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How To Use Spot Metering for Better Photos

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

When it comes to photographing different scenes, you’ll want to capture the light in different ways. This is where your camera’s metering modes come into play.
They allow you to take command over how your images look.
Spot metering is only one of these metering modes. It can be the most important, depending on what you want to capture.
Read below on what spot metering is, and how to use it.

A concert photography image of a Tom Morello, shot using spot metering mode
Craig Hull Photography – www.craighullphotography.co.uk

What Are Metering Modes?

Metering modes are a function of your digital camera. When you focus on a scene or subject, the shutter release button has two functions. One is to place a focal point and the other is to ‘meter’ the scene.
Metering the scene will only work if you are using any other camera function than manual mode.
Aperture or shutter priority or any program mode will select an area to record the optimal light. Where the camera tests the light is down to the metering mode.
There are four metering modes:

  • Evaluative (Canon) / Matrix (Nikon) – collects data from across the entire frame and even gives priority to your focus point.
  • Partial Metering Mode –  collects data from a small circular area in the center of the frame. It covers about 10-15% of the entire scene.
  • Centre-Weighted Average – like partial and spot metering, only the area where the metering takes place is much bigger.
  • Spot Metering – like partial metering, only the dot in the center is used and less than 5% of the frame.

NB: All of these metering modes are discussed in more depth in our How to Understand Your Camera’s Metering Modes article
A monotone street scene at night, shot using spot metering mode

What Is Spot Metering?

The camera will only measure a very small area of the scene. This is between 1 and 5% of the viewfinder area. By default, this is the center of the viewfinder scene.
You can change the location of the focal point, thus moving the metered area. If you focus and then recompose the image by keeping the shutter release button depressed, the metering mode will stick to the first composition.
The important thing to know here is that spot metering doesn’t take into account the rest of the frame. Camera manufacturers and models are a little different.
Some allow an average of many spot meter points. Others support highlights and shadow areas.
Artistic photo of a plant in front of a black background, shot using spot metering

Why Use Spot Metering

We have already pointed out that spot metering doesn’t look at the rest of the viewfinder scene. Because of this, your subject will have the best light reading, and thus, exposure.
This is something you want to use where the subject is the most important part of the scene.
High contrast scenes are what this metering mode is most commonly used for. For example, if a backlit scene is making your subject a silhouette with an Evaluative reading.
Spot metering placed on the face will ensure they have the correct exposure.
There are problems, however. The above mode might correctly expose the face, yet it will result in an overexposed background.
In most cases, spot metering will over- or underexpose parts of your scene. This depends on the available ambient light.
Moon photography is another area best used for spot metering. You want the moon to be correctly exposed. The dark sky has less importance and can be underexposed. This low exposure of the sky is not noticeable.
A creative image of a man in a business suits, most of his body covered in shadow - spot metering mode

When to Use Spot Metering

Spot metering is best used to correctly expose a subject or object in a scene. By placing the exposure important on that person or item, you make them the most important area in the frame.
Portrait photography is a great area for this to work. Headshots, actors in a theatre setting, family photography or even street photography portraits. The person is the subject you are focusing on.
In these instances, the background is less important, and therefore, doesn’t need a correct exposure. The other areas in the scene can be over or underexposed. Spot metering works well as the camera doesn’t look for an overall brightness level.
I photograph a lot of musicians. Either on stage performing or in other documentary settings. The person is the most important part, so I need to expose them correctly.
More often than not, stage lights are terrible. They are either too strong or not present at all. By using spot metering, I can create images that show the musician correctly exposed.
This is even if the background is blown out, or completely devoid of light.
Evaluative metering would mean the person I’m shooting is either too dark or too light. I also find that the setting or stage, especially for smaller and less popular bands, is unattractive. Spot metering helps me hide it.
A concert photography image of a guitarist onstage, shot using spot metering mode

Final Word

Photography is very much ‘horses for courses’. The settings you choose needs to reflect on what you are photographing.
Evaluative is great for landscapes, spot metering is best for single items or subjects, where there is a big difference in light.
This metering mode wouldn’t work particularly well for an environmental portrait, for example. Here, you need to place importance, not only on the subject but the entire scene.
It will work if the lighting on the subject and background have a similar intensity.
Just because it works, doesn’t mean it isn’t the best. Evaluative and other metering modes will work perfectly for you. This is if the foreground and background lighting situations are similar.
Get out there and give it a try. This way, you’ll be ready for anything.

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