Metering Modes Explained

By Geoff Harris


As we all know, digital cameras have a host of menus, buttons and dials, all of which relate to making different settings for our photographs. We’ve looked at some of these in past blogs – choosing the exposure mode, setting your white balance, and setting your file type, to name just a few.

Today we’ll have a look at metering modes. All DSLRs, and many compact cameras, will offer a choice of metering modes, usually Matrix, Centre-weighted, and Spot.metering

Matrix Metering:

this is also known as Evaluative metering. The camera meters across the frame, and then averages the overall brightness and chooses the exposure accordingly.

This metering mode will be fine in the majority of situations where there aren’t too many bright highlights or dark shadows, or backlighting, and the scene you are photographing is evenly lit.

Centre-Weighted Metering:

in this mode the camera still meters the entire frame, but assigns the greatest weight to an area in the centre of the frame. So this would be the mode to choose when your subject is in the centre of the frame, and you don’t want the exposure to be affected by very dark or bright areas around the edges.

Centre-weighted is often referred to as the classic metering mode for portraits, as it exposes for the subject rather than the background (assuming your subject is in the centre of the frame!).

However, this wouldn’t be the mode to choose if you’ve composed your picture with your main subject off-centre.

Spot Metering:

Here the camera meters only a small part of the frame. On my Nikon D700 the area is a circle 4mm in diameter – the exact amount will vary from one camera to another.

This means that you can take a very precise reading, getting the exposure correct for your subject, and ignoring brighter or darker areas in the rest of the frame.

It’s a good mode to choose when light is very contrasty, or to avoid a silhouette when your subject is backlit. It’s also good when your subject is small, as it allows for such precise metering.

Spot metering can become particularly important when photographing back lit portraits.  If you use Matrix/Evaluative metering in this situation you will end up with a well exposed sky and a silhouette of the person.  This is because the camera reads the sky as the dominant light source and stops down, under exposing your subject.

Spot vs Matrix

So although matrix metering will give you a good exposure a lot of the time, being familiar with the other metering modes gives you a little more control, and increases your chances of getting the exposure exactly right!

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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