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Camera Metering Modes Explained

Your digital camera has a built-in system for determining what the proper settings are.

It’s not perfect, but it does a decent job most of the time. Knowing which metering mode to use for a certain scene can improve the accuracy significantly.

However, the different metering modes can be confusing to some, so I broke it down for you. I’ll even give you a few scenarios where each mode will work best.

What Are The Various Types Of Metering Modes

A typical camera has four metering modes. Some cameras have special metering modes that other brands may not have. Nikon, e.g., does not have the Partial Area Metering mode (discussed below), however, it has the Highlighted Weighted Metering mode (also discussed below).

By and large, these are the main metering modes on modern cameras –

  • Evaluative (Canon) / Matrix (Nikon) / Multi-Pattern (Sony)
  • Center-Weighted
  • Spot Metering
  • Partial Area Metering
  • Highlight-weighted Metering

Evaluative (Canon) / Matrix (Nikon) / Multi-Pattern (Sony)

Matrix or Evaluative metering is the most common metering mode used in modern cameras. Nikon calls this the Matrix metering mode while Canon calls this the Evaluative Metering mode. Sony, on the other hand, calls this the Multi-Pattern metering mode.

Regardless of the name, they all do pretty much the same thing. In Matrix or Evaluative metering, almost 95% of the frame is considered for metering and calculation of right exposure.

This metering mode is commonly used in situations where the photographer is unable to figure out what is the right exposure for the frame. Landscape photography is one area where Matrix or Evaluative Metering is widely used.

It lets the camera do the bulk of the calculation work and then gives an average reading for the whole of the frame.

At least in this case the solution is not guesswork but based on scientific methods.

Every brand has its proprietary algorithm for the Evaluative or Matrix metering process. But the most used factors include color, distance, and the kind of subject you are photographing, etc.

Additionally, in most cases, the frame is divided into several zones.

With the frame divided into different zones, the camera will determine the zone where you are focusing and give that zone a priority. Plus, it’ll also give importance to where you are focusing at. Considering all of these the camera will meter the scene and then give you an exposure reading.

Center-Weighted

Center-weighted metering mode, as the name suggests gives importance to the center of the frame. It does consider the whole of the frame for metering purposes, but maximum importance is given to the center of the frame.

This mode is ideally used for backlit portraits. Let’s elaborate. Let’s say that your subject is backlit. If you use the Matrix or Evaluative metering mode the face of your subject will appear darker because it does not occupy the whole of the frame and also because the background is brighter than the middle of the frame.

If you use spot metering, your will wash out the background, although the face will appear properly exposed. The solution is in using the Center-Weighted metering mode.

With Canon’s cameras, you can also use the Partial Metering mode (explained below) apart from trying out the Center-Weighted mode. But with Nikon cameras, the Center-Weighted mode is the only option.

Apart from backlit portraits, this mode can be used in any other situation where the center of the frame gets priority over the rest.

Spot Metering

Spot metering mode as the name suggests uses a single focus point as the guide for metering a scene. The sample area is about 1.5% of the whole frame on a Canon camera. On Nikon cameras, the sampling area is slightly larger.

As you can imagine a single AF point does not cover any significant part of the frame and therefore any reading based on a single AF point is bound to be precise for only the point that is being metered.

Spot Metering is used in a lot of situations but primarily it is used when you want to meter off a small part of the frame. For example, when you are metering based on the eyes of an animal or a small flower which obviously does not fill the frame.

Partial Area Metering

Partial Area Metering is a metering mode that is only available on Canon camera systems. Nikon cameras don’t have this mode. In Partial Area Metering the process is very similar to what is in Spot Metering, except that in Partial Metering the sampling area is a little larger (about 6.5% of the whole frame).

The partial area metering mode is best used when you are trying to emphasize a face or a complete flower or anything else that does not occupy a large area of the frame but is larger than what the spot metering mode would warrant.

Highlight-weighted Metering

Modern Nikon cameras come with a new metering mode known as Highlight-weighted metering. Normally, when you are shooting under bright lights, you should expose for the highlights. In other words, meter so that the details in the highlights are retained.

In the Highlight-weighted metering mode, the camera automatically does that. It meters for the highlights, retaining details in them and at the same time properly exposing anything that is in the shadow areas.

Modern cameras are extremely good at retaining details in shadow areas. Even if the camera severely underexposes the shadows while trying to retain the highlights they can be salvaged during post-processing. Provided, of course, you are shooting in RAW mode.

What Metering Mode Should I Use?

These are some real-life situations and the suggested metering mode to use –

Evaluative or Matrix Metering for landscapes

If you are shooting landscapes where the whole of the frame is important use Matrix or Evaluative metering mode. This will give you the best metering based on the camera algorithm.

Center-weighted Metering for backlit portraits

Backlit subjects are best photographed when you are using the Center-weighted Metering mode. It places importance on what’s at the middle of the frame but also takes into consideration the rest of the frame for proper metering.

Partial Area Metering for normal portraits

For portraits or subjects which don’t occupy a large part of the frame use Partial Area Metering.

Spot Metering for small subjects

If the subject you are photographing is small like a bug, or the eye of a bird, spot metering will give you the best results. Spot metering allows you to highlight a small subject that does not occupy much of the frame. As exampled above the eyes of a small animal or a bird or the petals of a small flower are good examples of when you should use spot metering.

Highlight-weighted Metering for subjects that are spotlit

Highlight-weighted metering is the best choice when you are working under uneven lighting conditions, such as a spotlight illuminating a performer on stage or a bride wearing a bright white dress and standing under the sun.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.

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