Understanding metering & which metering modes to use when

Believe it or not, I don’t know what metering mode my camera is set to.

This might sound odd coming from a professional photographer (especially when every other video or article on the internet will tell you just how useful different metering modes are), but let me explain.

Metering in photography

View of metering modes on a Canon camera

Metering refers to the process where the camera evaluates the amount of reflected light in a scene and calculates what it thinks to be the correct exposure.

The camera does this based on the assumption that the brightness of the scene should be 18% reflectivity of a particular level of grey. If it calculates the scene to be above 18% value, it will show the image as being overexposed and if it calculates it to be less than 18% grey it will show as underexposed.

When shooting in modes like automatic, shutter priority, or aperture priority, the metering mode you use will determine what exposure settings are used. When shooting in manual mode, the metering mode will determine the light meter reading, which tells you whether the camera thinks the image is under or overexposed.

Using different metering modes allows us to choose which parts of the scene the camera evaluates. Different camera makes and models have different modes, so I’ve explained the most common ones, how they work and when to use them below.

Metering modes explained

Most Canon, Nikon, Sony and Hasselblad cameras offer the following metering modes:

Canon

  • Evaluative 
  • Centre-weighted 
  • Spot 
  • Partial (in some models)

Nikon

  • Matrix 
  • Centre-weighted 
  • Spot
  • Highlight-weighted (in some models)

Sony

  • Multi pattern 
  • Centre-weighted 
  • Spot 
  • Entire screen avg (in some models)
  • Highlight (in some models)

Hasselblad

  • Centre-weighted 
  • Centre spot 
  • Spot
Table of metering mode icons for camera manufacturers

1. Evaluative/Matrix/Multi pattern

Also referred to as matrix metering, this mode splits the scene into grids (the number of grids depends on the camera) and each grid is individually analysed to determine the highlight and shadow detail. During this process, slightly more preference is given to the zone(s) where the focus point is. From this, it calculates an average on which the recommended exposure is based.

Evaluative metering is a good option to use as your default metering mode as it can be used for anything from landscape photography to portrait photography.

2. Centre-weighted

When using this mode the exposure is determined largely by tones in the centre of the image. Here, the camera does not consider the edges of the frame or which focus point is selected.

Typically, centre-weighted metering is used when the subject is in the centre of the frame and we just want to expose for that.

3. Spot

The most precise of the metering modes, spot metering evaluates light around the chosen focus point or centre of the frame. This provides a precise reading from a very small area of the scene, which means it can be a very effective choice for high-contrast situations.

You can see a comparison of these different metering modes in the images below.

Photo taken using evaluative metering
Photo taken using centre-weighted metering
Photo taken using spot metering
Photo taken using manual metering

These are the most common modes in DSLR cameras today, but there are other options available too.

Some Canon cameras feature partial metering as a fourth option. This mode is similar to spot, but it allows you to take a reading from a slightly larger area.

Another mode offered by Nikon is highlight-weighted metering, which meters for the highlights to ensure they are not overexposed. This mode is also available in some Sony cameras, too. Sony also offers a fifth option in some cameras — entire screen avg. — that measures the brightness of the entire scene as a whole.

Hasselblad cameras, on the other hand, refer to their metering options slightly differently. Their centre weighted mode evaluates approximately 25% of the scene and is best suited to scenes with fairly even tones throughout. Centre spot prioritises the central section of the screen and is suited to scenes where the subject is in the centre of the frame. Spot metering, like other cameras, provides an accurate measurement of a very small area and disregards any information outside of that area.

Which metering mode is best?

View through viewfinder of evaluative metering

When creating an image, I find the best option is always to shoot in Manual mode and set the exposure yourself by controlling the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

This is how I work, whether I’m shooting in the studio or on location. I usually set the aperture first and then set the shutter speed based on that. I only use the camera’s light meter to get me in the ballpark, but I never know what metering mode I’m actually using. I make my exposure decisions based on the results I see and the histogram information.

If you’re unsure of which settings you need, using your camera’s metering system can be helpful, especially if you know which metering mode to use for a given scenario.

Evaluative metering, as I’ve already briefly touched on, is a good option to go with if you are shooting scenes where you want to get the exposure as close to correct as possible for the entire scene. It’s also a good option if you’re unsure of which mode to use.

Landscape images are one example where you may want to use evaluative metering. Using this mode will help you get the best overall exposure for the whole scene, even if there are bright highlights or deep shadows.

Centre-weighted metering is best suited for any image where your subject is in the centre of the frame, or even where the subject fills the majority of the scene. A typical example of this would be portrait photography or macro photography. The key thing to keep in mind when using this mode is that the rest of the scene may well be under or overexposed.

For any scene where you want to expose for a very particular area, spot metering would be the best choice. Examples of where you might use this would be when photographing the moon or any high-contrast scene where you want the subject to be correctly exposed.

The limitations of metering modes

Black on black product shot of Karite hair mascara
White on white product pack shot of Dove body care products

So why don’t I know (or care) which metering mode my camera is in? Well, if you’re familiar with working in manual mode and you know the difference between one-stop or two-stops exposure difference then you will already likely know a starting point for the settings of your camera anyway.

For example back in the days of film, or when camera metering wasn’t as accurate, we often had in mind what the exposure should be for a variety of situations. They even used to print on the film packets what the exposure would be for sunny, hazy or cloudy situations. This provided a guide, which meant it was simply a case of then adjusting the f-stops and shutter combinations based on the recommended settings.

As such, I’m not concerned about which metering mode my camera is in because it’s not going to be able to tell me anything that I don’t know already or can’t correct myself with a couple of clicks.

I measure the light visually by looking at the result and the histogram and then decide on what exposure settings to use from there.

It’s only really when you’re working in automatic or semi-automatic modes that metering really comes in handy. So if you’re shooting a portrait in aperture priority against a bright background then partial or spot metering is likely to be your best choice. If you’re shooting a landscape scene with a broad range of tones then evaluative metering will probably be best for that situation.

But none of the metering modes will guarantee you the correct exposure or balance out the exposure range in the scene. You still have to look at the image and evaluate how you can get to the desired result. For example, if you need to darken the sky you might want to use an ND graduated filter, or if you need the background scene correctly exposed and the model correctly exposed then you’ll need to think about a reflector or fill-in flash to compensate.

White-on-white or black-on-black scenes can also prove problematic, as your camera will often underexpose white objects on a white background and overexpose black objects on a black background simply because the light meter was expecting or relying on 18% reflectivity as its benchmark.

It may even be that you feel that using your camera’s metering consistently gives over or underexposed results. In this case it’s possible to use something called exposure compensation to help overcome this problem. Exposure compensation, also known as EV, can be used to make corrections to the exposure. Usually indicated by a plus/minus symbol, most cameras generally offer exposure compensation values of -3 to +3 stops, with varying increments in between.

For images that consistently appear too dark, setting the exposure compensation to +1 EV, for example, will help brighten the image by one stop, and vice versa. An EV setting of 0 means no adjustments will be made to the image.

Although features like exposure compensation can help you fine-tune your meter, if you want to take full control of your images it’s best to use your camera in Manual mode and set your own camera settings based on the result you want.

These reasons are exactly why I also don’t use a flash meter when working in the studio because I find I can do the job more quickly and more accurately myself or by other means.

Hopefully, this has helped you understand a bit more about metering modes and which ones to use when. If you’re unfamiliar with any of the concepts explained in this post, like aperture, shutter speed or ISO, make sure to take a look at our ‘FREE Introduction to Photography Course’.

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