It was probably some time in the 1970s or so that camera makers began embedding an exposure meter in their cameras. Before that, you would use a handheld meter or just use your experience to tell you what settings to use. Before that, automatic exposure was not possible.

An aside… Exposure meters inside cameras are called reflective meters because they read the light reflected from the scene. The ideal meter is an incident meter that measures the light falling on your subject. An incident meter will read the same whether your subject is a groom in a black tuxedo or a bride dressed in white. Refective meters aren’t so lucky.

Anyway, I guess I’m happy to say the incorporation of the meters into the cameras predates my time shooting with SLRs. Sometimes I think I’ve been shooting for a long, long time! The first SLR I used, one I borrowed, had an exposure meter, although it had no auto exposure mode. On that camera, you rotated the aperture ring on the lens to select the aperture and rotated the shutter speed dial to select shutter speed. A little needle in the viewfinder would move up and down. There was a little plus sign and a little minus sign and between them was where the exposure was deemed to be correct.

A big problem with this setup was that as you rotated in smaller apertures, you had less light available to see what you were shooting and to focus. My first purchased SLR, the Canon AE-1 was more sophisticated. It would meter with the aperture wide open, then quickly stop it down to match the setting you dialed in as the shutter was fired. It also had an auto exposure mode, shutter-preferred, meaning you selected the shutter speed, turned the aperture ring to the A setting, for automatic, and the camera would select the aperture for you.

The meter in that camera looks something like the image above. It had a range of apertures listed and a single needle that showed what aperture would be used in auto mode or what aperture you should use if in manual mode. A big M would blink to warn you when you had the lens aperture ring set to something other than the A. It worked well enough. Later Canon models like the A-1 went to a fully digital display for the meter reading similar to what we have in our DSLRs today.

I grew to really like shooting in manual mode. Neither of these meter displays is really ideal for manual shooting. Another popular method was called match-needle. It’s what the image above is actually showing. The difference from the AE-1 display is that little circle. The circle is a needle as well. It’s tied to the aperture ring and moves up and down in concert with the aperture setting. Set the aperture to f/8, and the little circle would line up with the 8 on the meter. Then, you could adjust the speed until the needle was in the circle. In other words, until you have matched the needles!

What was nice is just how intuitive this is and how quickly you could make exposure adjustments without thinking about it. Need a bit more light, move the needle above the circle using the shutter speed, or drop the circle below the needle by turning the aperture ring. It’s hard to explain, but you could just glance at it while keeping your focus on the subject and composition. Or just sort of see it over there without really looking.

That is, you could concentrate on the image you were shooting. My F1 had this style of meter, and it’s actually one of the reasons I bought the F1. I liked shooting manual, and the F1 gave me what I felt was the best meter display for doing that.

But we’ve moved on. Today, following in the steps of cameras like the A1, we have tons of data in the viewfinder. More and more. There are icons for the flash, for other modes, for the ISO, for telling you when you’re late for dinner. I could say I find all of this distracting, but in truth, I find I don’t pay much attention to any of it. I look through the viewfinder and try to keep my attention on the composition.

Sometimes this bites me. I goof up the exposure in some obvious way. Or I do something that I know the viewfinder data was warning me not to do. Had I noticed. But in the end, I manage to create some decent photos. Everyone needs to find his or her own way around the camera, a method that’s comfortable and second nature. That seems to be what’s important.