Choosing a metering mode can be as important as choosing an ISO or aperture when you need to nail your exposure.
Metering affects how your camera processes the scene, thus giving you a reading on your exposure in camera.
I know that with the ability to “chimp”, or stop and look at the back of your dSLR after each image, we can take our meters for granted. As a wedding photographer (and as a mother to two young children that don’t allow “do-overs”), however, I simply do not have the time to second guess myself after each frame.
Most of today’s modern cameras have at least three different metering modes to choose from; matrix (evaluative), center-weighted, and spot. Some cameras are also equipped with a fourth metering type called highlight-weighted metering mode. Both of my Nikon bodies have this newer mode and so I’ve included it here.
By default, your camera WANTS you to be at a center or zero on the meter. Zero on the meter equates to 18% gray (some may argue 12% gray depending upon camera), which is a happy mid-tone. This makes sense if you are measuring only mid-tones. My problem with this is that often what is most important to me in a scene is not that simple. Skin, for instance, gives completely different “correct exposure” readings on the meter depending on ethnicity. Your meter may also be fooled by the lighting you are using depending on which mode you have set. This is why it is important to learn the different modes and what results you can expect in each situation.
Matrix metering mode, or evaluative metering as it is sometimes referred to, considers the largest portion of the scene when metering the light. The way I have always thought about this type of metering is an average. The camera’s sensor considers all available light in any given scene and comes up with the best suggested exposure. This can be a very simple and straightforward way to meter a scene when you are in nice even light and are not working with a scene that includes too many drastic shadows or highlights. It is, for all intents and purposes, the “auto” of the metering world.
Center-weighted metering mode is a bit like matrix metering in that the camera considers a wide area of the frame, however, in this mode the camera gives greater consideration to the scene in the center of the frame, assuming that the person/place/thing in the middle of the photograph is the subject and should be properly exposed even if the outside edges would then be too light or too dark (depending on what you are shooting!). This mode is great for portraits with subjects that take up most of the frame, or when you have a good mix of tones in the center.
Highlight-weighted metering is the newest metering mode to us Nikon shooters. In this mode the camera again gathers its information from the same area as matrix, but this time the greatest weight is given to the highlights that are present in the frame. This mode takes into account bright portions of your scene and tries to “save” them from overexposure. With Nikon cameras this is especially exciting as the bulk of our dynamic range is stored in the shadows allowing us to easily bring back shadow detail…but anyone who has shot with a Nikon knows that once you’ve blown a highlight there is very little you can recover.
I know that this mode is going to be useful in high-contrast situations that change quickly and dramatically, such as when you are photographing a concert performance, bright city lights at night, or just a kid in a bed with a flashlight.
Last, but certainly not least, we have spot metering. This is exactly what it sounds like. Your camera is looking at a specific spot within the frame and ignoring all else! In Nikon cameras the “spot” you are measuring will be the active focus point. In Canon cameras that spot is going to be the center focus point.
Because you are measuring only a very small portion of the frame, spot metering can be frustrating at first, and may not be useful in all situations. I tend to spot meter more than the other available modes simply because I feel like I have the most control in this mode. I like to meter off of skin to ensure that I am not over or under exposing by too much on what I consider to be the most important part of a portrait. This doesn’t work, however, in a situation where a bride is wearing a bright white dress! Obviously in that situation skin is not exactly the priority (in camera).
Now, I have a special guest who agreed to help me demonstrate the different metering modes in different lighting situations!
Her Majesty, The Queen, was looking out a bright window, which provided for the ever-challenging backlit photograph situation. Here you can see the four different metering modes in use, and the SOOC images.
Each image was metered to zero; the spot meter reading was taken from the area marked in red.
You can see that this is a tricky situation, the meter wants to average both the highlights and the shadows in matrix, center-weighted, and highlight-weighted metering modes, causing Her Majesty to be underexposed (but saving the highlights). When I spot metered I was able to bring her exposure up but I did sacrifice the highlights in the sky and on a portion of the ledge.
In this next example we were decorating for the holidays and have many small BRIGHT sources of light against an otherwise relatively dim background.
You can see in this series that the highlights of the lights caused the meter to read the entire scene as brighter than it actually was, specifically in the highlight-weighted metering example.
Metering, just like every other aspect of photography, is a matter of personal taste. While one specific metering mode might suit one artist, it may not favor another. I suggest you challenge yourself to explore the different options in all the lighting situations you encounter to determine which works best for you and your shooting style!
I’ll leave you with a quick list of some of the situations to use each metering mode for:
- Evenly lit scenes (either full sun or full shade)
- When using flash
- When the important part of the photograph will stay in the center of your frame
- Mixed lighting
- Stage performances
- Situations where you know there will be bright highlights but are unable to spot meter on the fly
- Backlit images
- High-contrast situations
- Snowy landscapes
- When your subject is not filling the largest portion of your frame