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What are Metering Modes?

Metering is the process that the camera goes through when it ‘looks’ at a scene and works out what the exposure should be; there are a variety of different  metering modes that you can use to best suit the photo you’re taking.

In this post we’ll be looking at exactly what the modes do and when you should be using them.

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What They Do and When You Should Use Them!

Evaluative / Matrix / Pattern / Multi-zone Metering Modes

This is the most complex and modern way of metering that your camera will have. It collects data from across the entire frame and even gives priority to the area you’re focusing on.

The camera will look at a scene, see a really bright area like the sun, and take that into account when trying to work out the best exposure – this reduce the contrast and silhouettes. This has different names from different manufacturers and software but they all basically do the same thing.

Evaluative / Matrix / Pattern / Multi-zone Metering Modes

Partial Metering Mode

This collects data from a small circular area in the centre of the frame, covering about 10-15% of the scene.

This is useful when your subject is in the centre of the frame and you want them to take priority in the exposure. You may notice that there’s not a lot of difference between evaluative and partial metering modes; this comes down to the conditions you’re shooting in.Partial Metering Mode

Spot Metering Mode

This is like partial metering only the dot in the centre is smaller, roughly 5% of the frame.

This is good for smaller subjects and I personally use it over partial because I know that any light surrounding the subject won’t be a problem.

This is a more advanced way of working out the exposure for your camera because it involves metering for such a small area; the rest of the scene may not be correct, leaving that up to you to work out.

Notice that the skin tones are much softer and easier to look at. While this is good, it leaves the rest of the scene rather underexposed. Be careful when using this mode; it has it’s uses but you don’t want to end up with all of your photos like this.

Spot Metering Mode

Centre – Weighted Average

This is similar to spot and partial metering, only the area in which the photo is metered is a lot larger.

This is due to camera manufacturers realising that most people take photographs in which people take up the whole of the centre of the image; there needed to be an effective way of metering this.

You’ll notice in the photo below that the background is quite well exposed but this is at the expense of the skin tone being horribly overexposed and unusable. This mode can be hard to predict and I don’t like using it. Centre - Weighted Average

Average Metering Mode

This works similarly to evaluative metering in that it measures light from the whole scene, only it does so in a very unintelligent way; it doesn’t recognise what’s in the scene or make changes accordingly.

What this means is that, if there’s a bright sun or alternatively a dark shade in a scene, this region will be treated in the same way as the rest of the photo. This often results in over and under exposed areas of a photo.

This mode isn’t usually found on modern cameras.

Which ones You Should use and When

You should have a pretty good understanding of what they do and when to use them by now but I’d like to go into more detail about the two I use the most – Evaluative and Spot.

The reason I use these is because I find evaluative to be pretty good at working out what I want in the majority of situations; it would be pointless to switch to partial or centre-weighted.

The other mode I use is spot because this is where I find evaluative doesn’t deliver too well; I have to take things into my own hands.

Here are some photos that I’ve taken on evaluative metering mode with an explanation of why this mode was a good choice:

Evaluative

This photo was taken well into the evening. There were no bright lights within the image so I didn’t require any special metering modes. I leave my camera with evaluative on as standard for shots like this where the dynamic range of brightness is very small. Evaluative Metering Mode - Boat at Sunset

The majority of this photo is taken up by a bright sunny sky; if the camera was set to any of the other metering modes, it would have been likely to take most of the metering sample from the sky. This would have resulted in an underexposed and silhouette-like subject.

Because I had the camera set to evaluative, you’re able to see a lot more detail in the subject than you otherwise would have.

Evaluative Metering Mode - Guitarist Near Water

This next photo is the opposite to the one above really in that the majority of the photo is dark. The effect that the evaluative metering mode has had is, however, much the same – it brings out the darker highlights (such as along the bridge) while still keeping the silhouettes where I wanted them.

Sometimes on evaluative, the camera sees a black and thinks that it should be grey. It will try to boost the exposure too much – this photo worked out just how I wanted it. Evaluative Metering Mode - Lake At Twilight

Here’s an example of where the evaluative metering mode has really prevailed. It has noticed the sun creeping through the top of the photo and ignored it in favour of correctly exposing the rest of the photo.The same photo shot on spot metering had much the same effect.

Now let’s have a look at when you might want to use spot.

Evaluative Metering Mode - Mediterranean Buildings

Spot Metering

When you’ve got a sun glaring straight down your lens and a big bright sky right next to it, it’s a lot harder for evaluative to get it right and you’re going to end up with silhouettes – this is when I like to switch to spot metering.

Remember that the spot in the centre of the frame is very small, so make sure you have it pointed on something important like skin, as I have in this photo.

Take some time and experiment with the different metering modes; you’ll be surprised at the difference it can make.
Spot Metering Mode - Girl in Field of Flowers

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
  • At-A-Glace Images that will explain how each exposure works
  • And much, much more…

Your Free Quick-Start

Photography Cheatsheet

This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

How Understanding Metering Modes will make Exposure Easier

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Josh

Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • Sunny J barai

    i am a new in this field but i have a intgerest in learning it deeply, but i am not able to understand more due to ur technical language, so would u suggest me the better way how to get this.

  • Dave

    If you are using spot metering, you should be able to get “correct” exposure every time as long as you know where the tone you are metering off of falls on the zone scale. The skin tone of the model in the first few pictures is about +1.5 so (for example) set your aperture and iso, and then adjust the shutter speed until the meter in your viewfinder reads +1.5.

  • Carol

    On a Nikon camera:

    Evaluative is Matrix Metering
    Partial is Spot Metering

    • Thanks Carol – I was just going to look that up 🙂