One of the most frequent questions I get asked is along the lines of, ‘You say that if I spot meter and put that on the right place on the histogram then everything else falls into place on the histogram. So if what I want to meter is a long way off how can I spot meter for that?’ Great Question!
In the image on the left several things had to come together to achieve what I wanted. The shot that I envisioned needed to have two primary components: to show the bird in its habitat and to show the effectiveness of its camouflage. The problem was that it had to be a relatively long shot ( I used a 7D Mkii with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM +1.4x III at 560mm, 1/640 @ f8, ISO 800) so I had no real chance of spot metering off the bird. Instead I used ‘substitute metering’ off something close by that I knew was a mid tone: the palm of my hand. It could have been anything close by that I knew was a mid tone but I’ve come to realise that the palm of my hand is pretty close to a mid tone. So I metered of that, locked the metering, composed the shot and everything came together in the shot that I had envisioned. In the image below you can see the histogram – I show the image in black and white to identify the tonal range.
You can see that the majority of the tonal values fall around the mid tone range and that the blacks, shadows and highlights are where they should be.
So that’s it, albeit briefly: substitute metering and setting the tonal value where it should be on the histogram. So the next question has to be, ‘How do I recognise a mid tone?’
I’m afraid it’s something that comes with experience – getting out and doing it…and eventually it’ll be almost second nature. There are a couple of other ways you could do it but they won’t teach you to recognise what colours have a mid tone value
- Use a ‘grey’ card (you can buy them from most photographic retailers) and meter off that.
- Convert your colour shots to black and white and look closely at the mid tones on the histogram and over time, with experience you’ll get to recognise the tonal values of a potential shot.
Over time, and with experience you’ll get to the point where it’ll feel as though you can almost ‘see’ in black and white!
So the short answer to, ‘How do I learn to recognise a mid tone?’, is to get out and do it.