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I have been attempting to photograph subjects moving quickly in a forest (under otherwise direct sunlight, so the lighting is harsh when the subjects are not shaded by foliage), but I haven't been able to adequately meter the scene (due to generally dark backgrounds with subjects moving in and out of sunlight). I'm aware of three different metering modes (evaluative, center-weighted, and spot), but each of these is focused on the center of the frame. To set the focus on the subjects' eyes, I am using one of the top autofocus points and thus will not necessarily expose faces properly. I cannot use the focus-and-recompose technique since the subjects are moving quickly.

I have tried to use exposure compensation to correct the metering, but I have run into problems due to rapidly-changing lighting conditions due to shadows in the forest. I should note that these are candid photographs taken during a hike at various distances, making external lighting a difficult option.

The only way I can think to solve this problem is to place the subject's face in the center of the frame, using spot metering to ensure proper exposure. This isn't an optimal solution though as I would have to crop the images afterward to achieve the desired composition. I'm also aware that higher-end bodies (Canon 1D for example) are able to link the metering to specific autofocus points, though this is out of my price range.

In a nutshell, my question is: is there a technique/camera setting that can be used to achieve consistent metering of a specific region of the frame under changing lighting?

  • Are you shooting in RAW? You may enjoy the whole dynamic range (useful as you have both dark and light area in your scene) of your sensor if you shoot in RAW. – Manu H Nov 16 '16 at 5:57
  • I am. I've been unable to recover any blown highlights thus far, some of which unfortunately have been in the subjects' faces. That might turn into a new question though, if there are techniques for recovering highlights that I'm not aware of (in addition to the Recovery, Exposure, and Fill Light sliders in Adobe Camera Raw).. – N Veilleux Nov 16 '16 at 6:05
  • @NVeilleux: first of all, digital images have no information in highlights to recover, you should always underexpose - meter for the brightest scene for example and then deal with the increased noise ignoring that you could do better (this could be difficult for pixel peepers). Second, there is colour propagation algorythm used in RawTherapee (probably somewhere else) which makes good use of strongly disbalanced native white balance of cameras and may yield exceptionally good results for an average 1EV of overexposure (this is a common difference between channel sensitivities under daylight. – Euri Pinhollow Dec 7 '16 at 1:54
  • @NVeilleux: the colour propagation feature of RT is not recovering highlights, it is the reconstruction of highlights. – Euri Pinhollow Dec 7 '16 at 1:58
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I agree with Alaska Man's solution and would comment there but I want to add considerable detail that won't fit in a comment.

To do what he's suggested, get a subject to stand in the bright sunlight. Choose 2 of the following values - ISO, shutter speed, aperture - based on your needs. In this case I would suggest choosing shutter speed and aperture - you want fast enough that your subject is not blurred due to motion (so, perhaps 1/250 at a maximum, but 1/500 or 1/1000 if you can afford it without losing too much light - see notes later) and aperture perhaps around 8, to keep most of your subject in focus. Now walk close to your subject and fill your frame with a sunlit portion - eg. their shirt. Allow camera to choose appropriate ISO using in-built meter. Note this.

Now switch to manual and key in all same settings. Your shutter speed and aperture should be set. Key in the ISO the camera picked. Now over-expose one stop. The meter produces an average grey but there is room to overexpose one stop - so if you managed 1/1000 (without the camera maxing out on ISO at that setting), then drop back to 1/500, for example. This technique is called exposing to the right or ETTR - you can search for more info.

Ensure your camera is shooting RAW. Now go take your shots focusing on whatever you like.

What happens is that the camera will expose correctly for your highlights in each shot. It should not blow out (even with overexposing 1 stop). In your post-processing you can bring the exposure back down to mid-tone greys if needed. The purpose of ETTR is that your sensor is more sensitive at the bright end than what it usually shows in the jpeg preview you see on the camera's LCD screen after you have taken the shot, so we want to capture light as brightly as possible without blowing out. You can never really recover an image that's blown out. And if you underexpose and start with a dark image, it looks bad - usually noisy, or large blocks/regions all the same tone - when you bring the exposure back up.

The shaded portions of your shot will appear very underexposed though. That's the nature of the extreme conditions you are shooting in. However again, in post processing, you can bring up the exposure in these regions. It won't be a superb result, but you're working within difficult constraints - dappled, high contrast, rapidly changing light with moving subjects (and likely moving photographer also).

I think the above is your best shot at getting usable results. Many times in these scenarios where lighting conditions are poor, a relatively poor colour photo can be salvaged as a usable black and white image. Bear this in mind.

Finally, if it is also cloudy, bear in mind that if the cloud cover comes over, then your highlights have been darkened by cloud - you will need to re-expose (or make a best guess by opening up a few stops). Notice if the cloud clears again - now the highlights are brighter again and you will have to re-expose for the highlights (or switch your best guess back down a few stops).

The reason for exposing for the highlights is that this is how our eyes naturally work. When we look at a sunlight scene - no part is blown out. When we shift our eyes to a shaded scene, they adjust, and the brightest portion is resolvable. Getting the brightest part of your photo exposed perfectly is how our brains expect our eyes to render a scene - so it looks natural for the highlights to be well exposed, and everything else to be defined by darker shades.

All the best! :)

PS. You might find your camera pushed to the limit in these conditions. You might find the meter has to choose the highest available ISO and you still get dark shots. In this case, open up your aperture wider, with the understanding your focus is going to be shallower and for many shots you may not have focus on eyes. Or make your shutter speed longer, understanding you may get motion blur. A great exposure may just not be possible :(

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Rather than let the camera decide what it wants to do switch it to manual and tell The Camera! what to do. If you know your subject is going to be moving through a particular place in the forest, take a meter reading of the bright spot in the forest set your camera for correct exposure ( The exposure you would like to achieve ) for that scene and when you're subject moves into the scene you will have already sent the correct exposure.

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