Introduction to Metering Modes - Digital Photography School

Introduction to Metering Modes

The following post on Metering Modes was submitted by Trudy – a regular DPS reader.

Early last year when I bought my digital camera the sales assistant told me that it had different ‘metering modes’. At the time I was too embarrassed to ask what that means and bought the camera without knowing. It took me a while to work it out but once I did I realized that it was really important. I thought I’d write up what I learned.

Learning to use the different metering modes on your camera is a skill well worth knowing as it puts in your hands more control in how your camera approaches capturing a particular scene.

Every time you point your camera at a scene it needs to take a guess at what is important to you in the picture and which part you want to be exposed optimally. The metering mode you have your camera set to will signal to the camera how you want it to approach this task.

Let me explain further by highlighting three main metering modes that you’ll find on many digital cameras (note – not all cameras offer this choice although all DSLRs do and many point and shoot cameras do):

1. Overall Metering (Multi Segment/Zone Metering)

Overall-MeteringIn this mode the camera attempts to take into consideration everything in your frame. Most cameras will have numerous metering zones around the frame (for example the Canon EOS 5D has 35 points that it takes into consideration).

It assesses overall lighting from all these zones and takes a best guess by averaging them to decide on how to expose the shot. This mode is the one I used to leave my camera set to most of the time and it did give great results. However, at times the camera guesses wrong and it’s useful to know how to use the other metering modes below to give your camera a little more information about what you’re trying to achieve.

2. Spot Metering

SpotThis mode tells the camera to do it’s metering from a very small ‘spot’ in the scene. Instead of taking information from all 35 zones, the 5D hones right in on one – ignoring all others. This is a very useful mode for tricky lighting conditions where the whole scene is either darker or lighter than the point that you want to be exposed correctly.

For example in a back lit situation where you’re taking a portrait of someone whose face is a little too dark. Without spot metering in this situation you might end up with a silhouette and not be able to make out the features of your subject. Spot metering gives you very exact control when there is a very specific (and small) part of the scene that you want to get right.

3. Center Weighted Metering

Center-WeightedOn the spectrum between overall metering and spot metering we find the Center Weighted Metering mode which takes a little from both ends of the spectrum and tells the camera to focus it’s metering decisions upon the center of your image (although a wider area than spot metering).

In Center Weighted Metering the camera will take information from numerous metering points around the frame but will give more weight to those in the center. Like spot metering, this is good to use in tricky lighting situations where you don’t need to identify very small parts of the image to meter on.

I’m still learning about Metering Modes and how to effectively use them however I do know that since venturing a little more out of ‘Auto’ and experimenting with the above modes that my photography has improved a lot. If you’ve got any other tips to add to what I’ve written I’d love to learn from you.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category.

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  • keith

    starting to use the search feature at dps, thanks for the article on metering

  • Sue

    Thank you!! this is great! I was wondering what Metering modes all about and now I have an idea. Simple explanation but good impact ~ specially for a beginner like me.

  • Skip Conklin

    Thank you! The differences between metering modes is one of the things that I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around. Seeing the differences helps to clarify them.

  • Roque Fabular

    Very nice information. I just try this metering modes today and really surprises me how big the difference between this modes! I photograph my self with a bright background using the 4 metering modes. on the evaluative and center weighted modes the results are silhouette. And in the partial partial mode the exposure are acceptable and in the spot mode was very well lit! Wow! my camera was set on the evaluative mode for a long time I dont know how the metering modes really affect your photograph. specially on the backlit situation.

  • Edward xb

    Well-explained,very informative. Thanks.

  • James

    Thanks very much, wish I’d known about this last week when taking pictures of my gf on a boat..her face kept coming out dark!!!

  • Jenn

    Thank you! I love that I can understand this. I’m a total beginner and this is simple enough that I actually get what it means. Very well done. Thank you!

  • Ivan

    Thanks, I must agree with others, simple and useful explanation. Now i know what I was doing wrong all the time.

  • Nathan

    Awesome explanation! I’ve read several books on photography and even though there were more information, it didn’t provide such clarity. I also agree with one of the posting, to make this perfect three of the same photos with the 3 different metering would have been a nice touch.
    Thank you!

  • Umar Zakaria

    quite informative, thanks

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Very informative! Thanks for writing it in language that I can understand as a beginner!

  • piyush kumar pandey

    very nicely explained ..i have searched a lot about metering on the net..but the information which i got was very tedious and i got confused..then i ended on this website and found ur thread and all of my doubts were removed …u explained very well

Some older comments

  • Nathan

    August 16, 2012 10:17 pm

    Awesome explanation! I've read several books on photography and even though there were more information, it didn't provide such clarity. I also agree with one of the posting, to make this perfect three of the same photos with the 3 different metering would have been a nice touch.
    Thank you!

  • Ivan

    February 10, 2012 10:14 am

    Thanks, I must agree with others, simple and useful explanation. Now i know what I was doing wrong all the time.

  • Jenn

    December 28, 2011 06:16 am

    Thank you! I love that I can understand this. I'm a total beginner and this is simple enough that I actually get what it means. Very well done. Thank you!

  • James

    June 11, 2011 06:34 pm

    Thanks very much, wish I'd known about this last week when taking pictures of my gf on a boat..her face kept coming out dark!!!

  • Edward xb

    April 29, 2010 07:03 pm

    Well-explained,very informative. Thanks.

  • Roque Fabular

    January 16, 2010 11:54 am

    Very nice information. I just try this metering modes today and really surprises me how big the difference between this modes! I photograph my self with a bright background using the 4 metering modes. on the evaluative and center weighted modes the results are silhouette. And in the partial partial mode the exposure are acceptable and in the spot mode was very well lit! Wow! my camera was set on the evaluative mode for a long time I dont know how the metering modes really affect your photograph. specially on the backlit situation.

  • Skip Conklin

    January 9, 2010 04:26 pm

    Thank you! The differences between metering modes is one of the things that I just can't seem to wrap my mind around. Seeing the differences helps to clarify them.

  • Sue

    January 7, 2010 01:56 am

    Thank you!! this is great! I was wondering what Metering modes all about and now I have an idea. Simple explanation but good impact ~ specially for a beginner like me.

  • keith

    October 30, 2009 06:52 am

    starting to use the search feature at dps, thanks for the article on metering

  • Adit

    September 6, 2009 10:36 am

    I like this article very much. I never give quite an attention to the metering modes, since I didn't understand what they are, but after reading the article, I got inspired to actually explore all three.

    Thanks for the simple but thorough article!

  • Tom L

    July 23, 2009 01:35 pm

    Great, simple, easy to understand! I wish this article was available a long time ago! Great work!

  • Jana

    June 20, 2009 06:38 am

    Well this was very useful! Thanks! :) And I found the bit about spot-metering very interesting; note to myself - bad lighting ;)

  • Valerie

    June 18, 2009 05:55 am

    great explanation. there is sooo much to remember before you press the shutter. i will keep these in mind next go round. i usually stick with one setting, but should branch out.

  • sharaff

    June 15, 2009 07:46 pm

    out of all, i stick with spot metering. i find it more accurate and easy to control. the matrix has it's place of course and it is a brilliant piece of technology in reach. different people prefer different methods of course.

    even in broad day light, i find it more easier now, practice :)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/shoken/3628493432/

    or even for aerial shots
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/shoken/3609986581/

  • Tom

    June 14, 2009 12:48 am

    At one time I would switch between the 3 metering modes. Now I stay with the 'overall' mode and use the exposure compensation function to expose the scene correctly. For me it is much simpler especially when going from scene to scene.

  • Frankie

    June 13, 2009 10:37 am

    The explaintion make me know how to do with my camera better. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey P

    June 13, 2009 12:30 am

    Dont for get the exposure lock on the camera. when using the spot or center weighted, put the spot or center weight over a more "nuetral gray, ei blue sky, shadowed concrete" area of the photo and lock the exposure (on Canon XTi its the * button) then re-adust for the picture and "click it". Most cameras, when exp locked, allow adjusting to other equivelent exposures for more control over aperture or shutterspeed.
    happy shooting

  • ernesto c bernal

    June 12, 2009 11:30 pm

    i have learned a lot on this website inspite of receiving photo tips just two weeks ago. looking forward for more of helpful info on photography

  • Nicholas Fulford

    June 12, 2009 01:26 pm

    Advice to simple empiricists: Take the shot with normal metering. Look at the result. See that the highlights will be blown, and the dial it down with exposure compensation to see how it looks. (I expect 3 stops would have been about right given the contrast difference.) If there was interesting detail in the inside, it is time for fill flash. Set your flash to manual, and start at somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 power. Take the shot after dialing down for the contrast difference and see if you like what you get. USE A TRIPOD!

    Record what worked in meta-data or in a journal. It is important to learn what works and what does not. If you don't experiment you will never know. (Note: Failures and experimentation are useful.)

    Consider bracketing for High Dynamic Range (HDR) post-processing. This is another wonderful tool for the photographer.

    Have I missed anything? (I bet I have.)

  • anxuna

    June 12, 2009 08:42 am

    Thank you it's very interesting

  • D.R. Roberts

    June 12, 2009 01:46 am

    Nicely written, easy to get your head into it. A recommended read for all new DSLR users.

  • Juliana Es

    June 10, 2009 04:45 pm

    Thanks for posting this knowledge. I recently attended a photography workshop and didn't manage to write down all the important details on metering mode. Your article has helped me improve my understanding on this.

  • Tel Aviv Photos

    June 9, 2009 05:12 pm

    When shooting spontaneously, such as documentary, street, etc (un-directed shots) spot metering is sometimes problematic and can easily ruin a great photo, if accidentally you hit a dark or bright spot when shooting. On the other hand, leaving it to the camera's algorithm to work out what you want to expose is also sometimes problematic, especially when you have to "capture the moment" - no second chances.
    This is why I use center-weight most of the time, and when my subject is off-center, I use the exposure-lock (*) button. I'd quickly take a reading from the natural "gray", lock the exposure, compose and shoot.

  • BigAshD

    December 19, 2008 10:46 pm

    Additional to my earlier comment, have a look into the Zone System developed by Ansel Adams. It is very insightful to learn about what "zone" different aspects of your composition should / can be in.

  • Adam Parker

    December 18, 2008 09:47 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head. The basics were all covered above. The best way to understand metering modes is to just play around. I posted some more sample shots showing how the different metering modes behave when there is one bright subject in a dim environment. Just the type of setup that would result in awkward exposures if the wrong metering mode is used.

    Sample pictures and descriptions can be found here, I hope they help:
    http://blogs.adamparkerphotography.com/blog/Metering-Modes-How-When-and-Why-to-use-them/25/

    Again, thanks for the great post.

  • Arturo Martinez

    February 13, 2008 04:17 am

    After leaving the above comment I made some research and discovered HDR, I recommend the site www.mediachance.com/hdri/

  • Arturo Martinez

    February 9, 2008 02:11 am

    What if we want the correct exposure in all areas? I think there is no such an advanced camera that can do that, in this case I take one shot for every different lightning area and copy-paste on photoshop.

    This way you can get blue skies on pictures where the main subject was under a dark shadow and see both perfectly.

    Don't forget the tripod.

  • Turki Al- Fassam

    February 6, 2008 04:12 am

    Thank you for this topic.
    I'm still learning about Metering Modes. It's really very important to know how control on them. So Thanks very much.

  • Lizzy

    February 2, 2008 07:17 am

    Nice clear explanation. What i really want to know with regard to using them though is can you spot meter from anywhere but the center?

  • mik

    February 2, 2008 02:59 am

    My camera has three diffrent metering modes. It has three little icons. left/middle/right. I have played with them some.
    If only I could think quick enough to change them when I need to...I am just learning
    thank you

  • Sam

    February 1, 2008 09:13 am

    nice! it took me a while to figure out how to use these metering modes, but once i did it really showed in my photos.

  • George Fragos

    February 1, 2008 05:57 am

    In difficult lighting situations I like to use manual mode so I can see the results.

  • janice nathan

    February 1, 2008 05:15 am

    Awesome !Thank-you very much!I had been wondering..as recently i photographed a company picnic/sports day..
    ..there were huge trees/shade ..and extreme lighting conditions..ie from hot sun ect...this was / is so helpful ..for future events photograpghy...now I UNDERSTAND METERING BETER and i will certainly have more confidence now..when using this feature!

  • Graham

    February 1, 2008 05:08 am

    In Nikon when you use point metering and a flash the cemara get in the i-TTL mode automaticly, this is very useful when you woork wish flash, the ilumination is very nice.

  • Connie

    February 1, 2008 03:54 am

    Thank you for this information. Now I'm ready to go experiment with my camera.

  • shashikanth

    January 31, 2008 05:19 pm

    this article is very informative....thanks

  • A Team

    January 31, 2008 04:15 am

    Thanks for the info. You have taken some of the mystery out of metering for me.

  • Shawn

    January 31, 2008 01:36 am

    Nice, clear, simple, tp the point.

    Great job! Thanks!

  • Chet

    January 31, 2008 01:30 am

    I usually shoot in Manual and leave my metering to spot. This way, as I move my spot around the frame, I can see, using the levels, what the computer thinks about the environment I am shooting.

    Then I will set my settings accordingly. At first it takes some time, but that's how I learned to eyeball a lighting situation and make good guesses as to how to set my exposure.

    Please note that some cameras don't have a "Spot" meter. Some "Spots" are larger than some. Read your manual to find out what size your spot meter is. It is usually referenced in terms of percentage of your screen. For example 2%. So if a camera has a spot of say 9%, then it's already more center weighted than spot.

    I believe that Center Weighted also evaluates the whole frame, but weighs the center heavier in calculating exposure. Whereas Spot only measures the spot, whether large (9%) or small (2%).

    These spot coverage figures are important to know if you want to use your meter well.

  • Louella

    January 31, 2008 01:20 am

    Thanks for bringing this up. Something that has been bugging me for a while, but was too lazy to look up!

    I agree, some sample pictures would be very handy. Just to illustrate when each metering mode would be best applicable.

  • katy

    January 31, 2008 12:27 am

    i like using the spot metering and turning off the auto focus. that way i can focus on one really dark spot and apply that metering to the rest of the picture. this is only good if you like the exposure to look blown out, which i do sometimes. i get way more vivid contrast in b&w this way.

  • Gregory

    January 31, 2008 12:09 am

    Also note that spot metering is useful when using filters with more than +- 1 EV step. Very strong filters can disrupt matrix metering.

  • Klaidas

    January 30, 2008 10:50 pm

    Some example shots would have been nice.

  • Robert

    January 30, 2008 10:39 pm

    I've been planning to learn more about metering modes for quite some time. This tutorial is excellent.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Olivier H

    January 30, 2008 09:49 pm

    Let's notice that nowadays the "matrix metering" or "multizone metering" does not always just takes an average metering of the multiple metering cells, but compares them against a set of recorded situations. The indboard computers then tries to guess which situation matches best to give you the metering information.
    For example, let's say you shoot portrait against dark background, the computer recognizes the setup and does not try to overexpose to compensate for the dark background, but meters for the central cells (where the face would be).
    Of course, that does not work all the time, and the computer may be wrong.

    The spot/center metering acts exactly as a lightmeter would, and this is very convenient.

  • Ash

    January 30, 2008 08:52 pm

    I always use spot metering, and if the going is tricky, I look around various parts of the scene, and then expose to something that is going to give me what I want to achieve. However, if you're not using manual mode, there isn't much to be gained from using spot metering - other than in very tricky situations with Av or Tv, but I still find manual to be better then.

    Switching to manual, and spot metering, really taught me loads about what the on-board computers are doing in evaluative mode, which is in itself very useful.

  • sherry

    January 30, 2008 02:56 pm

    Thank you for this! I didn't really grasp what the metering options were for and now I'll know how - and when - to play with them.

  • parag

    January 30, 2008 01:01 pm

    Nicely written .. simple enough to understand for a novice like me.

  • Dave

    January 30, 2008 07:17 am

    FYI some Canon dSLRs behave a little differently if you manually select focus points. On the Rebel XT/350, if you manually select a focus point in Multi-zone Metering, it actually acts more like Center Weight. Give it a try and see for yourself!

  • Hank

    January 30, 2008 04:21 am

    Very informative article. Thank you and I can't wait to test it out.

  • Redshift

    January 30, 2008 04:11 am

    Another feature of "spot metering" that my camera has is the following: if I have the auto focus zone set to "selectable", the spot metering will be done on the zone I have set to focus on. So if using the rule of thirds, and focus is set to one side, spot metering will be on that side as well. As a result, I usually leave it on spot mode except for landscape shots.

  • Cherie

    January 30, 2008 03:45 am

    Thanks for sharing your information. I bet there are a lot of people out there who don't understand metering but were also afraid to ask.

  • Presi

    January 30, 2008 03:05 am

    Thanks for posting this. It's probably the simplest and easiest-to-understand explanation of metering that I have found so far

  • Jason

    January 30, 2008 02:35 am

    Cool, was thinking about this the other day actually - saved me from having to go search for what the differences are!

  • scaamanho

    January 30, 2008 02:26 am

    This is a great introduction.
    As other people, i used mainly the MultiSegment zone, but its a very interesting practice use the spot/center metering when you take portraits, with a light or black background. I used to set this metering too when i want to catch the light of a sunray in a leave or a plant in the middle of the forest.

  • Graeme Smith

    January 30, 2008 01:55 am

    In most of my shooting I find it is easiest to ignore the meter for the most part and just set exposure from the histogram. This technique can require taking a couple exposures before you get it right and probably isn't to everybody's taste, but I find it the easier way to get an accurate exposure quickly.

  • Wulf

    January 30, 2008 01:55 am

    What this could do with, perhaps as a follow on, is three example shots of the same scene taken with the three different modes.

  • AC

    January 30, 2008 01:39 am

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I generally leave my metering on auto and get pretty good results. Will have to try the other modes now.

  • Neil

    January 30, 2008 01:38 am

    A nice clear explanation.

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