Evaluative, matrix, spot, center weighted average, partial; Yeah, we know metering modes are a bit confusing. But, learning and understanding your camera’s metering mode system is an absolutely crucial step in your photographer education. Understanding the different metering modes will enable you to achieve more accurate exposures, shoot more consistently, and shoot much more efficiently. In this photography video tutorial, we are going to briefly explain to you the different in-camera metering modes, as well as show you some practical real life examples of each mode and how they behave in use.
Note: This article was originally written in 2011 and updated in 2022 with better images and information.
Metering Modes Video Tutorial
What Are Metering Modes?
Light is quintessential when it comes to photography and understanding how your camera meters light is just as important. Spot Metering, Matrix Metering, 18% Grey, do any of these words mean anything to you? If not, then the video below will teach you everything you need to know.
In case you didn’t watch the video above (because you didn’t bring your headphones to work maybe?), I’ll describe the three primary metering modes here. So first of all, what is a metering mode? A metering mode is the portion of the visibly framed area that the camera uses to gauge the exposure reading. I know that sentence is more confusing than Jupiter Ascending, so allow me to visualize it for you.
18 Shades of Grey
Let’s say your camera has eyes like a dog and can only see in black and white. What your camera will do is take the brightest and darkest part of what it sees and exposes the image somewhere in between, which we know as 18% Grey. The metering mode you choose will determine what part of the frame your camera samples to calculate for the 18% Grey.
Metering Mode 1: Averaging
Averaging is where the camera looks at the entire scene and exposes accordingly. If you’re trying to get an exposure for a whole scene (like a landscape) and not a specific subject, then this metering is the one you’d want to use.
Metering Mode 2: Partial Metering
The camera meters light from a small sample in the scene. Another common word for this is Spot Metering, which uses a very small part (typically 3-5% of the frame) to measure exposure. Spot Metering usually takes place in the center autofocus point, but some cameras will meter wherever you set the single autofocus point.
When shooting in Manual Mode, we suggest setting your camera to Spot Metering so you can set your exposure based on your subject. Because Spot Metering samples from such a small area, you’re able to get a specific light reading on your subject.
On the Canon 5D Mark III shown below, spin the dial on top until the Spot Metering Mode icon shows up at the bottom right corner of the screen.
On the Nikon D800 shown below, turn the dial until the white tab references the Spot Metering Mode icon (same icon on the Canon).
In the Spot Metering Mode, a small percentage of the center focal point is the area used to determine the exposure. Place that area over whatever you want in your scene to be a natural exposure. Then you would base your median exposure off of that reading. The Spot Metering Mode is great because it acts as a very precise tool when shooting in Manual Mode. For example, this metering mode can be used to determine the correct median exposure for a person’s skin tones.
Metering Mode 3: Multi zone Metering
This is also known as Evaluative or Matrix Metering. Basically what happens is the camera divides a scene into zones and uses a proprietary formula (based on the manufacturer) to gauge exposure. Because all formulas are different, we’re not exactly sure what the camera is doing to get the exposure. Often the camera will get the correct exposure (especially in ideal constant lighting situations), but sometimes they do not. When shooting in dark scenes or scenes with artistic compositions, the camera might not capture the photo that you envisioned.
On the Canon 5D Mark III, we have turned the dial on top until the Evaluative Metering Mode icon appears at the bottom right of the screen as shown below.
On a Nikon, Evaluative/Scene-Based Metering Mode is referred to as Matrix Metering. On the Nikon D800 shown below, turn the dial until the white tab references the Matrix (Evaluative) Metering Mode icon.
The Metering Mode I Use Most
The metering mode I use most is Spot Metering. Because it samples from such a small area, I’m able to get the correct exposure I want quickly. In fact, this is so useful that you can often get the perfect exposure in one shot!
Spot Metering Note
You should not use Spot Metering Mode in any of the automated camera modes, such as Aperture Priority. In Manual Mode, any metering mode you use will not change the overall camera settings or exposure values. However, in any of the automated camera modes, like Aperture Priority, the metering modes will change the exposure value. For example, if we use Spot Metering and it only takes in 3% of where the center focal is, the median exposure will be adjusted according to that 3%. If that 3% is over something very bright, the median exposure will be very dark to compensate for that brightness. Likewise, if that area is over something very dark, then the median exposure will be brighter to compensate for that darkness. This will give you inaccurate exposures and poor HDR image results because the camera is dialing everything based on that one little area of the overall scene.
Metering Mode for HDR Photography
When shooting HDR images, the two metering modes you will generally be using are either the Evaluative/Matrix (Scene-Based) Metering Modes or the Spot Metering Mode. However, choosing a metering mode really depends on your personal preference and your own workflow.
The Evaluative/Scene-Based Metering Mode is safest when shooting HDR images in Aperture Priority because your camera will balance everything out and find the median exposure based on the entire scene. When shooting HDR images, we generally have 3 different exposures: a dark exposure, a median exposure, and a bright exposure which will capture the details and dynamic range of the scene. The Evaluative/Scene-Based Metering Mode is a simpler option when first shooting HDR images, but is also great in the Manual Mode.