Metering Modes Explained (Perfect Exposure)

Metering modes are an essential component of photography, playing a crucial role in determining the exposure of an image.

Mastering metering modes can significantly improve the final outcome of your photographs, as it helps you capture the perfect balance of light and detail within your scene.

As you begin your journey into understanding metering, you’ll discover the impact that proper exposure has on your photography and how it can elevate your creative visions.

Most cameras, regardless of brand, offer basic metering modes such as Evaluative, Spot, Partial and Centre-weighted Average.

These modes control how a camera calculates the amount of reflected light in a scene and uses this information to determine the appropriate aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings for a given shot.

By gaining a solid understanding of these modes, you’ll be able to leverage their unique benefits and tailor your exposure settings according to the specific requirements of each scene you capture.

Understanding Metering Modes

What is the best exposure metering mode?

What is Metering Mode?

Metering mode is a setting found in modern digital cameras that helps measure the amount of light in a scene.

It plays a crucial role in determining the exposure of your photographs.

Your camera uses metering to automatically adjust parameters such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which are integral to capturing well-exposed images.

There are generally three primary metering modes found in most cameras:

  1. Evaluative metering: This mode considers the entire scene and calculates the average light for balanced exposure. It’s useful in evenly lit situations or when you have a mix of light and dark areas.
  2. Center-weighted metering: This mode prioritizes the center portion of the frame while still considering the surrounding areas. It’s perfect for situations where your subject is in the center of the frame, such as portraits.
  3. Spot metering: This mode measures light only at a specific point in the frame, often the focus point. It’s ideal for high contrast situations, allowing you to expose for darker or lighter areas of the scene intentionally.

Why Metering Modes Matter

Understanding and utilizing various metering modes is essential for any photographer to achieve the desired results.

Each mode serves a specific purpose and works best in different lighting conditions or scenarios.

By learning how to use each mode effectively, you can prevent underexposed or overexposed images, saving time during post-processing and improving your overall photography skills.

  • Control: Knowing how to use metering modes gives you more control over your photos’ exposure, enabling you to highlight specific elements of the scene and create dynamic images.
  • Consistency: Using the appropriate metering mode consistently helps maintain a uniform look and feel in your images, particularly useful when working with different light conditions or subjects.
  • Versatility: Mastering the various modes allows you to adapt quickly to different photography scenarios, whether shooting landscapes, portraits, or fast-moving events.

Types of Metering Modes

Spot Metering

Spot Metering measures light in a small area of the scene, usually the center of the image.

It is useful when you want to expose for a particular subject in a scene with various lighting.

It can help you focus on that subject and ensure it is well-exposed.

  • Use case: Capturing a backlit subject, where you focus on the subject, leaving the background overexposed.

Matrix or Evaluative Metering

Matrix or Evaluative Metering is the default mode in most cameras.

It analyzes different areas of the scene and calculates the appropriate exposure based on brightness, colors, and distance.

  • Advantages: It works well for most scenes and is especially useful for landscapes and evenly-lit compositions.
  • Disadvantages: It might struggle with high-contrast scenes, leading to incorrect exposure.

Center-Weighted Metering

Center-Weighted Metering gives importance to the center of the image but also considers the surrounding area.

This mode ensures your subject, usually placed in the center, is well-exposed, while still taking into consideration the rest of the scene.

When to useWhen to avoid
PortraitsScenes where subject is not in the center
Close-upsHigh-contrast scenes with off-center subjects

Partial Metering

Partial Metering reads the light from a larger area than spot metering but is still smaller than center-weighted metering.

It is ideal for situations when you want a more specific exposure reading than center-weighted but need a larger area than spot metering.

  • Use case: Photographing a person wearing a hat, where you want to expose both the face and the hat without over or underexposing either.
What are the metering modes for exposure?

Highlight-Weighted Metering

Highlight-Weighted Metering detects the brightest areas of the scene and prioritizes their correct exposure, ensuring they are not overexposed.

This mode is particularly useful when you want to retain details in the highlights.

  • Application: Night scenes with bright lights or situations with strong backlighting, where you want to maintain details in the bright areas.

Camera Specific Modes

Nikon Metering Modes

Nikon offers various metering modes for its DSLR cameras, such as the Nikon D80.

These modes determine how the camera reads the available light and helps you achieve a perfect exposure.

  1. Matrix Metering: This is Nikon’s default metering mode. It uses multiple segments of the frame to analyze the light, taking into account the subject and the background. It’s suitable for most general photography situations.
  2. Center-weighted Metering: This mode calculates the exposure based on the central area of the frame. It’s great for portraits or subjects with a well-defined center.
  3. Spot Metering: It measures the light in a small area around the focus point, typically around 3% of the frame. Spot metering is useful for high-contrast scenes or when you want to expose your subject correctly while ignoring the background.

Canon Metering Modes

Canon DSLR cameras also come with several metering modes to help photographers achieve the perfect exposure in various situations:

  1. Evaluative Metering: This is Canon’s default metering mode, also known as multi-zone metering. It works by dividing the frame into multiple zones and evaluating the light in each zone. The camera then calculates the exposure, taking the subject and its surroundings into account. This mode is suitable for most situations.
  2. Center-weighted Average Metering: Similar to Nikon’s center-weighted metering, this mode calculates the exposure based on the average brightness of the entire frame, with more emphasis on the center. It’s ideal for portrait photography.
  3. Partial Metering: This mode measures the light in a smaller area around the focus point (approx. 6% of the frame). It’s useful for subjects in high-contrast scenes or when you want to expose the subject accurately while ignoring the background.
  4. Spot Metering: Like Nikon’s spot metering, Canon’s spot metering measures the light in a small area around the focus point (approx. 1-4% of the frame). This mode works best when you want to expose a specific subject while disregarding the surroundings.

Working With Exposure

What are the 3 metering modes?

Setting Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation comes in handy when you want to add or subtract light from your image.

It’s measured in stops or exposure values (EV). To adjust exposure compensation:

  1. Locate the exposure compensation button (usually labeled as +/-) on your camera
  2. Adjust the exposure value by turning the dial or using the camera’s directional buttons
  3. Keep an eye on the exposure compensation scale in your viewfinder or on the LCD screen to ensure desired adjustments.

A positive (+) exposure compensation will make the image brighter, while a negative (-) exposure compensation will make the image darker.

Using Aperture

Aperture refers to the opening in the camera lens that allows light to enter.

It is usually represented as an f-number (e.g., f/2.8, f/5.6, f/11). Here’s how aperture affects exposure:

  • Larger aperture (e.g., f/2.8) allows more light to enter, resulting in a brighter image
  • Smaller aperture (e.g., f/11) allows less light to enter, leading to a darker image

Besides controlling the brightness, the aperture also impacts depth of field, which is the amount of focus in the scene:

  • Larger aperture (e.g., f/2.8) = shallow depth of field (subject in focus, background blur)
  • Smaller aperture (e.g., f/11) = deep depth of field (subject and background in focus)

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed defines the duration during which the camera’s shutter remains open and exposes the image sensor to light.

It’s measured in fractions of seconds (e.g., 1/100s, 1/500s) or seconds (1s, 10s). Here’s how shutter speed affects exposure:

  • Faster shutter speed (e.g., 1/1000s) captures less light, resulting in darker images
  • Slower shutter speed (e.g., 1s) captures more light, leading to brighter images

Slower shutter speeds may introduce motion blur if the camera or subject moves during the exposure, while faster shutter speeds can freeze motion.


ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Adjusting the ISO value has the following effects on exposure:

  • Lower ISO values (e.g., ISO 100) = less sensitive to light, leading to darker images
  • Higher ISO values (e.g., ISO 3200) = more sensitive to light, giving you brighter images

However, increasing the ISO value can also result in more digital noise or grain in your images. Find the right balance between ISO and other exposure settings for the best results.

Advanced Metering Techniques

Reflected Light Metering

Reflected light is the light that bounces off objects in a scene and is captured by your camera’s metering system to determine the correct exposure settings.

Different metering modes use this information in various ways:

  • Spot metering: Takes a light reading only from a small area in the middle of the frame
  • Partial metering: Takes a reading from a larger area in the middle of the frame
  • Center-weighted average metering: Takes an average reading from the entire frame, giving more importance to the center
  • Evaluative metering: Uses multiple zones to measure the light and adjusts exposure settings based on the most important parts of the scene

Using the Viewfinder for Metering

When looking through the viewfinder, you can see a representation of how the final image will appear.

Before taking a photo, pay attention to the exposure settings displayed in the viewfinder.

Adjust the settings in real-time by rotating the camera’s dials, and watch the exposure meter to check whether your adjustments are moving the needle closer to the “0” mark for optimal exposure.

Manual Mode and Exposure Meter

Which metering modes is mostly used?

In manual mode, you have full control over exposure settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).

To use the exposure meter effectively in manual mode, follow these steps:

  1. Set your desired aperture and shutter speed.
  2. Adjust the ISO to bring the exposure meter needle as close to the “0” mark as possible.
  3. If needed, fine-tune your aperture or shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure.

Exposure Lock

When photographing a scene with varying light conditions, using the exposure lock function can be helpful. To use exposure lock:

  1. Point your camera at the area you want to meter from.
  2. Press the exposure lock button (usually marked as an asterisk or “AEL” on Canon cameras, or “AE-L” on Nikon cameras).
  3. Keeping the button pressed, recompose your shot and take the photo. The exposure settings will remain locked to the values determined by your metering.

These advanced metering techniques can help you achieve perfect exposure in a wide range of shooting conditions.

Practice and experiment with different metering modes and exposure settings to find what works best for you in different situations.

Practical Applications

Portrait Photography

When shooting portrait photography, it’s essential to properly expose the subject’s face.

One way to achieve this is by using Spot Metering Mode.

With this mode, the camera measures light only in a small area (usually the center) where you can place your focus point on the subject’s face.

This will help ensure that your subject is adequately lit while allowing for some flexibility in the background exposure.

Another option is to use Center-Weighted Metering, which measures light in the center of the frame but also takes into account the surrounding areas.

This mode calculates an average between the center and the rest of the image, often resulting in a well-balanced exposure for both the subject and background.

High Contrast Scenes

In high contrast scenes, such as those with bright sky and dark foreground, matrix or evaluative metering mode can be quite useful.

This mode evaluates the entire scene, dividing it into zones, and measures the light in each zone to determine the best exposure.

By using matrix or evaluative metering, the camera can balance the exposure between the bright and dark areas, avoiding overly bright highlights or deep shadows.

Here are some tips for high contrast scenes:

  • Consider using a graduated neutral density filter to balance exposure between the sky and the foreground
  • Bracket your exposure to ensure you capture the best possible image
  • Experiment with different metering modes to find the one that works best for your particular situation

Film and Digital Cameras

Both film and digital cameras benefit from understanding and utilizing appropriate metering modes.

However, there are some differences between the two:

  • Film cameras often have fewer metering modes available compared to digital cameras, where matrix or evaluative metering is a more recent development
  • Digital cameras have LCD screens that allow for immediate feedback on exposure, making it easier to adjust settings as needed
  • Film cameras may require the use of external light meters, while digital cameras have built-in metering sensors

Metering Modes in Action

What is the purpose of metering modes?

Aperture Priority

In Aperture Priority mode, you control the aperture while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to achieve proper exposure.

To make the most of this mode, it’s essential to understand which metering mode works best for your subject.

  • Evaluative (Matrix) Metering: Great for general and landscape photography, this mode evaluates the entire scene and sets exposure based on the overall light distribution. In Aperture Priority, this mode works well when you don’t have a specific subject or if the lighting is uniform across the scene.
  • Center-weighted Metering: Ideal for subjects in the center of the frame, such as portraits or stationary objects. This mode emphasizes the central area of the image while still considering the surrounding areas. Use this mode in Aperture Priority when your subject is in the center, and you want a balanced exposure.
  • Partial Metering: If you have a subject with backlighting or harsh lighting conditions, Partial Metering is your friend. This mode focuses on a smaller area (around 8-13% of the frame) and ignores the rest, allowing you to expose for your subject correctly. Pair this mode with Aperture Priority to capture subjects in challenging lighting situations.
  • Spot Metering: When you need precise exposure control for a specific area within the frame, Spot Metering is the answer. In Aperture Priority, use this mode when you need to expose a small, important subject against a brighter or darker background.

Shutter Priority

Shutter Priority mode is all about controlling the shutter speed while the camera adjusts the aperture accordingly.

This mode is great for capturing fast-moving subjects or controlling motion blur.

  • Evaluative (Matrix) Metering: A reliable choice for most situations, use this mode when capturing motion with evenly distributed light. It allows the camera to determine the best exposure based on the whole scene.
  • Center-weighted Metering: Perfect for emphasizing subjects in the center of the frame, such as a sports player, this mode works well with Shutter Priority when the surrounding light is somewhat consistent.
  • Partial Metering: For subjects exposed to backlighting or irregular lighting, use Partial Metering in Shutter Priority mode. This will give you an accurate exposure for your subject, even in challenging light conditions.
  • Spot Metering: Ideal when you need control over a small, specific area of your image. Use Spot Metering and Shutter Priority together for isolating a subject (e.g., a bird in flight) from a potentially distracting background.

Understanding how aperture and shutter priority work with various metering modes allows you to make informed decisions about exposure settings in different situations.

Experiment with these combinations to find what works best for your preferred photographic subjects and styles.

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