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Have you ever photographed a special moment and had it come out way too bright or dark? Maybe a snowy day looks gray in your photo. Maybe your spouse’s face is way too dark in that photo of him/her at sunset. If so, you might need to use a different metering mode.
What is Metering?
In the old days, photographers used hand-held light meters or just guessed at exposure based on the “Sunny 16” rule. For several decades now, thankfully, cameras have come with built-in light meters that measure the reflected light from a scene, find a happy medium between the brights and darks, and calculate an “ideal” exposure.
Meters measure the light reflected back at the camera and base the recommended exposure on a middle gray tone, sometimes called 18% gray. Back in the day, some photographers carried a gray card (literally a gray piece of card stock) and metered off it to set a midtone exposure. That works for many average scenes—grass and trees have the same tone as middle gray.
There are problems when your scene is brighter or darker than midtones, but we’ll deal with them later. In addition, not every scene is evenly lit and there will be times when you’ll want to make some creative decisions about your exposure. That’s when you need to know about metering modes and which one will get you result you want.
Metering Modes Explained
Most modern cameras give you a choice of at least three modes by which you can influence how that exposure calculation is made:
- Matrix (Nikon), Evaluative (Canon), Multi or Multi Zone (Sony), ESP/Digital ESP (Olympus)
- Center-weighted metering
- Spot metering
- Partial Metering (Canon)
Each metering mode operates a little differently from the others, emphasizing the data from different areas of the camera’s sensor. Selecting the right one will get you closer to your ideal exposure and the fabulous photo you envision.
Matrix/Evaluative Metering Mode
I’ll use the Nikon term here but, by whatever name camera manufactures call it, Matrix Mode is typically the default choice. It’s what’s used in the automatic shooting modes, like Program (P) and is a good, all-round selection. The light meter divides the sensor into multiple zones, each of which is analyzed for brightness. That data is combined and fed through algorithms to come up with a recommended exposure.
Some cameras’ algorithms give extra importance, or “weight,” to information from the zone in which you focus. Some cameras compare the data from your composition to a database of thousands or millions of photos to aid in finding a recommended exposure. As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning examine more of the millions of photos posted online each day, the algorithms powering Matrix Mode are going to get more and more accurate.
There’s a reason Matrix is the camera’s default metering mode. It works! It will do a pretty good job on most kinds of photos. Matrix Mode will get you pretty close, pretty quickly, so any necessary adjustments are simple and fast. Many photographers just set their camera to Matrix Mode and forget about it unless and until they run into a special situation that requires something else.
Center-weighted Metering Mode
As its name implies, this metering mode concentrates on the center area of your composition and gives less attention to the corners and edges. (My Nikon D750, for example, emphasizes a 12mm circle around the center of the viewfinder.) The recommended exposure will be heavily weighted towards whatever is in the middle of the frame.
Some photographers will use Center-weighted Mode when shooting portraits and headshots. In a portrait, you want the head to be perfectly exposed, after all, and that’s what is normally found in the center area of the frame. Some wildlife photographers use the Center-weighted Mode when shooting animals. You want your animal to be well exposed — that’s the center of attention. In neither example do we care as much about what’s on the periphery of the frame, so center-weighting makes sense if your subject is taking up a big part of the scene.
Center-weighted metering can be a life saver if you’re shooting a portraits or wildlife and your subject is backlit. Where Matrix metering might average out the scene by bringing the exposure down to darken the bright sky, resulting in a very dark subject, center-weighted metering prioritizes your subject and yields a more pleasing result.
Finally, Macro photographers often rely on center-weighted metering. When their subject takes up a substantial part of the middle of the composition, like an insect on a leaf, they have to get the right exposure on the bug.
Spot Metering Mode
Spot Metering Mode only evaluates the light values around a tiny area of the frame. (In my Nikon D750, that’s a 4mm circle around the focus point in the viewfinder or about 5% of the total image. On some Canon cameras, spot metering only looks at 2.5% of the image!) In the days before cameras had live histograms, some photographers would spot meter the brightest and darkest areas of their composition and use the results to determine the exposure they wanted. Spot metering is also extremely useful if you are learning and working with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, helping you figure out the exposure and tonal differences between various parts of the scene.
These days, Spot Metering is sometimes used by bird photographers, since birds aren’t very large and sometimes don’t take up enough the frame for center-weighted metering to work. In fact, whenever your subject is only a small portion of the scene, you might try spot metering. Spot Metering can come in handy at sporting events, where your subject is an athlete who may be some distance away. Getting the athlete properly exposed while making the game winning catch is way more important than any other part of the frame.
Photographing the moon in a night or evening sky is another situation that calls for Spot Metering. You want the moon dark enough that detail is recorded. We want to see the craters! Because the moon is typically so small a part of the composition, any other exposure mode is almost guaranteed to make the moon too bright.
Finally, in any composition where there are extreme darks and brights, try spot metering the darkest and brightest areas. That will tell you if you can get the whole dynamic range in a single shot, whether you have to bracket or where to expose for the highlights or shadows.
Because it gives you such precise control over exposure, many pro photographers favor Spot Metering.
Partial Metering Mode
Some Canon models also offer a Partial Metering Mode, which is in between Spot and Center-weighted and is used in many of the same situations. Partial Metering Mode looks at 6.5% of the image, making it a little more forgiving than Spot and a little more precise than Center-weighted. It’s particularly useful for wildlife, like birds, who don’t occupy a lot of space and move quickly.
My Nikon also has a Highlight-weighted Spot Metering Mode which places extra emphasis on not blowing out highlights. Check your camera’s manual to see what each of your options are.
Know Your Camera (How to Change Metering Modes)
Many cameras have a dedicated, shortcut button to change metering modes, as with my Nikon. I press that button and rotate the rear command dial to cycle through the different modes. In others, like my Sony a6000, you’ll find it in screen 4 of the Photo Shooting menu, though you can also assign that function to one of the Custom buttons. Check your camera’s manual.
You might also be interested in reading The Most Important Buttons on Your Camera.
If you’ve ever shot a scene with bright, white snow and had it come out dingy gray, that’s because the meter wants to make it middle gray and, as a result, underexposes the shot. To compensate, you have to meter the bright snowy areas and increase your exposure.
The opposite happens with very dark objects. If you’re shooting a black bear with a big telephoto lens so that it fills the frame, the camera’s meter will want to make it middle gray and, as a result, will overexpose the shot. To compensate, you have to meter the darkest areas and decrease your exposure.
- Caucasian skin (for a portrait) and a blue sky are both lighter than middle gray by about 1 exposure value (EV), so you’d go with a slower shutter speed or open up your aperture by about 1 stop.
- Snow, bright sandy beaches, white clothes, a white wall or building in sunlight and bright, cloudy skies will be about +1.5 to +2 EV.
- Subjects in shadow, with darker skin, or wearing dark clothes are about -1 EV.
- Deep shadows, black hair and animals with black fur or feathers are around -2 EV.
If you know you’re going to be shooting in the same general conditions, for instance out in the snow on a sunny day or photographing moose in a shady forest, use the camera’s Exposure Compensation function (see photo of camera, above) to automatically make the adjustment.
No more gray snow! No more silhouette portraits at sunset! Understanding how to use your camera’s metering modes will help you fine tune the exposure and get the perfect image!
Frank Gallagher is a photographer and writer from Washington, DC. He built up his photography business after a career in nonprofits during which he developed extensive experience in visual storytelling. He enjoys sharing his love of photography with others.