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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 camera goes through when it 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.

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. 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. It will see a really bright area like the sun, and take that into account when trying to work out the best exposure.

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 centre of the frame. It covers 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.

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 centre is smaller, roughly 5% of the frame.

You can use this for smaller subjects. I 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. 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.

Camera manufacturers realised one thing. Most people take photographs in which the subject takes up the centre of the image. There needed to be an effective way of metering in photography for this scenario.

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. T

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. It measures 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

Before you go, check out this cool video.

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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:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

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 :)

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