Taking a properly exposed photograph is probably the most important thing a beginning photographer needs to learn how to do. Fortunately, by learning how to make use of your camera’s built-in metering modes, you can control exposure in all kinds of different lighting situations, with minimal frustration.

This guide will explain what metering is, and define each of your camera’s metering modes. We’ll go into detail on how and when to use each metering mode to get the best results. The information in this article will help you take better, properly exposed photographs.

By setting your metering mode, your camera can more easily determine the correct exposure settings.
Photo by Ethan Cull on Unsplash

What is metering?

Metering basically means taking a light reading. Your camera has a built-in meter that measures the amount of light in whatever scene you’re shooting and enables it to determine the appropriate settings to properly expose the photo. This meter replaces the old light meters that photographers had to use in the old days of film photography.

If you want to see your camera’s light meter in action, look inside the viewfinder when you shoot in Manual Mode. Point your camera at a bright area, and you’ll see the bars on the light meter move to the right, the + side, indicating there is too much light for your current settings. On the other hand, aim at something dark and you’ll see the meter move to the left, the – side because there’s not enough light. This indicates your image will be underexposed with your current settings.

If your camera’s internal light meter is on or near the center at 0, you’ll know your image will be properly exposed using the current settings. 

The meter isn’t just for use when shooting in manual mode, however. When you use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program Mode, the camera uses the readings it gets from the meter to make automatic adjustments to your exposure settings. And, of course, if you have your camera set to Auto, it uses the meter to choose the correct exposure settings.

You can see your camera's light meter in action by looking through your viewfinder while shooting in Manual Mode.
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What is metering mode?

Camera metering works really well when a scene is evenly lit, but it can get challenging in high contrast lighting. That’s where metering modes come into play. Different metering modes are useful in different lighting situations. 

Your camera’s metering modes determine which part of the scene its built-in meter will use to take a light reading. This is important because if it only uses a dark part of the scene to meter, then the lighter areas of the image might be overexposed. On the other hand, if it only meters from a lighter part of the scene like a bright sky, darker parts of the image might be underexposed. However, metering from a wider section of the scene might result in a more balanced exposure.

The four most common metering modes are:

  1. Evaluative/Matrix metering;
  2. Center-weighted/Average metering;
  3. Spot metering;
  4. Partial metering.

Let’s explore each of these metering modes in greater detail.

1. Evaluative/Matrix/Multi metering

This metering mode tends to be the most reliable method to meter a scene and, therefore, is the default setting cameras use. The name is different depending on the camera manufacturer—Canon calls it evaluative, Nikon calls it matrix, Sony, Fujifilm and Pentax call it multi. However, the method is the same. Basically, it takes a light reading across your entire scene, giving preference to your focus point.

This is the metering mode photographers use most often. It works for everything from portraits to landscapes.

2. Center-weighted metering

There will be times when you don’t want to evaluate the entire scene to determine the correct exposure. For example, when shooting an up-close portrait with a bright background, the high contrast would result in an underexposed portrait. When you want to prioritize the middle of the frame, choose center-weighted metering. 

This metering mode will look at only the center of the frame and ignore the edges. How much of the frame it reads differs between camera manufacturers, but it’s between 60% and 80% of the frame. This metering mode works best for close-up shots, portraits, and photos that feature a large subject that’s centered in the frame.

Spot metering only evaluates the light around your focus point.
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3. Spot metering

Spot metering mode sets the exposure according to the light around your focus point and ignores the light in the rest of the scene. It can be a very useful tool if you know when and how to use it. For example, it’s great for shooting portraits to capture the correct skin tones. It’s particularly useful for capturing beams of light, but keep in mind that the rest of your image will be underexposed. It’s the best mode to use when shooting the moon.

Spot metering is the mode you should use if you want to create silhouettes—simply focus on the light source and the rest of the image will go dark. On the other hand, it’s also useful for avoiding silhouettes when shooting backlit portraits. It all comes down to where you land your focus point.

4. Partial metering

Some Canon cameras have a metering mode called partial metering. It’s similar to center-weighted metering, only it meters from a much smaller area—10%-15% rather than 60%-80% of the center of the frame.

Like center-weighted metering, partial metering is useful when your subject is centered in the frame. However, the subject can be much smaller if you’re using partial metering.

Partial metering is a metering mode for canon cameras.
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How to change the metering mode

The method of changing your camera’s metering mode not only changes from camera brand to camera brand, but it’s also different from one model to the next. So, it would be impossible for us to tell you how to change it for your specific camera. However, it’s usually changed in the menu in the same place you change your other settings, like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. On many Canon models, there is a dedicated metering mode button found on the top of the camera near the LCD display. 

Final thoughts

The best way to really get a feel for the different metering modes is to take your camera out and practice shooting. Compose a scene, shoot it, and then change the metering mode and see how it changes your image. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that you can easily conquer difficult lighting situations by changing your metering mode.