What is metering in photography? Understanding Metering and Modes

December 22

14 min. to read

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Wondering why your pictures sometimes turn out too dark or too light? Try to use different types of metering in digital photography and see how much better your shots become!

So, you've bought professional equipment and spent a lot of time practicing, but the photos still don't turn out the way you'd like them to. They are either too bright or so dark that you can't see anything. What is the problem? Well, it's because you haven't worked out how to use your camera's features and how to adjust the camera's composition. It's really not that big of a deal, you just have to understand the metering modes. Today we're going to try doing that so we learn how to shoot like a real pro!

The meaning of the metering system

Auto exposure is a standard function of all digital cameras. Exposure metering is the determination of the amount of light needed for a photo that enters the camera and the ISO. This selects the most appropriate settings for a particular lighting situation, whether natural or artificial. With the right shutter speed and aperture, you get a high-quality picture. Many cameras have several exposure metering modes.

It is also worth mentioning that there are several different types of DSLR metering. The most widely used are the following three:

  • Matrix (or evaluative);

  • Spot;

  • Center-weighted.

In some devices, you may also encounter partial metering. It differs from spot type in a slightly larger area of coverage.

While using the manual mode of the device, you can see the metering scale. It looks like a bar with zero in the center, which is the optimal exposure level. Depending on the light, the pointer may fluctuate, indicating that the brightness level is too high or low. One more important point: do not think that the usefulness of the camera metering is only in manual mode. Try how it works in other modes and check that the settings are adjusted optimally for the specific case.

Now we know what is metering in photography. But still, why are there several metering types? What is the difference between these modes? Let's take a closer look at each of them.

Types of metering modes in the camera

As we mentioned, there are three most common, but of course, other modes are also available. So let's take a closer look. 

Matrix (or evaluative) mode

The two names come from the way this mode is given by different camera brands. Otherwise, they are absolutely identical. So what is matrix metering? This type is rightfully considered the most advanced and complex. Why? Thanks to the collected data from the entire frame, it determines the settings that properly expose the brightest areas (for example, the sun). Another feature is giving priority to the focus point. Many photographers consider it to be the best for use in a wide variety of shooting conditions. However, there is one nuance to consider. When using this type of metering, black may become distorted and grayed out. Use exposure compensation to achieve the desired effect in the photo, this way you can solve the problem.

Averaging mode

In fact, it is considered obsolete and is no longer used. You will hardly find averaging mode in newer devices, but if you got your camera as a gift from someone who has not used it for years, it might well be. So why is this mode considered unnecessary in modern gear? Well, that's easy, it's the predecessor of evaluative metering, which, unfortunately, can't boast of its capabilities. Light and dark areas of the photo end up looking unnatural, and in some cases, you just won't see the difference in using the camera with or without the mode on.

Spot mode

Spot mode gives you better control of where to take your light metering data for exposures, as it only covers about 4-7% of the area seen in the viewfinder. This is the smallest coverage of all metering modes. The main advantage of spot type is that its location can be selected from the focus points and so it can produce more accurate metering exactly where you need it. However, you have to take into account that a bigger part of the photo is underexposed. This mode is best to use for portraits because it measures the amount of reflected light from the face within a range of about 1 meter. Also, you can use it for contrasting scenes, such as when the background is brightly lit and the subject is in shadow. It is also suitable for detailed shots and macro photography.

Partial mode

Partial Metering covers a small area of the frame, which is slightly larger than that used in spot metering - usually about 12-15% in the center of the frame. As a separate mode is available on Canon devices. In models of some other companies, it is set by increasing the sensitivity zone of spot metering. This type of metering is convenient when the background is much brighter than the subject itself.

Brightness-weighted mode

Another similar to spot mode, which captures a small portion of the frame, is implemented in Nikon devices, namely in some recent models. The difference from its classic predecessor is that its features are disclosed when shooting light objects or objects in motion. This type of metering creates an optimal level of white in the picture and recognizes the glare of the photograph.

Center-weighted mode

Agree that most often the main subject is in the center of the frame, so it is not surprising that center-weighted metering is available for such cases. This mode basically determines the exposure based on the center tones of the image. The edges of the frame do not play any role in this case. By using it, you can clearly see what is metering on a camera, because all the attention is focused on the central part of the photo, and the surrounding objects go to the second plan. With this effect, you can maximize the depth of the shot and give the image a unique vibe.

How to set the camera's metering mode

Unfortunately, there is no universal answer to this question. Even the same manufacturer may implement this function differently in each model. For example, some professional cameras use a separate button, which is very convenient for quick access to each mode. On other devices, this is done by using a certain combination of keys. If you fundamentally need a particular type of option presented, it is worth clarifying this point before purchasing the device. If not, just read the manual carefully to learn how to use the metering in the camera.

Choosing metering mode

Now that we've looked at the types of photography metering, it's worth looking more closely at the question of when and which should be used. This information has already been mentioned in the previous section, but let's systematize it.

  • Averaging mode - considered obsolete, practically not used because it does not give any effect;

  • Partial mode is used to focus the viewer's attention on the subject when the background is brighter than the main part of the picture;

  • Brightness-weighted mode is excellent for photographing light and moving objects;

  • The center-weighted mode will concentrate all the focus on the central part of the frame making it as deep and memorable as possible.

If you were attentive, there are two more missing types of metering photography, which are matrix (or evaluative) and spot. All because they are considered the most widely used. We are going to explain the reasons why.

Using the matrix (or evaluative) mode

This mode divides the entire photographic scene into small zones. All measurements are then calculated and averaged to determine the most suitable exposition ( shutter speed and aperture combination). With the wide capabilities of today's DSLR cameras, not only the amount of light is measured, but also such things as the distribution of hues, colors, and even distance.

As a rule, evaluative metering is the default setting of most digital cameras and gives a good correct exposure. This setting is suitable for most standard situations, like shooting landscapes.

Using the spot mode

In this mode, exposure metering is performed by the central part of the picture but has a zone of up to seven percent of the entire frame area. As a rule, the part of such metering is marked in the center of the viewfinder. At the same time, information beyond the boundary of the metering area is cut off. Many devices have a mechanism for spot metering of several zones.

The results are memorized by the camera and the average value of required exposure is derived on their basis. For example, point your camera to look at the light, shade, and average light zones one by one - the device calculates the appropriate value of exposure value. This option is excellent for shooting static objects but inferior to the matrix one in terms of efficiency.

Final thoughts

To create a high-quality picture, it is very important to understand the principles of working with different lighting. Cameras can measure exposure according to different algorithms. It is important to know what is camera metering and which type is most appropriate for each situation. Start by getting a clear understanding of the most universal mode, evaluative metering. Later you can move on to subsequent ones and learn more about your camera and its capabilities. We also advise not to neglect the post-processing of photos, because with it you can bring the image to perfection. Luminar Neo will become an indispensable assistant for fast and high-quality editing thanks to its user-friendly interface and AI tools. We wish you the best of luck on your creative journey!



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