Camera Metering Modes Explained

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Every modern camera has an exposure meter, and you have options for which metering mode to use. Knowing which light metering mode is best to use can be a bit confusing at first.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to each metering mode and explain how they are different. I’ll also share with you which ones I prefer to use and in what situations I use them.

Your photography will improve when you understand how to set metering modes on your camera well.

What is Exposure Metering?

The meter is also known as a light meter or camera meter. It measures the light and relays information about what settings are required to get a well-exposed photo.

The sensor in your camera needs the right amount of light for good exposure. Too much or too little, and photos appear too light or too dark. Learning to manage the exposure metering mode well gives you more creative control over your photography.

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What is the Use of Metering in a Camera?

Camera metering tells you when you’ll have a correct exposure. The challenge is that your subjects and the light are different in every photo you take. So you need to know how to choose the best metering mode to get the correct exposure.

If your camera is always set to the same metering mode, there will be times when your photos are either underexposed or overexposed. This can happen when you use an auto or semi-auto, or manual exposure mode.

In the auto modes, the light meter in your camera provides information the camera uses to determine what exposure settings it will change. When using manual mode, the exposure meter shows the information on a display like this.

exposure meter.

Your camera has an exposure meter that was calibrated by an engineer in a lab. They do not know what you are photographing, and nor does your camera. You need to control the light metering mode so you can choose the best settings for your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

The word photography means painting or writing with light. If the amount of light you let into your camera is not optimal, your photos will not be as good as they could be. If you let your camera choose the amount of light, it will not be creative. 

When your camera is set to an auto or semi-auto exposure mode, it uses the reading from the light meter to set the exposure. Without managing your exposure well, it’s a bit like always coloring between the lines. It can still be somewhat creative, but it is limited.

sunset photographer using the right metering mode.

Understanding Different Metering Modes

Digital cameras have different metering modes to choose from. These vary from camera to camera, but there are three main ones. These are;

  • Average metering
  • Spot metering (or partial metering)
  • Center weighted metering

Knowing which metering mode to use depending on the light and what you’re photographing will help you take better photos.

Average Metering

This mode is called ‘matrix metering’ in Nikon cameras. In Canon cameras, it’s called ‘evaluative metering’. It’s also sometimes called ‘pattern metering’. Whatever you choose to call it, this mode functions basically the same way on all cameras.

It’s usually the default setting on cameras. In this metering mode, the exposure meter reads the light from multiple parts of the frame. The camera then calculates the average of these readings.

Where you position your focus point influences the calculations the camera makes. The camera takes into account what is in focus and gives a weighted average reading. It takes more notice of where your focus point is than the rest of your composition.

woman sitting alone on steps made using average metering.
The tone range in this photo is well balanced, so using averaged metering gave a good result © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

I use matrix metering most of the time. I find it gives me consistently good readings from my subject and the surroundings. When the light and tone in my composition are even, matrix metering provides me with a weighted average reading. I use this to set my aperture and shutter speed.

At times when I’m taking photos and the light is hard, and the tone range is not so even, I also use spot metering.

Spot Metering (Partial Metering)

Spot metering as the name suggests, takes a light reading from a small single part of your composition. This mode is similar to partial metering, meaning you can control the size of the area the spot meter reads from.

In compositions where there’s high contrast, using spot metering can give you a more accurate indication of how to set your exposure. You can place the spot that your meter will read from on the subject of your photo. Then you can set the shutter speed and aperture to ensure your main subject is well exposed.

In some cameras, spot metering is read from the same location the auto-focus point is positioned on. In other cameras, it remains fixed in the center of the frame. With these cameras, you need to take more care, so spot metering will give you an accurate reading.

long neck woman portrait on a black background with spot metering on her face.
I took a spot meter reading from her face to get an accurate reading. If I had used averaged metering it would have taken the black background and her white dress into account © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

I use spot metering frequently. So much so that I have set one of the front function buttons on my camera to switch my metering mode to spot when I press it. This makes it very easy to change modes without taking the camera from my eye.

I like being able to change metering modes from average metering to spot metering so effortlessly. This allows me to double-check my exposure is going to be correct for the subject I am photographing.

Center Weighted Metering

Using center weighted metering, your camera takes a reading from about sixty percent of the middle of frame. This center weighted option was the only option on older cameras. 

You can use center weighted metering when you always place your subject in the middle of your frame. Otherwise, it’s best to make use of other light metering photography options.

pink orchid made using center weighted metering mode.
Center weighted metering can be used on photos where the main subject occupies the middle of the composition © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Metering using the center weighted option is likely to give you a reading that’s not so accurate when your subject is framed off-center. Hopefully, you do not habitually always compose your pictures so your subject is in the dead center of your frame. Weighted average or partial metering are usually better options.

I prefer using the other metering modes and rarely, if ever, have my metering set to center weighted.

Switching Between Metering Modes

Learn to be confident switching between metering modes. This will help you better determine how to adjust your exposure settings. You might often use center weighted metering because you are used to it. That’s fine, so long as you’re seeing most of the photos you take are well exposed.

It’s good to consider the other options for camera metering. Think about switching between matrix metering and spot or partial metering. This is important when lighting conditions are challenging.

Strong contrast in your composition sometimes means the camera will not give you the optimal reading for your subject. At times like this, I find it’s best to use my spot meter.

As with every aspect of using your camera, learning to make the best use of different metering modes takes time and practice. When you are only used to using one metering mode, it might seem like extra steps in the process will slow you down.

Once you are familiar with the way metering works and how you can control it, you will notice you have a high percentage of well-exposed photographs.

cross walk with light flare to illustrate correct meting mode.

Know What You Want To Achieve With Metering

One of the most important aspects of using the light meter in your camera is knowing what part of your composition you want to expose well. This is especially important in you are taking pictures in high contrast situations.

Practice changing metering modes on your camera when you’re taking photos in various lighting situations. You will notice when you’re taking photos in even, low contrast lighting, mostly your photos will be well exposed. In these circumstances, the metering mode you choose is not so vital.

In high-contrast lighting or when the tone range in your composition is vast, it’s more challenging. Knowing which metering mode is best to use will help you set your exposure settings well. If you’re using an auto or semi-auto exposure mode, choosing the right metering mode will also make a difference.

Concentrating on getting the exposure right for your main subject is the aim of most photographers. Understand and manage metering modes on your camera. They will assist you in making exposure choices that will be the most creative.

silhouette of a small bird using spot exposure metering.

Frequently Asked Questions

What metering mode should I use?

The mode you choose depends on the lighting and what you are photographing. Use the mode that makes the main subject of your photo look the way you want it to. Often you’ll want it so detail is clear. Other times you might want a silhouette. Being in control of your camera settings, you can obtain the look you want.

How do you use spot metering?

Spot metering is best used to get lighting information from a small area of your composition. It’s usually 2-3 percent. Targeting the spot when you want to expose for means that part of your composition is where the reading is taken from. Read your camera manual or do a targeted online search to discover how the spot meter in your camera functions. It’s vital to know if it moves with the focus point or is fixed in the center of your frame.

Does metering matter in manual mode?

Yes, metering is most important in manual mode. This is because it gives you information about when your settings will produce a well-exposed photo. It provides the same information when you use auto mode, but the camera manages the settings for you. You need to be able to read the meter and adjust your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO when using manual mode. Doing so means you will have far more accurately exposed photographs.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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  1. Hi David. I’m pleased to know you found this article useful and hope it brings you to a better understanding of how the modes are different and when to switch between them.

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