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Understanding camera metering modes

When you purchase a more advanced camera, such as a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a huge variety of buttons, dials, switches, as well as different options that allow you to take control of just about every aspect of shooting. And that’s the reason why you bought such a camera in the first place. Of course, every photographer should start by learning the most basic stuff, such as making sure that their subjects are in focus, as well as that their images are properly exposed. This is why the exposure pyramid, which includes shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, is such a good place to start.

However, there will be situations where understanding and applying these three parameters won’t be enough for the right exposure. This is where metering modes come in, because relying solely on your camera’s automatic metering, just like relying on Auto mode, is usually not the best way to go. Besides, once you start to get more confident with your camera, you will want to understand just about everything it can do, and learning what the camera metering modes are and how and when to use them should be one of the first items on your photography to-do list.

Let’s begin by explaining what metering is, after which we will take a look at the most common metering modes which can be found on nearly all cameras. 

What Is Metering?

What Is Camera Metering?

Simply put, metering, or light metering, is the process through which the brightness of the scene you are shooting is measured, in order to achieve ideal exposure.

Now, in order to do this, you need to rely on a light meter that is inside your camera. There are two types of meters which are used to measure exposure: incident light meters, and reflected light meters. The former measure the actual amount of light that falls onto the subject and are more accurate. The latter measure the amount of light that is reflected off the subject, and are found on today’s digital cameras.

One of the reasons why reflected light meters are less accurate is because they interpret everything around it as middle grey, which is also known as 18% grey. In other words, when you are photographing something that is dark, you may end up with an overexposed image, or you may end up with a white subject that is slightly grey, which means the image is underexposed. Digital cameras usually do a great job if there is somewhat of a full tonal spectrum that includes both light and dark, as well as midtone subjects. Now, let’s learn about different metering modes on your camera, shall we?

Types of Camera Metering Modes

Depending on the type of camera you have, metering modes might have different names, but we will try to keep this as camera-agnostic as possible. All metering modes can be categorized into four different types:

 

Evaluative / Matrix Metering Mode

Pretty much every camera manufacturer has its own name for this type of metering. Canon calls it Evaluative Metering, whereas Nikon opts for Matrix Metering. Other brands, such as Sony and Pentax use Multi-Segment Metering. But, despite the differences in terminology, they are more or less the same. On most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, evaluative or matrix metering is the default one. How does it work? It divides the frame into multiple zones, each of which is then analyzed for dark and light tones. While there are a number of different factors that come into play with matrix metering, such as distance, color, highlights, shadows, or the subject itself, one of the most important ones is the focus.

Evaluative / matrix metering mode

You see, most modern cameras take into account the segment, or segments, that are in focus and deem it more important when it comes to exposure. As far as the actual exposure calculation is concerned, each camera manufacturer has its own complex equations and algorithm. Some manufacturers, such as Nikon, also compare the scene which is being metered with their own database of images in order to come up with the most accurate exposure. You will use this metering mode for most shooting situations, as it does a pretty good job, whether you are shooting landscapes or portraits.

Pro Tip: Use exposure compensation to correct errors made by your camera’s meter. On most cameras, you can make use of up to two stops of exposure compensation.

Center-weighted metering mode

Center-Weighted Metering Mode 

Whereas the matrix metering mode takes into account the entire frame while putting special emphasis on the segments which are in focus, center-weighted metering mode always looks at the middle in order to calculate proper exposure. Mind you, this will still include anywhere between 60% and 50% of the composed frame, depending on the camera manufacturer. Before the invention of other metering modes, it used to be somewhat of a default metering setting on most cameras. It is still the preferred metering mode for many photographers, especially those which have been using cameras before other types of metering were available. Most cameras will also allow you to change the size of the area which is considered the center of the frame.

Center-weighted metering mode does provide pretty accurate results if you tend to put your subject in the middle of your frame. However, if you are composing your images using some other approach, such as making use of negative space or putting your subject more to the side, as is the case with the rule of thirds, then you are probably better off using some other metering mode. For example, if you are doing a lot of portraits, food, or product photography, as well as shooting still life or high-contrast scenes, you can use this mode and rest assured that it will arrive at a correct exposure pretty much every time.

Pro Tip: In case you are not sure about how much light your subject is reflecting, use grey cards to meter off of them in order to achieve the correct exposure.

Partial Metering (Canon Only) 

You can think of partial metering as a more extreme version of center-weighted metering. Unlike center-weighted metering, which takes into account between 60 and 80 percent of the frame, most partial metering modes only look at the 6% to 15% of the center of the entire frame. One of the reasons why you might use this mode is to shoot subjects that are back-lit. For instance, if you are shooting indoors with your subject in front of the window or shooting an outdoor portrait where the light source is behind the subject, you will have trouble achieving the correct exposure with other metering modes, since they will look at a wide area of the frame, and your subject will end up being underexposed or even a mere shadow.

Partial metering mode

However, if your subject is in the middle of the frame, which is often the case with portraits, metering off their face would solve the problem of subject underexposure, even against a really bright background. There are some other factors that might throw the exposure off, such as skin tone, but in most cases, partial metering solves the issue of underexposure when your subject is backlit. You can also use this metering mode if you are photographing wildlife because, again, it will involve a centered subject against a bright background.

Spot metering mode on your camera

Spot Metering Mode 

As we have been able to see, we have been zooming in, so to speak, in terms of metering and frame, with matrix metering taking into account the entire frame, and center-weighted and partial metering using only sections of it.

Spot metering is an even more extreme version of the last two, since it considers just 1% to 5% of the entire frame, depending on the camera manufacturer and the way they have set up this particular metering mode. Even though spot metering can be tricky if you are a beginner, it is pretty accurate and can be used to read both the darkest and lightest segments of the frame.

As far as its application is concerned, spot metering can be used for anything from lunar and macro photography to portraits where the subject is back-lit, as in the case with partial metering. For correct exposure, you need to place the spot metering area at the exact point which you want to take a reading from. One of the things that is different from camera to camera is the position of the spot itself. On some cameras, it moves with the focus point, whereas on others, the spot is fixed and is always inside the center of the frame. This is why you will need to read your camera’s manual or find information online about how it handles spot metering.

Final Word 

Understanding and knowing how and when to use different metering modes will help you capture images that are correctly exposed, every single time. Not only will you avoid overexposure, underexposure, and clipping, but you will also spend much less time in post-production. Good luck!

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