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How to Understand Your Camera's Metering Modes for Better Exposure

In this post, we’ll be looking at exactly what metering modes do and when you should be using them.
Metering is the process that the digital camera goes through when it works out what the correct exposure should be.
There are a variety of different metering modes that you can use to best suit the photo you’re taking.
A portrait of a man in glasses with black background - understand metering modes in photography

What They Do and When You Should Use Them

Evaluative (Canon) / Matrix (Nikon)

This is the most complex and modern way of metering a scene, through matrix metering. It collects data from across the entire frame and even gives priority to your focus point.
The camera will look at a scene. It will see a really bright area like the sun, and take that into account when trying to work out the best exposure settings.
This has different names from different manufacturers and software. But they both do the same thing.
When it comes to Canon metering modes vs Nikon, there is no difference in the way the scene is evaluated.

Partial Metering Mode

This metering mode collects data from a small circular area in the center of the frame. It covers about 10-15% of the entire scene.
This is useful when your subject is in the center of the frame and you want them to take priority in the exposure calculation.
There’s not a lot of difference between evaluative and partial metering modes.
It all comes down to the conditions you’re shooting in.
A portrait of a female model in a forest shot with Evaluative / Matrix / Pattern / Multi-zone Metering Modes

Spot Metering Modes

This is like partial metering only the dot in the center is smaller, roughly 5% of the frame.
You can use this for smaller subjects. I use it over partial because I know that any amount of light surrounding the subject won’t be a problem.
This is a more advanced way of working out the good exposure for your camera. This is 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 a good thing, it leaves the rest of the scene rather underexposed.
Be careful when using this mode; it has its uses but you don’t want to end up with all of your photos in this style.
A portrait of a female model in a forest shot with partial metering mode

Centre – Weighted Average

This is similar to partial and spot metering, only the area where the metering takes place is much bigger.
DSLR camera manufacturers realised one thing. Most people take photographs in which the subject takes up the center of the image. There needed to be an effective metering system in digital photography for this scenario to give an accurate exposure value.
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.
A portrait of a female model in a forest

Average Metering Mode

This works similarly to evaluative metering in photography.The meter reading looks at the light from the whole scene.
But it does so in a very unintelligent way. Not only does it not recognise what’s in the scene, it doesn’t make any changes accordingly.
If there’s a bright sun or 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 underexposed areas in the same image.
This mode isn’t usually found on modern cameras.
A portrait of a female model in a forest

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 Metering.
I find evaluative to be pretty good at working out what I want in the majority of situations. For me, it would be pointless to switch to partial or centre-weighted.
The other mode I use is spot metering. This is where I find evaluative doesn’t deliver too well. This gives me more control over the scenes exposure.
Diagram showing different metering modes
Here are some photos that I’ve taken on evaluative metering mode. And 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 a standard for shots like this. The dynamic range of brightness was very small.
a seascape at sunset shot using Evaluative Metering Modes
The majority of this photo is taken up by a bright sunny sky. Any of the other metering modes would have resulted in an underexposed and silhouette-like subject.
I had the camera set to evaluative. Because of that you’re able to see a lot more detail in the subject.
 Guitarist Near Water shot using Evaluative Metering Mode
This next photo is the opposite of the one above really in that the majority of the photo is dark. The effect that the evaluative metering mode gives us, however, is much the same.
It brings out the darker highlights (side of the bridge). But it still keeps 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 how I wanted it.
A Lake At Twilight shot using Evaluative Metering Mode
Here’s an example of where the evaluative metering mode has really prevailed.
It noticed the sun creeping through the top of the photo and ignored it. Instead, it correctly exposed the rest of the photo.
The same photo shot on spot metering had much the same effect.
Mediterranean Buildings shot using Evaluative Metering Mode
Now let’s have a look at when you might want to use spot metering.

Spot Metering

Say you’ve got a sun glaring straight down your lens and a big bright sky right next to it. This makes it a lot harder for evaluative metering to get it right. 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. 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. The difference will surprise you.
You should also check out our post on how to use a light meter
Portrait of a girl in Field of Flowers using spot metering mode
If you want to learn more about DSLRs, check out this article on Camera Autofocus Modes, including Shutter Priority, Manual Mode, and Aperture Priority. 
Before you go, check out this cool video.

22 comments
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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