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How to Use the
Nikon Spot Meter

© 2009 KenRockwell.com

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see also The Zone System and Metering

April 2009


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Unless you really want to spend a lot of time learning the Zone System, FORGET the spot meter and just use Matrix as I do. I only use an external spot meter with my 4x5 camera because I have to. I never use the spot meter in my Nikons. The Matrix is the main reason I shoot Nikon. I use Matrix almost all the time. You have to be quite a virtuoso in the Zone System to get better results using the spot as opposed to the Matrix meter, and then it still takes more time.

If you just want to measure a small area, you are better off using the center-weighted meter. The spot meter is too narrow to give reliable results useless you are fluent in the Zone System.

This is mode only for slide film. If you are shooting print film then use Matrix and forget about spot metering. Unless you print your own negatives or shoot slides you won't see the difference.

Most people will get poorer results using spot metering because one needs either ideal subjects (for which the spot isn't needed anyway) or fluency in the Zone System.

I never use the spot meter in my Nikon. I use Matrix and know how to use exposure compensation.

One cannot simply point the spot meter at the subject and get a decent result, because the spot is so small it will most likely point at something darker or lighter than the proverbial middle gray (zone V) and give you an poor exposure. In these cases you will get a very biased and incorrect exposure.

In fact, many subjects have no middle gray, making simple use of the spot meter impossible without knowing the Zone System.

The Zone System is a fancy-sounding system that simply means how much deliberate over- and under- exposure you need to give to dark and light areas of your image to make them look right.

The best way to learn the zone system is to read this Ansel Adams book. That's how I learned. Before going any further you need to know the zone system. Go learn it either by Ansel's book or my page here,then we'll get to the next section.

Presuming you know the Zone System:


Do It

Put the camera on Manual exposure and point the camera around while looking at the exposure bar graph. To use the Zone System you have to be very systematic and the auto modes (my usual favorites) are not the way to go.

You adjust the manual exposure so that the elements of your image are exposed, according to the bar graph, as you want them to be rendered on film.


Spot Meter Reading
Zone II
-3 stops
Almost Black
Zone III
-2 stops
Dark Gray
Zone IV
-1 stop
Zone V
Light Gray
Zone VI
+1 stop
Zone VII
+2 stops
Totally Blown-out
+3 stops


On many Nikon cameras like the F100 one gets only a maximum of +- 2 stops on the bar graph unless the camera is set to 1/2 stop intervals in the custom settings.

Here's where the art comes in: you are in charge. It is up to your aesthetics to determine just how you want your image to look. You need to think as a painter and ask yourself with what tone you want a certain part of the image rendered. As I said, the spot meter is not easy since it only works reliably as part of a Zone System approach.

Presuming you know the Zone System as required for using the spot meter, you know that anything darker than -3 stops or brighter then +3 stops turns completely black or white. You often will have scenes where the highlights and shadows are too dark or light. Zone System people know what to do in these cases (hint: change the light!), and again I refer you the Zone System page or Ansel's book for details.



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