Metering Modes Explained - Digital Photography School

Metering Modes Explained

A Guest Post by Laura Charon from Beyond Megapixels.

On today’s digital cameras, users have the ability to choose and adjust the metering mode, or how the camera measures the brightness of the subject. Metering settings work by assessing the amount of light available for a photograph, and then adjusting the exposure accordingly. Sometimes, however, the camera isn’t intuitive enough to get the exposure right when using Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority modes. Fortunately, the photographer has the ability to make manual adjustments to the metering mode used by the camera. (Refer to your individual owner’s manual to learn how to change the settings on your camera.)

Evaluative Metering (on Canon cameras), or Evaluative/Matrix Metering (on Nikon cameras) – This is the “default” setting on most cameras. The camera sets the metering automatically to suit the scene and subject of the photograph. The entire scene within the camera’s viewfinder is utilized to assess the appropriate metering. This is the mode to use when you’re not sure which mode the scene will require.

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/30, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Evaluative Metering

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/30, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Evaluative Metering

Partial Metering (on Canon cameras), or Spot Metering (on Nikon cameras) – This type of metering is helpful for photographing back-lit subjects. The metering is weighted according to the very center of the shot – a very small area of the frame. Use this mode when you have a very specific area of the photograph that you wish the exposure to be based upon.

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/20, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Partial Metering

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/20, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Partial Metering

Center-Weighted Average Metering (on Canon cameras), or Center-Weighted Metering (on Nikon cameras) – This metering setting gives priority to the center portion of the photograph, but also takes the surrounding portions of the shot into consideration. Basically, this is somewhere in between Evaluative and Partial Metering. Use this setting when the subject is in the center of the photograph and exposed correctly, so that the subject is not affected by the exposure of the background.

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/30, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Center-Weighted Metering

Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, RAW file format, SOOC - Exposure: 1/30, ISO 200, Shot in Program Mode, Center-Weighted Metering

The difference in exposure between the three photographs is slight, but the center example of Partial Metering, I believe, achieves the most correct balance of light and exposure for this particular shot. Since the object is lit from overhead and slightly behind, it is most appropriate to gauge the exposure from the very center of the object.

Photo credits (all): Snerkology Media

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  • tks

    The photo school info was informative, however, with modern cameras and the ease of taking additional photos, the metering mode isn’t a big deal. Your best bet is to take the kind of photos you typically take and take the time to use the various metering modes available that way you will know exactly what you will get and which mode suits particular situations. If you are in a hurry, then you should set your camera on exposure bracketing w/ 1 f/stop brackets, one of those images should be one that pleases your taste. If you take the time to experiment, you can choose one exposure mode and get the photo while the others miss the action and the photo because they are fumbling around playing games with all the confusing options. I was fortunate enough to be trained as a combat photographer over 55 years ago. We did not have light meters, we learned to read the light and scene conditions and set our cameras accordingly and we also used guess focus, I could tell you within inches of the various distance by looking at the subject. You would not believe the speed and accuracy we could set our cameras and take the photos, All of the modern cameras have way too many choices which are unnecessary and confusing. Photography should be fun and you shouldn’t have to read a hundred page book to know how to use the camera.

  • http://www.VagabondVistas.com David Simchock

    FYI: Exposure bracketing is a sound practice, but doesn’t work so well when shooting “action”, as you may end up capturing the right moment in the wrong exposure.

    Best bet when shooting “action” is to be on manual exposure shooting with the correct exposure. So long as the subject stays in the same light, and you do not have a variable aperture lens that will change your f-stop as you zoom), your exposure will be correct without the need to tweak exposure settings with each shot.

    So, how does one know that they have the “correct exposure”? Well, the answer is to know “how” your light meter works (a knowledge of 18% gray is useful), and when to use which available metering mode. NOTE: Unless you are metering off of a gray card, or off of something that you are quite certain represents 18% gray, then I would recommend you refrain from using the “spot” meter mode. If you do, you may end up with drastically varying results!

    It is also of paramount importance that you know when your meter is being “tricked” by the light on your subject and/or in your scene. If you anticipate when the light is fooling your meter (which will lead to an over- or under-exposure), then you can adjust accordingly ahead of time. Yes, “bracketing” is a good fall-back but, again, it is not so useful when shooting action.

  • http://www.robertduttonphotography.com Robert

    What a great explanation and great examples. Concise, to the point, not over complicated. Excellent! Thank you.

  • Paul stewart

    great article, really helpful :). would i be right in saying that metering modes arent used when in Manual mode? only auto, AV, TV, or anytime the camera has to calculate a setting?

    thanks!
    Paul

  • Danny

    Paul… I would suggest the metering still applies when shooting manual because the exposure meter, displayed in the viewfinder, still needs to know how to measure the exposure. I refer to that meter regularly, so it matters to me how that measurement is being resolved.

  • Reggie

    Thank you Danny! That is the answer to a question I have had for a long time. I started shooting in manual when a very experienced photographer told me “control your exposure boy, don’t let the camera decide”. Always wondered if I need to worry about metering mode,

Some older comments

  • Robert

    September 29, 2013 06:28 am

    What a great explanation and great examples. Concise, to the point, not over complicated. Excellent! Thank you.

  • David Simchock

    June 13, 2013 02:30 am

    FYI: Exposure bracketing is a sound practice, but doesn't work so well when shooting "action", as you may end up capturing the right moment in the wrong exposure.

    Best bet when shooting "action" is to be on manual exposure shooting with the correct exposure. So long as the subject stays in the same light, and you do not have a variable aperture lens that will change your f-stop as you zoom), your exposure will be correct without the need to tweak exposure settings with each shot.

    So, how does one know that they have the "correct exposure"? Well, the answer is to know "how" your light meter works (a knowledge of 18% gray is useful), and when to use which available metering mode. NOTE: Unless you are metering off of a gray card, or off of something that you are quite certain represents 18% gray, then I would recommend you refrain from using the "spot" meter mode. If you do, you may end up with drastically varying results!

    It is also of paramount importance that you know when your meter is being "tricked" by the light on your subject and/or in your scene. If you anticipate when the light is fooling your meter (which will lead to an over- or under-exposure), then you can adjust accordingly ahead of time. Yes, "bracketing" is a good fall-back but, again, it is not so useful when shooting action.

  • tks

    June 9, 2013 08:35 am

    The photo school info was informative, however, with modern cameras and the ease of taking additional photos, the metering mode isn't a big deal. Your best bet is to take the kind of photos you typically take and take the time to use the various metering modes available that way you will know exactly what you will get and which mode suits particular situations. If you are in a hurry, then you should set your camera on exposure bracketing w/ 1 f/stop brackets, one of those images should be one that pleases your taste. If you take the time to experiment, you can choose one exposure mode and get the photo while the others miss the action and the photo because they are fumbling around playing games with all the confusing options. I was fortunate enough to be trained as a combat photographer over 55 years ago. We did not have light meters, we learned to read the light and scene conditions and set our cameras accordingly and we also used guess focus, I could tell you within inches of the various distance by looking at the subject. You would not believe the speed and accuracy we could set our cameras and take the photos, All of the modern cameras have way too many choices which are unnecessary and confusing. Photography should be fun and you shouldn't have to read a hundred page book to know how to use the camera.

  • Austin

    May 24, 2013 01:12 am

    Excellent! I didn't know anything about metering, this fully explained it! Thank you!!

  • Stacie Jensen

    February 8, 2013 03:34 am

    This is a fantastic article to show why we choose metering options. I will definitely be passing on to others!

  • Joe

    December 23, 2011 06:25 am

    I keep hearing that center weighted does not follow the focus points but I see conflicting sites that say differently. On Nikon can you verify that it does not follow the focus point?

  • sanjoe

    October 9, 2011 02:37 am

    good article... cleared my questions on metering.... :-)

  • CHANTS

    September 22, 2011 07:30 pm

    Love this but why are they shot in Program mode?

  • Pawan

    May 14, 2010 01:59 pm

    Hi Laura Charon,

    Such an excellent article, it clears all my doubt regarding metering.

    Please answer my question below if possible -

    I set Partial Metering mode in my camera (canon) and want to take a portrait.

    I have focused my camera on subject and adjested the exposure to -1 and locked the focus.

    Moved my camera to recompose the shot.

    Now center of composition is darker than subject but focus is locked.

    When i take the shot, will camera take partial metering from compositions' center or locked focus point?

    Many Thanks,
    Pawan

  • E

    January 17, 2010 02:49 am

    Here's another helpful link for Canon users
    http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=2666

  • Kit Solis

    January 16, 2010 04:10 pm

    I agree with sandeep, spot metering in nikon doesn't always have to be only on the center.

    but the author is using canon, so I think, the article is really very helpful.

    very informative Laura.

  • Olivia

    January 16, 2010 12:54 pm

    THANK YOU!!!

  • Harry

    January 16, 2010 12:20 am

    I have sony H50 and I am still a beginner , pls suggest me settings for the same.

  • Nakizimbo

    January 15, 2010 07:29 pm

    Hi, for the unitiated like me could someone please explain why the evaluative metering photo (first photo) and center weighted metering photo (second photo) are actually different when they have the same iso, aperture and exposure.

  • albert

    January 15, 2010 12:01 pm

    There are more things that i don't understand than the things i do in this article since i am just a beginner but surely in one way or the other this will help me a lot in my future shots....Thanks

  • VagabondVistas

    January 15, 2010 11:52 am

    dave, think of "exposure compensation" as an over-ride to the meter when you are in one of the priority modes (A or S with Nikon / Av or Tv with Canon). Essentially, exposure compensation is used to intentionally over- or under-expose an image from its metered settings. Typically, you can adjust your camera to in 1/3 of a f-stop increments when compensating (and when using auto bracketing). You can also go into your menu and change this to 1/2-stop increments.

    If you are in aperture priority, you set the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed (based on the meter reading). Using exposure compensation in this mode will alter the shutter speed (faster or slower) while leaving the aperture setting where you have it (e.g., f/5.6).

    When in shutter priority mode, it is the opposite: you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture (based on the meter). When exposure compensation is used in this mode (S or Tv), it will alter the aperture (more open or closed).

    When using "auto bracketing", similar to using the exposure compensation (which can be a form of manual bracketing), when in A (Av), each bracketed shot will use a different shutter speed. In S (Tv), each shot will have a different aperture.

    Generally speaking, with regard to "exposure", you have three parameters working in unison: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. For any given scene, you can have numerous "correct exposures" with many different "correct creative exposures". As the artist, it is up to you to decide (when in manual or semi-automatic priority modes) which is the best creative interpretation of the scene (e.g., depth-of-field, freezing or blurring motion, etc.). When in auto mode, the camera guesses at a setting, so you get pot luck. This is one huge reason to get away from the dreaded little green box.

    Priority modes are called "priority" for a reason. When depth-of-field is your creative priority, then you will likely be shooting in A (Av) mode (since the lens aperture controls depth-of-field). When motion (freezing or blurring) is your priority, you will likely use the S (Tv) mode (since the speed of the shutter will determine this). Of course, if you are comfortable in fully manual mode ("M"), then that is fine as well, and you simply need to line up your meter indicator by adjusting your aperture, shutter speed, or ISO.

  • David

    January 15, 2010 10:13 am

    I completely disagree that spot / partial metering is generally a good choice for metering mode.

    True, the example image above looks fine, but had that been a very dark or very light tone at the point of the spot, the image would have been severely over or underexposed. I would not recommend using spot / partial unless one was using a gray card, or had enough experience to evaluate whether the metering point would be interpreted by the camera as neutral gray (18% gray).

    Generally speaking, I believe that it is impossible to explain "metering" without first talking about 18% gray, and I would warn anyone reading this blog to reconsider using spot / partial as your "go to" metering mode. Remember, matrix / evaluative is the default setting by Nikon and Canon for a reason.

    Also, when in doubt ,metering and exposure, bracket.

  • Pete

    January 15, 2010 06:09 am

    Awesome, thanks for this great article! I always wondered what the benefits of each mode were, and now I have a clearer definition of what it's all about!

  • Dave

    January 15, 2010 05:02 am

    I'm also a beginner and need some clarification.
    If I use the exposure compensation, does that have the same effect as changing the metering? I would have to play around with it myself, but will it have the same effect, correct. Same thing with bracketing my exposure. Will that have the same effect too?

    To understand, changing the metering doesn't dodge or burn the background, it just changes the aperture and shutter speed how it sees fit. Therefore, if I manually alter those 2 settings, I should end up with the same photo, correct?
    I guess the difference is, I would be doing more manual work right?

  • Lou

    January 15, 2010 04:06 am

    The new Canon 7D has 5 focus methods:
    * Manual AF point selection mode
    * Spot AF point selection mode
    * AF point expansion mode
    * Automatic AF point selection mode
    * Zone AF mode

    ref: http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=3049

  • Kelly

    January 15, 2010 04:03 am

    thank you so much for this! you can't imagine how much this has helped me!!!

  • jf

    January 15, 2010 03:50 am

    It's funny... I like the explanations and find them helpful... but I preferred both the first and last photos to the middle one, which -- to me -- looks over-bright in the background.

  • Kerry

    January 15, 2010 03:43 am

    I've read that "focus and recompose" affects different metering modes differently, but I can't ever seem to remember which is affected. I've even tried locking exposure and recomposing, but I still notice that the settings (if in P or Av mode) will change. Of course, I can use Manual (and usually do), but then the metering mode isn't even helpful is it?

  • Katya

    January 14, 2010 03:31 am

    Thank you for the great article! For me who is a beginner, this whole metering was mystery, now it's starting to make sense.

  • juan

    January 13, 2010 05:21 am

    As for where the meter actually meters, I think the only Canon camera to offer a reading based on the focus point is the 7D, so far as there is no analysis of a final production 1D Mark 4.

  • juan

    January 13, 2010 05:16 am

    Thanks. But I think Canon cameras such as the 450D/XSi have four metering modes: evaluative or matrix; center-weighted; partial (9%); and spot (4%). So you have plenty of room to meter.

  • FErnando

    January 11, 2010 02:04 pm

    Great post! A lot of people has a lot of doubts about it! That's includes me.. And it's not a easy thing to find out int he web.. Thanks!

  • irishmuth

    January 10, 2010 03:20 pm

    I have the exact same question as sandeep - do the Canons spot meter based on the center of the frame or the focus point? In playing around with spot metering on my T1i, it seems to be based on the focus point - even if it's not the center of the frame. Can anyone confirm?

  • VeeBee

    January 10, 2010 03:07 pm

    Wonderful! Thank you very much, this was very helpful.
    Much appreciated.

  • Michael VanDeWalker

    January 10, 2010 02:49 pm

    Reading the manual will tell you what types of metering your brand and model camera can do. It's that book that is probably still in the box your camera came in. Learn to experiment with your gear before you have to get "the shot" or try different types of metering to make sure that you do get the shot.

  • Nimal

    January 10, 2010 06:42 am

    Thanks for the simple yet useful article.

  • Iris

    January 10, 2010 03:34 am

    Thank you so much for the information. I will 'play' with the metering modes this weekend.

  • Whinny and Snap

    January 10, 2010 02:39 am

    This was a great article. For a long time I struggled to grasp metering - so I think this is super helpful for many.

  • Jason Collin Photography

    January 9, 2010 12:56 pm

    Thanks for the explanation and the example photos. To me the spot metered photos has a much better exposure. I will switch that metering mode the next time I shoot backlit subjects, like musicians on stage.

  • Sundar

    January 9, 2010 09:58 am

    Thanks for the info, its kept simple.

  • Mike

    January 9, 2010 07:19 am

    I've been experimenting with the metering functions on my Nikon D5000. I started shooting in manual and priority mode but I lacked the working knowledge of metering and exposure compensation. Great article, thanks!

  • E

    January 9, 2010 07:11 am

    Can you show an example of metering to use in the following situations
    getting a silloutte
    taking pics of a neon sign at night

  • chuck

    January 9, 2010 06:00 am

    bad camera choice. canons got metering screwed up, especially in 'cheaper' models. nikons are way better. Ken has is nailed, as usual:

    http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/matrix.htm

  • SachinGupta

    January 9, 2010 05:38 am

    The article above is nice and explained in brief with very simple language i.e. easy to follow terms. But one mode seems to have been missed.
    There is another metering mode in Nikon called "Spot Autofocus Area" mode. Now I have a Nikon Coolpix 5400 (not a DSLR, just 5.1 megapixel launched in 2002 or 2003), so if a camera thats so "humble" in comparison to today's models, has this feature, I'm tempted to think that, the advanced or not_so_humble ones are very likely to have it. I dont know what the equivalent term is for Canons or other cameras but here's what it does.
    I quote the manual here "Camera meters active focus area when Manual or Auto is selected for Focus Options> Auto Focus area mode". Later it says "...use instead of autoexposure lock to measure off-center subjects".
    (Quote complete).

    Basically it is an advanced form of spot metering, but instead of being the "spot" that is metered being anchored at the center of the screen, it will follow the spot chosen for "Manual Autofocus" when that Focus mode is chosen. So when you choose to focus on one of the 5 (in Nikon coolpix 5400) or 9 autofocus points on your LCD, that spot will be metered instead of just the center. Obviously it doesnt make sense to meter the frame center, when you've chosen to direct the focus on some other part of the frame. After finding this mode, I rarely use the basic "Spot Metering" mode, coz to simulate that, all I do is select the center of the screen as the AF area.

    Just a note, on my camera, if the LCD is off (to save battery or any other reason) and if Spot AF area mode was selected earlier, then it reverts to spot metering, in which case the frame's center will be metered. And if Focus area selection is off, it reverts to Matrix metering. It may be worthwhile to check your manual if, like mine, the camera metering mode defaults to something else in some specific conditions.

  • Alan Glz

    January 9, 2010 05:35 am

    Very usefull for object photos. thankyou very much!!

  • Jodi Friedman

    January 9, 2010 05:34 am

    I love using spot metering in full sun. Thank you for this excellent post.

  • rose

    January 9, 2010 05:17 am

    Thank you, for this article. I'm still learning a few more things about my 50D and when I get to metering, I usually stick to evaluative..

  • Stunner

    January 9, 2010 05:15 am

    Nice quick easy explanation, thanks for sharing!

  • Rene

    January 9, 2010 04:35 am

    Greg,

    I shoot a lot of stage-lit performanes under low light and variable ligh conditions. I found the best thing to do for metering is use "evaluative" metering (looks at the entire area) but shoot everything in Manual mode and work the exposure as I shoot. You will get really good at "seeing" light change and adjusting your aperture to suit. Glance down at your view finder often and you can quickly and easily see "hot spots", areas of the stage where lights are brighter and can cause the face of the subject to be blown out, and make aperture adjustments.

    The problem with any of the automatic in-camera metering modes (or any other auto mode) is you are still relying on the camera's ability to "see" the subject as you do ...you have to remember that the camera is simply interpretuing light ...it won't see the face of the subject get brighter as stage lighting changes and people move around.

    In theory you would think "spot" metering would help because you could spot meter on the subject's face and then recompose the shot before depressing the shutter all the way. The problem with that theory is range comes into to play. If you are some distance away from the subect, your camera will have a difficult time picking out the "spot" to meter ...especially if background colors are similar to the subject. Of course white balance settings can make make a difference, as will your lens choices!

    Happy shooting!

  • Bluenoser

    January 9, 2010 03:52 am

    Good stuff, but I'm curious as to why only three, and not all four of the methods were mentioned? Spot Metering is another option with Canon.

  • Paul G

    January 9, 2010 03:44 am

    Great article to help new photographers. Big help, thanks

  • Paul M

    January 9, 2010 03:40 am

    Very helpful article! The intelligence on the new cameras has somewhat 'dumbed us down' when it comes to all the sophistication. It's easy to forget K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid)!

  • Ed V.

    January 9, 2010 02:42 am

    Not to confuse matters, but there is a difference between partial and spot metering on most Canon SLR's. I don't believe "partial" metering on a Canon is equivalent to "spot" metering on a Nikon. The "partial" setting meters about 9% of the viewfinder area in the center and spot metering about 4%. The XTi and other early entry-level Canons do not have true spot metering. On higher-level Canons there are 4 modes altogether: Evaluative, partial, spot and center-weighted. One of the reasons I upgraded from my XT.

  • sergey

    January 9, 2010 02:16 am

    One of the most confusing subjects for most new photographers. Sometimes more experienced photographers can use a reminder as its easy to forget about metering. Unlike film cameras digital cameras allow a peek at what the photo will look like with a histogram so that metering can be adjusted. Well done, thanks.

  • Sandeep

    January 9, 2010 02:11 am

    I don't agree with explanation of Spot metering - "This type of metering is helpful for photographing back-lit subjects. The metering is weighted according to the very center of the shot – a very small area of the frame."

    I don't know about Canon, but in Nikon Spot metering is weighted according to the "Focus Area/Point" chosen by user, which could be off-center. The writer is suggesting Spot meter always weighs the center of the frame/shot, which is not correct.

    Would like to know more from the experts on this.

  • MeiTeng

    January 9, 2010 01:14 am

    Thanks for the simple explanation. I too agree that partial metering gives the best exposure for this particular shot. Would spot metering be the same as partial metering? I think the Canon 450d has both partial and spot metering.

  • Greg Taylor

    January 9, 2010 12:55 am

    Great article on metering. When I photography concert I rely on Spot Metering since most of the light is coming from behind the artist. I have experimented with center weighted metering but the photos just aren't the same. As with most photography, with concert if you get the light right your chances of getting a usable photograph multiply significantly.

    Thanks for the article

  • Gusto

    January 9, 2010 12:29 am

    thank's, it helped me a lot. i was not always sure, which metering to use.

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