Camera Metering Modes, and When to Use Them

Sekonic L-208 by JE Labs

Your camera has a light meter (aka Exposure meter) built into it. This meter measures the light coming Through The Lens (TTL) and helps the camera or you to adjust your shutter, aperture and ISO appropriately, so that you get a well exposed image.

Sekonic L-208 by JE Labs

Modern cameras don’t just have one metering mode, they usually have three or four different modes. How does one know which mode is most appropriate for any given situation? As with most things related to photography, the answer is to know what each of these modes does. Also remember, that a light meter does not know what you want the photograph to look like. It’s job is to make the picture an 18% grey (aka Mid Grey).

Let’s take a look at the various metering modes that you’re likely to encounter on a dSLR in order of decreasing difficulty.

Spot Metering

Hand held spot meters are expensive and very specialised. They read light from a very narrow angle of view; usually just 1 degree of view. Cameras replicate this functionality to some degree, by reading light off a very small area in the center of the focusing screen.

When should you use spot metering on your dSLR?

When exposure in a certain area is critical, and there is a lot of contrast in a scene. For example, you’re shooting  a concert, and because of the mostly dark, but also very bright areas, most regular metering modes have trouble getting the right exposure for just the artist’s face.

Now all you have to do is point the center dot at the spot that you want exposed correctly, set your exposure and take your photograph.

What else is it good for?

It’s good for measuring the contrast range of a photograph and deciding your exposure based on multiple readings. You’d do this when you want to get really technical about your exposure, but for most people and purposes, it’s not necessary with today’s technology.

Level of Difficulty


Partial Metering

Partial metering is very much like spot metering, but reads light from a 10-15% area around the center of the viewfinder. Unlike Center Weighted metering, There is no weightage…

When should you use Partial Metering on your dSLR?

Use it in situations where you need to accurately meter  a certain region, but where the area that is under similar lighting is slightly larger

Level of Difficulty


Center Weighted Averaging

This is the kind of metering cameras had when I was growing up. It reads about 80% of the scene, giving more weightage to the center of the frame. This is because most people compose their photographs with the subject in the center. Think of an oval area in your viewfinder with it’s edges almost touching the 4 sides. That’s the approximate area that this mode reads light from, but with more importance given to the center of the frame. Some manufacturers also add a little extra weightage to the the bottom of the oval. I guess that they’re assuming that in  a scene being photographed, the subject would not be pointing down from the sky. 😛

When should you use the Center Weighted Averaging metering mode on your camera?

Use this metering mode when you’re shooting with a more or less even lighting in your scene; for example, when the light is behind you, and you’re shooting with your subject in the center of your frame. Most family and group pictures fall into this category. It’s an all purpose light metering mode, but one that has now become outdated because of the invention of multi-zone metering systems.

Level of Difficulty


Multi-Segment Metering

Also known by proprietary names such as Matrix Metering (Nikon), Evaluative Metering (Canon), Honeycomb Metering (Minolta of old), and others…

Multi-segment metering divides up the frame into different parts, which are then evaluated for exposure separately and compared against a database of lighting situations that is stored in the camera’s brain. The camera then selects an appropriate exposure setting.

When Should I use Multi-Segment Metering

Today, the cameras we use are quite well programmed, and for most purposes, there’s no need to ever take your camera off whichever Multi-Segment  option your camera manufacturer provides. However, there are some lighting scenarios that prove to be too difficult for the camera to handle. Knowing this comes from knowing your equipment, and from using it often.

Level of Difficulty


Let us know if you’ve got any questions about metering light for photography. Also feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

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Published: June 19, 2012 | Last Updated: July 2, 2021

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