Intelligent Metering - Oxymoron?

I am rapidly approaching one thousand shots on my recently acquired Nikon D600. That's quite a bit, at least from my perspective. The rate that I am pressing the shutter over the last two weeks is driven by two factors. First is that I actually like this camera a lot. The second is that I really need to get to know it intimately for a couple of projects I am pulling together starting early next year. Even though I have shot Nikon DSLR's continuously since 2003 I still feel better if I get to know each one intimately in the conditions I plan to use them prior to working with a subject. Let's just say it puts my head in the right place - focused completely on the subject with any questions or anxieties about how the camera will react out of my mind.

Those first thousand shots are varied amongst my granddaughter, my nieces, and my typical Stupid Crap™. The big difference with the Stupid Crap™ on these getting to know the D600 shots is that the vast majority are with a very specific intent on familiarizing myself with a very specific characteristic of the camera. Some of those characteristics are technical things, some are functional things like button location, but the most important are aesthetic things - like how the highlights actually look at the edge of falling apart or how mixed light sources render.

I can attest that I am happier than I ever have been with some of the D600 characteristics than ever before but some of the things are same-old-same-old. Highlight rendering seems to be much improved. Noise performance seems to be nice - not from a complete absence but more from the way it looks. Metering is the same old story and the topic I wanted to share some thoughts on today. Much of what I am going to discus are known quantities for working pro photographers but seem to never enter the conversation in camera reviews so take what follows as both a voice of dissent and as some potentially useful information for real world photography.

Intelligent metering, matrix metering as Nikon calls it, no matter what the particular manufacturers call it is complete and utter bullshit. That's a strong statement that goes completely against every single camera review that I have read in the last decade. You've read camera reviews in that time period right? They all have at least one part dedicated to "metering" right? They all say the metering is incredible, excellent, superlative, mind-bindingly awesome, whatever. When was the last time you read that it's completely wrong for most shots?

It's is completely wrong for most shots unless you shoot lots of the same exact shots where it happens to give you the exposure that you want. Honestly I have no idea what the whole metering being "great" or "spot on" even means today in the context of intelligent metering. Come on now - has any in-camera meter been complete off from a technical stand-point since the 1970's? Not really but that's not what I am talking about. Without rehashing the couple of things that intelligent metering can make short work out of that we all know let's talk about it's shortcomings and expose it for the placebo that it is.

I included a few shots that demonstrate some situations that re-re-re-re-confirmed something I already knew. For the most part intelligent metering gets the same old same old situations completely wrong and not a whole lot "better" than good-ol' center-weighted metering. Oh - you do get the added benefit that every once in a while it will get those scenes partially right with some sort of built-in inconsistency on how it deals with very very similar conditions. What am I talking about? Well what we have in all of these shots is a high-key situation with a lot of things that are white along with a few mid-tones scattered about.

What do you think happens? The camera under exposes - it under exposes by a lot. Yes - "color" aware, distance aware, focus aware, computer aided intelligent metering seems to have no idea what white is. Can you believe it? Same as always. Nice. So I guess we'll just dial in some positive comp. Too bad that the amount of wrong-ness varies with slight shifts in framing. No shit. Just to re-learn this I shot these series of shots. Every single solitary one of them needed different amounts of exposure compensation from 0 EV to +1 2/3 EV. How useful is that? Not at all useful - just put the camera on manual and be done with it.

I guess all the "advances" are in auto-magic flash right? Ummm not really. What I shoot and how I shoot and how I set my lights up the magic-auto-metering is about the same as random guesses at best. Do you really think Joe McNally sets up 3 or 4 speedlights and let's TTL do it's thing? Of course not. He dials in a bunch of + and - comp to ambient, and every single flash head for almost every shot. Now for him he finds that "Intelligent" metering and associated +/- exposure comp suits the way he works in a lot of cases.

For me it's far easier and more consistent for me to just forget it and dial it all in manual and have exposure absolutely consistent without the camera making any adjustments based on things it thinks has changed. That's just how I happen to work a subject and a scene. I guess if somehow the subject was at random distances from my main flash it might be better TTL plus monkeying around with compensation and praying a framing variation doesn't throw the whole thing out of whack.

Color aware metering that doesn't understand white? Focus / distance aware metering that doesn't understand backlight? Ha. When will we see a camera review that comprehensively reviews all of the stuff you would expect all of this intelligent metering to get right that it doesn't? What exactly does all of the "and the metering is great - better than ever" sort of stuff tell us. I guess it tells us that the reviewer pointed the camera at something that has always been appropriate for just about any metering and auto-exposure and it wasn't compeletly black or something.

The whole point here is just food for thought if you happen not to have been around the block a few times with all of the auto-magic-ness or have just become too lazy to ever actually use the settings other than "matrix metering" and auto exposure/auto-flash". If you walk around randomly taking images with not much thought process in wildly varying conditions matrix metering and auto exposure/flash might give you slightly better results than we have had for the last 20 years.

If you actually work a particular subject/scene for more than a couple of frames you might want to consider just turning it all off rather than arguing with the camera and hoping that somehow you know when to argue with it again. For me it's easier to just turn it off. I would venture to guess that over 50% of the scenes in my first 1000 shots needed some sort of exposure intervention compared to what the meter told me. That doesn't mean it's somehow broken - it's typical.

RB

Ps.

  • First shot is ISO 1600 with +2/3 in camera comp and +1/3 in post. Strange - I would have guessed the camera would have given more with this framing than the second. My whole point here.
  • Second shot is ISO 1600 with +2/3 in camera with zero in post.
  • Third shot is ISO 6400 with +1 2/3 in camera, zero in post. Compare that to center-weighted where it needed +2. Hmmm all of that computerized wonderfulness and the camera understands white 1/3 of a stop "better".
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