Understanding Metering and Metering Modes

Last Updated on December 5, 2023 by Sharon Advik

Achieving the right brightness in your photos requires a solid grasp of metering!

What is Metering?

As a professional photographer, understanding metering is fundamental to achieving a scene’s correct shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings.

In the earlier days of photography, cameras lacked built-in light meters, necessitating photographers to rely on handheld light meters to determine optimal exposure.

This process was particularly challenging as they couldn’t preview immediate results due to film photography.

In contemporary digital cameras, an integrated light meter automatically measures reflected light, streamlining the exposure determination process.

The prevalent metering modes include:

1. Matrix Metering (Nikon) or Evaluative Metering (Canon)
2. Center-weighted Metering
3. Spot Metering
4. Highlight-weighted Metering

Some cameras, like specific Canon EOS models, offer additional variations such as “Partial Metering,” akin to Spot Metering but covering a larger area (approximately 8% near the center).

Like Sony cameras, others may feature subject-recognition modes with finely tuned subject-weighted metering.

When shooting in Manual Mode, the camera meter is visible inside the viewfinder, with bars indicating exposure levels.

The bars move towards the “+” side if directed at a bright area, signaling excessive light.

Conversely, the bars shift to the “-” side in a dark area, indicating insufficient light.

Adjusting the shutter speed brings the bars to “0,” representing optimal exposure according to the camera meter.

The utility of the camera meter extends beyond Manual Mode.

In modes like Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program Mode, the camera dynamically adjusts settings based on meter readings, enhancing the efficiency of your photography workflow.

Matrix / Evaluative Metering

I predominantly rely on Matrix Metering, also known as Evaluative Metering, as it is the default metering mode on most digital cameras.

This mode intelligently divides the entire frame into distinct “zones,” individually analyzing them for light and dark tone variations.

Some advanced Matrix/Evaluative metering systems even leverage machine learning algorithms to comprehend the scene and make exposure adjustments accordingly.

Crucial factors influencing Matrix Metering include color, distance, subjects, highlights, and the camera’s focus point.

After evaluating information from all zones, the metering system prioritizes the area where the camera is focused, considering it more important than other zones.

I find Matrix Metering highly reliable for a wide range of photography scenarios.

Whether capturing landscapes or portraits, this mode consistently delivers accurate exposure.

In my professional workflow, I often leave my camera’s metering mode to Matrix Metering to ensure optimal results in various photography situations.

Center-Weighted Metering:

In some situations, relying solely on the entire frame for exposure determination may not be optimal.

For instance, capturing a headshot with the sun behind the subject presents unique challenges.

This is precisely where Center-Weighted Metering proves invaluable.

Center-weighted metering focuses on evaluating the light in the middle of the frame and its immediate surroundings, disregarding the corners.

Unlike Matrix Metering, it doesn’t consider the selected focus point, concentrating solely on the central area of the image.

I find this metering mode particularly useful when I want the camera to prioritize the center of the frame.

It excels in scenarios such as close-up portraits or with relatively large subjects positioned centrally.

For example, when photographing a headshot against a backdrop of backlighting, Center-Weighted Metering ensures accurate exposure for the subject’s face, even if other elements in the frame might become overexposed.

Spot Metering:

I frequently turn to Spot Metering, a mode that selectively assesses the light around the focus point while disregarding the rest of the frame.

This mode meticulously evaluates a single zone or cell, calculating exposure exclusively based on that specific area, offering precision in challenging scenarios.

Spot Metering proves particularly valuable in my bird photography, where the subjects often occupy a confined space within the frame.

Placing the focus point strategically allows me to ensure accurate exposure for the bird, regardless of whether the background is bright or dark.

This method enables me to capture well-exposed subjects even when positioned in the frame’s corners.

For instance, when photographing a person against a backlit background or capturing the moon against a dark sky, Spot Metering excels.

It allows me to maintain accurate exposure levels by isolating the light from the subject, ensuring that the brightness of specific elements, like the moon, is appropriately balanced.

In essence, Spot Metering becomes a preferred choice when aiming for the brightness of a specific subject to be a central value.

However, caution is warranted when photographing subjects with extreme contrasts, such as a bride in a white dress or a groom in a black tuxedo, as Spot Metering may attempt to render these high-contrast elements gray.

Highlight Priority:

Some cameras feature a Highlight Priority metering mode, identifiable by an indicator icon resembling spot metering, accompanied by a star.

This specialized metering mode takes a proactive approach to safeguarding the highlights in your photographs, proving particularly beneficial when there are brighter areas near your subject that you want to avoid overexposing.

Highlight Priority metering ensures that the brightest elements in your composition are preserved, preventing overexposure in critical areas.

This is especially advantageous in scenarios where maintaining detail in highlights is paramount.

However, exercising caution with Highlight Priority metering is essential, as its aggressive protection of highlights can become a drawback in certain scenes.

Suppose there are bright but less crucial elements in your shot or areas that you plan to crop out later. In that case, Highlight Priority may inadvertently underexpose the essential parts of your composition.

Striking the right balance is key, ensuring that the mode enhances your images without compromising your professional work’s overall exposure and composition.

How to Change Camera Metering Mode:

Changing metering modes is crucial to adapting to diverse shooting conditions.

Most cameras offer this flexibility through a dedicated button or the photo shooting menu.

On Nikon Z cameras, for instance, the metering mode adjustment is located within the shooting menu.

Canon R cameras, on the other hand, require you to press the “Q” button and select the metering icon on the screen to make changes.

Even if your camera lacks a dedicated metering button, many models allow you to assign metering adjustments to a custom button for quick accessibility.

However, it’s important to note that this functionality varies between manufacturers and different camera models within the same brand.

For example, on the Nikon D3500, changing metering modes involves using the Info button, offering a unique interface for this purpose.

Contrastingly, on the Nikon D6, a distinct button on the top left dial is designated for this task.

Meanwhile, on the Z7ii model, the metering mode adjustment resides in the photo shooting menu. Yet, it is customizable and can be assigned to a specific button to handle diverse shooting scenarios efficiently.

Familiarizing oneself with the specific controls of each camera model ensures seamless adaptation to changing metering needs in professional photography.

How to Override Metering:

Camera meters excel in scenarios with even lighting.

However, challenges arise when faced with scenes featuring objects of varying light levels and intensities.

For instance, capturing the blue sky without any clouds or sun results in a correctly exposed image, with a single light level to consider.

However, introducing clouds complicates matters, requiring the meter to assess the contrast between the brightness of the clouds and the sky, potentially leading to confusion and inaccurate metering.

Choosing the appropriate metering mode is a valuable initial step in achieving the desired exposure.

Nevertheless, it’s common to encounter situations where the metering isn’t precisely on target, primarily upon reviewing shots or inspecting the in-camera histogram or zebras.

To address this, all cameras feature a function known as exposure compensation.

Accessing it typically involves pressing a button resembling a ± sign or adjusting a dial. Many cameras in aperture or shutter priority mode enable direct exposure compensation adjustment by turning a dial.

In practical terms, if the metering tends to overexpose more than desired, adjusting the exposure compensation downward rectifies the issue.

Conversely, if the scene appears too dark, increasing the exposure compensation brings it into balance.

Therefore, viewing the metering mode as a starting point and utilizing exposure compensation for fine-tuning ensures a more nuanced control to achieve the desired photographic results.

Related posts:

Understanding Digital Camera Modes

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