How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering


Modern digital cameras have a variety of metering modes that they use to evaluate the light coming through the lens and help you choose your exposure settings. Each one is different and designed to fit a specific need. As you gain experience with them you will start to know which metering mode to use for any given scene you are shooting.

If you’re shooting portraits you might want to use Spot or Center-weighted metering, while landscape shooters may prefer the versatility of matrix or evaluative mode. Knowing which mode to use often comes with time and practice. But what if I told you there was a metering mode built-in to some cameras that could basically guarantee your shots would come out properly exposed every single time? Well, if you believe that then I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

Highlight-Weighted Metering Mode

However, if your camera has Highlight-Weighted metering it will certainly help you get better results from your photos. While I can’t guarantee your pics will be perfect every single time, it can really come in handy if you’re not sure how to meter your scene and want a solution that you know you can rely on.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Different metering modes for different situations

The reason photographers use specific metering modes when shooting various scenes is that they want to make sure the right thing is properly exposed. For example, if you’re shooting a portrait it’s important to make sure your subject’s face is neither too bright nor too dark, even is it means some background elements will end up bright white or pitch black.

Center-weighted metering can solve this problem by helping you arrive at an exposure setting such that whatever is in the middle of the frame (i.e. your subject’s face) is exposed just right. Other metering modes such as Spot, Matrix/Evaluative, and Partial Metering all perform similar functions in that they help you make sure you have just the right camera settings to get precisely the important part of your composition properly exposed.

Highlight-weighted metering tosses all that out the window. In the process, it could also dramatically alter your approach not only to metering a scene but to photography as a whole.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

I used Center-weighted metering here to make sure this couple was exposed just right, even though the background is a bit too bright. I cared more about the couple looking good than the tree leaves behind them.

Enter Highlight-Weighted Metering for Select Nikon Cameras

Available on only a few Nikon cameras, (D5, D850, D810, D750, D500, and D7500 as of the time of this writing) Highlight-weighted metering utilizes the incredible dynamic range of modern image sensors to give you a massive degree of control over your photos. Provided you don’t mind doing a bit of legwork in Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, or other post-processing software.

It works by looking at the brightest elements of a scene (instead of specific areas like the center or the focus point) and using those as the basis for taking an exposure reading. On the surface, this might seem like a terrible idea because doing so would obviously mean a great deal of your photo could, as a result, be much too dark and underexposed to be usable.

Accessing Highlight-Weighted Metering

I’ve talked to some photographers who own cameras that can do Highlight-Weighted metering, and some of them aren’t even aware that their cameras have this capability. It’s not that surprising since Nikon doesn’t seem to go out of its way to advertise the feature, and even if you know about it you still may not know how to enable it.

To access this feature, press the metering button on your camera and then turn the control dial until you see an icon that looks the same as spot metering, with the exception of an asterisk in the top-right corner.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

You will see the same icon if you look at the rear LCD screen of your camera, and as soon as it appears you’re good to go. However, figuring out how to enable Highlight-Weighted metering is one thing but understanding how it works, when to use it, and how to get the most out of it is another matter entirely.

Exposing for the Highlights

Before I get too deep into what this all means, it’s important to understand that Highlight-Weighted metering isn’t really the best solution to use for everyday shooting. It’s designed to make sure the brightest portions of your composition are not overexposed, which means a great deal of the photo is going to be shrouded in darkness.

You also won’t really see the advantages of using it unless you shoot RAW because it’s designed to give you an image that is extremely flexible due to the amount of data you have to work with during the post-production phase. Since JPEG files toss out such a huge amount of image data, they’re not much use with Highlight-Weighted metering because you simply don’t have much room to edit your photos when developing them in Lightroom.

Metering Mode Comparison

As an illustration of how Highlight-Weighted metering works, consider this series of three images. I took the following shot using Matrix metering mode, which tries to get a good overall balance between highlights and shadows. It’s a mode that many people use by default since it helps you get properly-exposed images in most shooting situations.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Matrix metering resulted in a good overall exposure but the sky is so bright that it can’t be fixed in post-production.

You can see that the camera tried its best to balance out the highlights and shadows, and the resulting image is decent but there is a massive portion of the sky that is simply too bright and can’t be recovered in Lightroom, Photoshop, or any other post-processing software.

Using Highlight-Weighted metering meant that my camera helped me adjust the exposure settings such that the brightest parts (i.e. the sky) were not overexposed, which resulted in an image that seems unusable at first.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Highlight-weighted metering preserved the brightest portions of the image but left the rest vastly underexposed. This is the image as it came right out of the camera.

Fortunately, due to the incredible dynamic range in modern camera sensors, an image like this is perfectly usable. The key is that the highlights haven’t been lost or clipped, so the sky is exposed just fine while the dark portions of the image still contain so much data (because I shot in RAW) that it can still be transformed into a print-worthy photo with just a few clicks.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

The sky was exposed properly, with plenty of shadow details still available for editing. This is the same image as above, after processing to pull detail out of the shadow areas.

Some Caveats

As you might expect, there are some caveats to using this approach as well as a few questions.

First of all, experienced photographers might wonder what the big deal is with this approach since similar results can be had by simply using exposure compensation. That is if you take a shot and see that the image is overexposed, just compensate by underexposing it a few stops. The problem with this approach is that it’s a multi-step solution which means a critical moment can sometimes pass you by while you are adjusting the exposure. However, using Highlight-Weighted metering ensures that the brightest parts of your image will never be clipped and therefore have plenty of data to use when editing.

It’s also worth pointing out that in order to get the benefits of Highlight-Weighted metering you need to be willing to edit your photos afterward in order to bring up the shadows and adjust your images accordingly. If you’re used to shooting JPG or doing minimal editing, it might not be worth the additional time that this solution adds to your workflow.

Finally, to get the most benefits you need to use low ISO values since the data from the sensor will be more usable. Sensor dynamic range drops off at higher ISO values so if you find yourself shooting at ISO 6400, 3200, or even 1600 you won’t be able to bring up the shadows nearly as well as you could with images shot at ISO 100 or 200.

Another example

For one more example, here’s a series of photos of a goose that illustrate this concept in action. This first image was taken using standard Matrix metering which did its job pretty well. Overall the scene is properly exposed, except for one glaring exception: the overexposed part right at the base of the bird’s neck.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Matrix metering, unedited RAW file.

After seeing my results I quickly switched to the Highlight-weighted metering mode. In doing so, my camera made sure that the brightest part of the image was properly exposed, which left the rest extraordinarily dark.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Highlight-weighted metering, unedited RAW file

Fortunately, there was plenty of color data to extract from the shadows, so a little finessing in Lightroom resulted in an image that I’d be happy to post to my Instagram feed.

How to Supercharge Your Photography with Highlight-Weighted Metering

Highlight-weighted metering, edited in Lightroom to pull out the shadow detail.

What if you don’t have a Highlight-weighted metering mode?

If you don’t have Highlight-weighted metering built into your camera you can approximate its effects by using Spot metering and the exposure lock button on your camera. This would allow you to set exposure values based on what you deem to be the brightest part of the composition, lock in your settings, and then recompose your shot before snapping the shutter. It’s not as simple or elegant as having the camera automatically meter the scene based on the brightest part of the composition, but it’s worth trying if your camera doesn’t have this function.


I like to think of Highlight-weighted metering as another useful arrow to have in my photography quiver, but not something I use all the time for every one of my shots. For most images, I tend to default to Matrix metering since it will usually give me a properly-exposed shot that I can tweak if I need to.

However, when I find myself in situations with extreme contrast between the lightest and darkest portions I will often switch over to Highlight-weighted metering so I can stop worrying about checking my settings and dialing in exposure compensation. That way I know that I’ll end up with images that I can edit however I need to in Lightroom because nothing will be overexposed.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Greg

    Hi Simon
    In my opinion it would be better to darken the picture then to lighten the shadows afterwards. As Long as you have no complete overexposed sections in your Picture. If you have under- and overexposed sections, the dynamic range of the situation seems to be to high for the camera. Lighten shadows allways increase image noise because there are not enough Information in the dark sections. Darken a Picture also reduce Image noise which for me is better.
    Please take a look at ETTR and tell us your thoughts about it

  • I see what you mean about darkening the image vs. lightening the image, but using highlight-weighted metering is a way of ensuring nothing is overexposed to begin with. Basically, you would want to use ETTR to get as much color data in the RAW file in the brighter portions but when doing this it’s easy to accidentally clip the image and lose some of the data due to overexposure. Using highlight-weighted metering solves that problem.

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  • Michael Henn

    With highlighted weighted metering do you still meter on the brightest spot of the scene? Why wouldn’t regular spot metering do the same thing?

  • Julius Titak

    Simon, I have a Nikon D750, and I have a question since I am already here and thinking about this. Unless I missed it, where do you position the dot (in the sky area)? I’ll experiment later today to see for myself, but I thought the question may be helpful to others.
    Thank you,

  • That’s the nice thing about using highlight-weighted metering, Julius. You don’t have to position the dot anywhere. Just compose the photo how you want, and your camera will automatically expose for the brightest portion of the image.

  • Regular spot metering you have to tell the camera what portion of the scene to meter on (i.e. the sky, a bright light, etc.) but using highlight-weighted metering you don’t have to do anything at all. Just compose the photo how you want, and your camera will automatically expose for the brightest portion of the image.

  • Julius Titak

    Thank you Simon for your response!
    Have a great day!

  • You too Julius!

  • Michael Henn

    Thanks Simon. I’ve used highlight metering before but always focused on the brightest spot. Maybe that’s why my results weren’t what i expected. Now I mainly use regular spot metering.

  • I’m curious what you think of HWM once you give it another try.

  • tonyc0101

    I’ve been using this feature for a little more than a year now and I find it VERY useful! To make it a little more complicated, I’ve also enabled the ADL-High (to curve the RAW file’s shadows up) so that (when I shoot RAW+JPG) the RAW shadows have more detail, and the JPG images are super-close to being final. But this only useful if I use the Neutral or Flat Picture Styles.

  • Philnick

    With my Canon cameras – an 80D DSLR and a G5 X point-and-shoot – I seldom use the meter at all. I simply shoot RAW in Manual mode using Live View – and expose by eye to make sure the highlights aren’t blown out. On both cameras I have direct physical controls for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, so it’s intuitive and direct to simply expose manually. Both cameras have enough dynamic range in their RAW files to recover enough midrange and shadow information.

    Why have to fight a meter with exposure lock or exposure compensation when you can simply ignore its advice by running in Manual and dialing the exposure to taste?

  • Philnick

    PS While I don’t use it, since I run in Manual mode most of the time as I just described a little while ago, HIghlight Priority is a metering option on Canon DLSRs as well.

  • Angelfire

    This type of information is exactly why I love reading DPS articles! Thank you!

  • Thank you! People like you are why we keep writing them 🙂

  • pete guaron

    Thanks a million for this article, Simon – fills in a blank for me, and it will come in very handy for a substantial chunk of my work.

  • Awesome! I’m so glad to hear it Pete 🙂

  • Pete Julienne

    Hi Simon nice article! What is the setting called on a Canon 80D

  • Thanks a lot. I have a D750 and didn’t know that this feature even exist

  • Drew Hines

    Why would you want to use any other metering mode? With modern day sensors the dynamic range and shadow recovery is amazing! Blown highlights are close to impossible to save. Why not always expose to the brightest area of an image and recover the shadows in post? Having a hard time thinking of a siituation where I would want to blow out my highlights.

  • Drew Hines

    Why would you want to use any other metering mode? With modern day sensors the dynamic range and shadow recovery is amazing! Blown highlights are close to impossible to save. Why not always expose to the brightest area of an image and recover the shadows in post? Having a tough time thinking of a siituation where I would want to blow out my highlights.

  • Byron Cann

    Thanks Simon. I’m so used to putting dot in a specific place I guess I find this all hard to believe. I have to go play. Your articles are wonderful.

  • Jenshid

    That’s wat i was doing it wrong. From the symbol i understood it was a derivative of the spot meter and was always using the highlight weighted metering as i would use the spot meter. Thanks Simon, Great Article. Now I can reduce the blown highlights which is very easy on my D500.

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