weighted, or Spot)? These just change the area of the scene which is metered correct?
How do I know what the meter should read off a specific object? Obviously if I just happen to be shooting a 18% gray wall then it should be at zero, but that can't apply to everything? If I'm shooting a black cat and take a spot meter reading off of the cat then the meter should read less then zero right? But how do I know how much less then zero? Are there rules of thumb I can follow? I've ordered a couple gray cards with my new lens. So experimenting with those should help.
How often should I be changing these settings? Say I'm at a party indoors which is consistently lit. I should be able to set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and just forget about it unless the lighting changes correct? Does the same apply to outdoor scenes? I've been hesitant to use manual mode in the past because I felt like I was spending a lot of times messing with settings before each shot. But not I'm realizing that this is really only the case when the lighting changes, or I want a different style of photo such as a different depth of field.
Finally, does exposure change with distance to the subject? For example say I want to take a picture of a statue with correct exposure using a gray card. I'd place the card on the statue, and while being careful not the block the light on the card find the correct exposure by spot metering the card. If I were then to step back 20' to get the whole statue in frame would I still have the correct exposure?