What Is Metering On A Camera: Metering Modes Explained
August 1, 2021
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Even now, after seven years of shooting both natural and flash photography - I have to reference metering modes to make sure that I'm either using it or explaining it correctly. So, I get why you're here.
With different manufacturers having different metering modes and some of those modes being very similar to one another... It can be very confusing and overwhelming whether you're using it the correct way or not.
I have finally taken the plunge and written this article to answer all of your questions and address your concerns. It's also an excellent reference for me! Haha.
By the end of this article, you'll be much more confident in knowing what each of the metering modes does and when you should use each one effectively - ultimately answering your question, what is metering on a camera.
Like we mentioned in our related article, What Is White Balance On A Camera, there are a lot of things that your camera does for you. This is the benefit of purchasing a high-end professional camera.
Much like white balance, where your camera 'reads' the scene and makes a calculated decision of what is white in the background... metering is very similar in this idea.
Based on your metering setting, your camera will give an exposure recommendation for what it determines as 'correctly' exposed. Pretty simple, right? Well, yeah - but there's a little more to it than that.
How Do Metering Modes Affect My Image?
That was kind of a trick question because it depends on what camera mode you have set.
In automatic mode - the exposure differences between different metering modes can be pretty drastic. This is due to the fact that the metering mode that's set directly affects the way your camera exposes the scene automatically.
On the other hand, in manual mode, you won't see any change at all. Seeing as your camera is entirely manual, you will only see changes on the exposure meter. You would have to follow the direction of the meter to reach the same results.
So, in every camera mode other than manual - your camera attempts to reach perfect exposure automatically. Metering modes directly affect the way your camera automatically exposes that scene. It's doing the exact metering in manual mode; it just isn't making the exposure changes. You have to do it (if you choose to)!
So, Why Are Metering Modes So Important?
Well, I'm sure you've photographed quite a bit in your photography journey so far. In that time, I'm sure you've run into situations where parts of your scene were exposed differently.
A great example was the one mentioned previously. If you shoot a backlit portrait and want to preserve data in the background - the subject facing the camera will be underexposed a bit.
Metering modes allow you to tell your camera to meter different areas of your scene. There are instances where it would be better to meter off of a specific area of the scene instead of the scene in its entirety (or vice versa).
This allows for more control and an even better potential for the perfect exposure. Different modes are compelling in certain situations (we will get to specifics in just a minute).
Manual Camera Mode Is Recommended When Using Different Meter Modes
We always recommend manual camera mode over automatic (and most priority modes). If you're a beginner (within six months), we recommend it even more.
Why? It's simple. The power of flexibility and understanding why your camera is making the changes it is in other modes.
There's also the fact that anything in automatic isn't always the best option (and holds you back from some of the most influential and creative aspects of a camera).
You're currently reading one of the 5 articles within our pillar article, Manual Settings On A Camera: Photography Basics Overview, where we go over the 5 most important settings to learn when shooting in manual mode. After reading them in detail, you'll be able to take better (and more creative) photos than your camera ever could in automatic mode (and most priority modes).
The Three Different Types Of Metering Modes (Sony And Canon Have 4)
Regardless of manufacturer, multi, center, and spot metering is the standard across all manufacturers. This includes Canon, Sony, Nikon, Fuji, Panasonic, and Pentax.
The only 'difference' between manufacturers is what they call each metering mode.
Keeping with the same order mentioned (multi, center, and spot). The chart below references each mode for each manufacturer and what they call their metering modes.
Multi/Matrix/Evaluative Metering Mode Explanation
Multi/Matrix/Evaluative metering modes evaluate the entire scene and calculates an average across its entirety to recommend a correct exposure.
If you look at the multi-metering icon for Nikon, Sony, and Pentax - you'll notice the 4 black boxes inside the large box. That is a good representation of how it works - splitting and evaluating the scene into 4 equal parts - delivering an average and correct exposure.
The most important thing to remember about this mode is that it takes an average of the majority of your scene and exposes for that average.
Center Metering Mode Explanation
Center metering, on the other hand, meters the center of your scene and exposes that.
Again, your camera will do everything automatically if set to automatic mode - if you're in manual mode - your exposure meter will tell you whether you're under exposed or overexposed based solely on the center of the image. You would then make the changes to your settings yourself.
Depending on the camera - center-weighted metering mode is 'about' 20% of your scene - but in the center.
Spot Metering Mode Explanation
Spot metering is just that - a small 'spot' in your scene that your camera will meter off of.
Generally speaking - this spot is between 2.5 and 3.5%.
Depending on the camera you can the spot will move with your focal point. An example would be on a Canon camera. If you're in love view mode and focus on something in your scene using touch (on the screen itself) - the spot metering will move wherever you move that focus point to.
Many cameras can do this - refer to your user manual to see if your camera supports it. If not, it would be spot metering in the very center of the image.
Entire Screen Average For Sony Cameras
This is a metering mode exclusive to Sony cameras.
It takes an average of the entire screen to give an overall exposure for the scene as a whole.
How is this different than multi/matrix? It's the way that it reads the scene. It references the four corners of the stage to make an average (instead of quartering your location and averaging off of the center of each).
Partial Metering For Canon
Partial metering is exclusive to Canon cameras.
It takes a reading from a specific spot within the image and exposes that.
How is partial metering different from spot metering? Well, it's the size of the spot.
The size of regular spot metering is between 2.5 and 3.5% of the image. Partial metering increases this spot by about 4%. This equates to 6.5 to 7.5% of the scene.
It's a slightly larger spot metering.
How To Meter Exposure In Your Scene With Your Camera (And Set The Modes)
Setting metering modes in your camera is very straightforward. I will use a Sony for this example. Just know, regardless of the manufacturer, the steps to changing your metering mode are very similar.
So, your camera is on for Sony, and you press the fn button (function). You can then tab over to the metering icon (for right, bottom). Select it, and from there, you can choose the various metering modes.
It's the same steps to change back to any of the other modes too.
You see your viewfinder change depending on the metering mode you're using. This change is an indication of where/how your camera is metering.
When You Should Use One Type Of Metering Over Another
In this section, we're going to talk about when you should use each metering mode. As you would assume, the other metering modes aren't designed for every scene and environment aside from multi-metering.
We're going to talk about when you should use each one - what other modes should be avoided.
When To Use Multi Metering Mode On Your Camera
It's safe to say that multi/matrix metering mode is universal. Meaning, this mode can be used in the vast majority of photography situations.
I use this mode 90% of the time and rarely change it.
The fact that it measures the entire scene to give you correct exposure is the reason we're able to use it so often.
This is also the reason that your camera defaults to this setting in all camera modes. It's the only metering mode I can recommend when using automatic camera mode too.
When You Should Use Center-Weighted Metering Mode On Your Camera
This is my second most used metering mode.
When shooting backlit subject(s), this can be a better option than the other modes. When an issue is backlit, the front of your subject (facing you) will be underexposed.
If you're set to multi-metering - the exposure recommendation has a chance to either over-expose the background or leave the foreground underexposed.
Center-weighted targets the center and meters only that (not the background)
When shooting in manual mode - this metering mode gives me an idea of where my exposure should be (according to the camera). Of course, this doesn't mean I always follow what the camera recommends - but at least I have a better idea.
Again, this is between 30 and 40% of the scene, but in the center.
When I Should Use Spot Metering Mode On My Camera
This is the least used metering mode in my camera. However, this is only because its intended use is particular.
The best example of effectively using spot metering mode is animal/bird photography.
We all know that birds move incredibly fast. To top that, you're usually using a long focal length lens (200mm+). Wildlife photographers are taking amazing photos of birds and other wildlife on a 600mm lens...
I'm mentioning this because in addition to tracking a fast-moving subject on a very long focal length - you need to think about your exposure, focus, and composition... all of this in less than ideal conditions (i mean, you're in the wild!)
Personally, I believe wildlife photography is one of the most challenging niches in all of photography. Hats off to all the amazing wildlife photographers out there.
Spot metering can meter off your focal point. This helps wildlife photographers by exposing the subject and negativing everything around it. This is even better for photographers who run a priority mode with auto ISO. Your camera will make the exposure changes automatically (a much better version of automatic mode).
Other situations are very similar to the one mentioned - but I would recommend gauging your scene and status to see if spot metering would be the best option.
Pros And Cons Of Each Metering Mode
When researching this topic and gauging what I should touch on and what I shouldn't bother with (because everyone article touched on it) - there weren't many articles out there talking about the pros and cons of different metering modes.
With that being said, it only fits to include a pros and cons list for each metering mode.
Now that you know what the different metering modes are when you should use them, you need to know the cons (and pros) of each of them. Because let's be honest - nothing is perfect. Everything has a negative (not trying to come off negative, haha).
Pros And Cons Of Using Multi-Metering Mode
You already know that multi-metering mode splits your scene into four equal parts, calculating an average for each piece and then combining those averages for an overall exposure recommendation. So yeah - your camera is doing a lot in a minimal amount of time.
So, when would be an unideal time to use it? I mean, if I use it 90% of the time, when shouldn't I use it? What would be the cons of multi/matrix metering mode?
Average of the entire scene
You'll rarely overexpose your scene if you monitor your exposure meter.
Very balanced exposure
Used exclusively by many photographers (not all)
'Jack-of-all-trades" metering mode
Not your best option for specific scenes (bird, unevenly lit scenes)
It can leave your backlit subjects too dark/underexposed
Great at a lot - master of nothing ( 'jack of all trades' problem)
Pros And Cons Of Using Center Weighted Metering Mode
We know that center-weighted metering takes the center of your image, meters it, then exposes it for that.
So, what could the con(s) be? You may be surprised - it may be something you may have never thought of.
Exposes for a specific area
Perfect for subjects that are in the center of your frame (portraits, headshots, etc.)
It's possible to overexpose the background (this is why I don't recommend automatic mode for anything other than multi)
If your background is already really bright - this mode will only make it worse if your subject is underexposed (change metering modes or location)
Over exposing the background is quite possible in this mode. If you had to choose between center-weighted or spot (getting to that next) - stick with center-weighted. Spot metering can even further overexpose your background.
Pros And Cons When Using Spot Metering Mode In Your Camera
Spot metering works exceptionally well in particular conditions. However, if those conditions aren't met (or are a little off), spot metering could be worse than any other mode.
Great for animal photography (birds, fast-moving subjects, backlit subjects, fast-moving, and underexposed)
Particular metering location (only 2.5-3.5% of the entire image)
Your background can easily overexpose
Not reliable/needed in the majority of photoshoots/photography
It's not recommended to use this metering mode in automatic camera mode.
Examples Of Different Camera Metering Modes
I know I have included many examples throughout the article - but I thought it would be fitting to include a section dedicated to just the examples and photographs.
Keep in mind - these are semi-static environments and staged. I set the scene for testing purposes. Therefore, your results may vary depending on the lighting and movement conditions of your subject.
You Now Know Metering Modes!
You made it! I know this was a pretty winded article, but I wanted to touch on everything about camera metering as I could. Like all of my other articles, regardless of how long ago I wrote them, I come back and update them at least once a year. So I'll do the same with this one!
By this point, you have a solid idea of what each mode is, what each of them does, and what the pros and cons are for each. Best of all, you no longer have to wonder which mode is the best for a given situation and you could very well be a better photographer for it!