How to Take Better Photos With Camera Metering

Every modern DSLR comes with metering, which is how the camera determines the right shutter speed and aperture for the lighting conditions and selected ISO. The light meter within these DSLRs automatically measures reflected light to determine proper exposure. As there are various lighting situations, there are a number of metering modes to try to address them.

The most common camera metering modes are Matrix (Nikon) or Evaluative (Canon) metering, center-weighted metering and spot metering. So what are they and when should you use them?

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Matrix or evaluative metering

Camera meters work best when scenes are evenly lit, but that’s not always the case when you are shooting. Matrix or Evaluative Metering mode works by dividing the entire frame into multiple regions, which are then analyzed on an individual basis for light and dark tones. The number of regions in the frame varies by camera.

There is one more element that influences this type of metering: the focus point. After gathering information from all the individual regions, the metering system factors in where you focused and marks this region as more important than all others. A sort of weighted average is then computed.

Matrix Metering

This is the metering mode that I use most often, as it is very good at determining a proper exposure, especially in landscape and studio photography. I shoot with a Nikon, which has the added bonus in this mode of comparing your image data to a database of thousands of pictures with various lighting conditions to help with exposure calculation. A quick look at the histogram can confirm the exposure and adjustments, such as aperture or exposure compensation, can be used to fine-tune the exposure, if needed.

Center-weighted metering

While matrix metering is very useful, it is not always the ideal choice. For instance, if you are photographing a person or object that is backlit, the bright background may cause matrix metering to factor in too much brightness, underexposing your subject.

Center-weighted metering evaluates the light in the middle of the frame and its immediate surroundings, ignoring everything else. It also ignores your focus point, only making its calculation based on the center of the frame. Some cameras let you adjust the diameter of the center, which is often a menu selection.

Center Weighted Metering

This is a good option then if your focus point is in the center of the frame. I use this metering mode when shooting close-up portraits that are backlit. The face will be properly exposed, although the background may be overexposed, as it was ignored in the camera’s computations. I also use this mode when shooting close-up portraits on a dark or black background for similar reasons.

If you shoot RAW, you can regain some of the background detail when processing your photos. To me, what is most important in this situation is proper exposure of the face.

Spot metering

Suppose you have a backlit situation or a focus point that’s not in the center but needs to be properly exposed. This is where spot metering comes in. Spot metering only measures the light around your focus point and skips everything else. It evaluates this single region and computes exposure based on this region only.

Spot Metering

If you are photographing a figure that is backlit but not in the center of the frame, then this would be a good mode. The other modes could result in an underexposed or even silhouetted figure. This is also a good choice for wildlife photography, where you want to ensure proper exposure of the animal, which may not be centered and could be moving among lighter and darker backgrounds. In general, spot metering works best in situations where your subject is much lighter or much darker than its surroundings.

Changing metering modes

Switching from one metering mode to another varies by make and model, so I would suggest checking the manual or looking it up online. Sometimes it involves a menu selection; other times, it is a button combination on the camera body.

Some camera models offer additional metering modes, such as multi-spot and partial metering, so explore your camera to see what is available. Note that you cannot change the metering mode if shooting in auto or in a scene mode. You can, however, change meter modes when shooting in aperture priority, shutter priority, program or manual modes (though changing meter modes in manual will have no affect as the camera is not computing anything).

Also, keep in mind that metering modes can be used creatively. For instance, as mentioned above, shooting an off-center backlit subject can result in a silhouette when not using spot metering mode, which may be exactly what you want.

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