Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Beginner’s Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Should you bother to learn about metering modes? I’m confident I can sell you on it. Your camera’s automatic metering will only carry you so far. As your digital photography ability grows, you’ll start to feel frustrated in scenes with mixed light. Learning metering modes is the key to making tricky light conditions seem much less intimidating.

Let’s jump right into this beginner’s guide to metering modes.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Giant dragon lantern in honor of the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival – Keelung, Taiwan. Metering mode: Spot.

What is metering?

This is vital to understand before you learn about your camera’s individual metering modes. “Metering” means taking a light reading. A properly exposed image is made up of three tones of light: the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.

The image below demonstrates these three tones well. The forested hills in the foreground and dark cloud represent the shadows, the temple roof and figure represent the mid-tones, and the bright clouds represent the highlights.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

A figure on the roof of a temple looks out across forested hills – Jiufen, Taiwan. Through the use of my camera’s light meter, I had more creative control to slightly underexpose the image giving viewers the same sense of foreboding that I felt from those dark, rumbling clouds overhead.

Your camera has an ingenious tool called a light meter that enables it to determine a correct exposure with a balance of shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. You’ll see it at the bottom of the frame when you put your eye to the viewfinder.

Taking light readings from the scene

Your camera’s metering modes control which part (s) of the scene your light meter uses to take a reading. Consider the example below. If you were to meter only off the dragon and take the photo, the dragon would be correctly exposed. However, the sky would probably be too bright.

Alternatively, if I was to meter only off the sky, the sky would be correctly exposed but the dragon would be a bit too dark. However, if I metered from a wider section of the scene, I would get a more balanced exposure.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Detail from the Land God Temple at Badouzi Harbor – Taiwan. Metered off the dragon the exposure is a bit too light.

The four main metering modes

Now, let’s get down to the crux of the article. Here, I’m going to explain what each of your camera’s four metering modes does and how this affects your images.

But before we begin, a note about how your camera meter works. Very bright and dark tones can trick your light meter. Why? Because it is designed to bring every tone to something called “18% gray.” Imagine a snow-covered mountain or a jet black car. Would you want your camera to correct these tones to appear 18% gray? Or would you want their tones to be rendered as truly as your eye sees them? The answer is obvious, but not to your light meter.

So it is your job to review your image on the histogram and decide if it is correct for your scene or not. If it’s not you can use Exposure Compensation to adjust it (when shooting in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes).

Evaluative (or Matrix) Metering Mode

Evaluative metering is the natural mode to explain first because it’s the one your camera uses as standard or default. Your light meter takes a reading from across the whole scene. With that information, your camera’s onboard computer makes multiple calculations to determine a correct exposure with balanced highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

A scene from Mother’s Market in Imphal – Manipur, India. I wanted to read the light from across the whole scene here and so used Evaluative Metering Mode.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

On Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest mountain – Japan. Shot in the Evaluative Metering mode the camera attempts to make an exposure that is an average of all the light tones of the scene. This is particularly useful when you’re learning to shoot landscapes.

Center-Weighted Metering Mode

Imagine that you’re now zooming into the frame slightly. Whereas Evaluative Metering mode reads the light from across the entire scene, Center-Weighted Metering mode reads light with a preference towards the middle. It still reads from a large proportion of the frame, just not the whole thing. This varies between camera manufacturers, but it’s usually between 60 % and 80 % of the frame.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

An accordion player in Central Vienna – Austria. Center-Weighted mode would have been a solid choice for this portrait because there is nothing much of interest in the four corners or along the edges; it’s all within the central 60 %–80 % of the frame.

The area inside the red circle is roughly what will be metered with Center-Weighted mode.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Fuyou Temple in Tamsui, a riverside town in New Taipei – Taiwan. I would not have used Evaluative Metering mode for this scene because my camera would have tried to brighten the image – seeing it is mostly dark. Whereas, I intentionally wanted more of a silhouette-like feel.

The area inside the circle is roughly the percentage of the frame that will be metered when using Center-Weighted mode.

Partial Metering Mode

If Center-Weighted metering meant zooming in a little, Partial Metering is a huge jump inwards again. This time, your light meter will read the light from an area the size of 6-15 % of the center of the scene, depending on your camera manufacturer.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Boatman on the Ganges – Varanasi, India. Partial Metering mode is where things start to get really interesting. You begin taking more control than ever before of where you meter from in the scene. As you can see, this man’s face is just on the limits of a central point of approximately 10 % of the frame. It’s exposed exactly the way I wanted, but I didn’t just get lucky.

With the Varanasi boatman above, I was shooting in Aperture Priority mode. I aimed my center focus point at his face before composing the shot. This allowed my camera to read the light from 10 % of the frame around his head.

Then, I used the exposure lock button (read that article if it’s the first time you’ve heard about it). Note that this is for use mainly with Aperture or Shutter Priority mode. With this button held down, you lock in the exposure and can recompose the shot without the settings changing.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

On the same boat ride, the sun sets over the ghats – Varanasi, India. Again, I aimed my center focus point at the flowers to meter. Because there was just a pinprick of sunlight still peeking over the tops of the buildings, the sky wasn’t overpoweringly bright in the final image; however, I did dim the highlights slightly in Lightroom later.

Spot Metering Mode

The final push inward; Spot Metering mode reads light from between 1-5 % of your scene. I personally use Spot Metering mode more than any other, but it may be more challenging for you if you are just learning about your camera and metering.

It is particularly useful to use spot metering in conjunction with the exposure lock button and the center AF point selected. Aim the center point of your viewfinder at the subject or light source to meter from it. Lock in the exposure and recompose, then focus and shoot.

I find that spot metering mode is goodfor portraits and getting the correct skin tones. Also, I use it for specific light sources, such as a beam of light through a window, but only when I’m also happy for other regions of the photo to be underexposed. I do not recommend using it for landscapes unless you are looking to experiment with silhouettes.

Spot metered off the sky to get a silhouette sunset and deeper tones in the sky.

Beginner's Guide to Metering Modes on Your Camera

Silhouetted figure toasting marshmallows at a community bonfire – Matsumoto, Japan. Of all its many versatile uses, Spot Metering is the mode you should select if you want to create silhouettes. Meter off the brightest part of the scene and select your settings. Lock in the exposure and then compose the shot. The brightest part of the scene will be well exposed and your subject will be cast in dramatic black shadows.

Inside a 500-year-old tomb at Lodi Gardens – New Delhi, India. Spot Metering mode is gloriously precise. You can meter off a light source as specific as a single sunbeam coming through a window. In this image, I crouched down so that the artificial light source was directly behind the sign and spot metered off the bright area of the floor.


The next step on from here is full manual mode, in which the exposure lock button is not required. But first, master metering modes using Shutter and Aperture priority modes.

Now that you’ve learned about each metering mode, get out your camera and go practice. Don’t forget to share your thoughts and images in the comments.

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Ben McKechnie is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Check out his most recent work on his Website, Facebook page, and Instagram.