Should You Use the Different Metering Modes of Your Camera or Not?

Should You Use the Different Metering Modes of Your Camera or Not?

Nearly every modern camera has different metering modes to measure the amount of available light. It is possible to measure the average across the image, or just a part of the image. Do you use all of these metering modes? Or is it better to limit the use to only one?

In the early days of photography it was very easy. A light meter measured the amount of available light and you would set the appropriate exposure with the aperture and shutter speed. When cameras became more complex, different ways of measuring the exposure became possible. Photographers were able to measure the average across the image, or just a small spot. This way it became possible to do accurate measurements at a certain location in the frame, without the surrounding area.

An old Voigtländer camera with a light meter above the company name. It measures the ambient light, nothing more. Today the light meters are more sophisticated.

An old Voigtländer camera with a light meter above the company name. It measures the ambient light, nothing more. Today the light meters are more sophisticated.

With the rise of digital photography more variations of measuring light became possible. I bought a Canon EOS digital camera and I was offering the choice to choose between four different metering modes with interesting names like evaluative metering, partial metering, spot metering, and center-weighted average metering. I never paid much attention to this until I picked up concert photography again. This was a situation I thought spot metering was perfect. But I did not like the way the camera reacted to the available light situations. I switched back to the standard setting and the results became much more consistent.

Slayer in concert, back in 2012. The bright lights in the back would have caused a silhouet if I wouldn't have used exposure compensation. A spot meter didn't work for me.

Slayer in concert, back in 2012. The bright lights in the back would have caused a silhouet if I wouldn't have used exposure compensation. A spot meter didn't work for me.

I ignored the metering modes completely until I started to educate photographers. Often the question about metering methods came up, and I decided to look into it. That is when I discovered how changing between the different setting didn't bring much benefit. At least, for me.

Different Cameras, Different Metering Names

I used my Canon camera to experiment with the different metering modes. When I started reviewing cameras it became clear these names are not the same between different brands. Nikon uses other names, just like Fujifilm. Hasselblad offered just three different modes. Evaluative metering was called Matrix Metering with some, and Multi Metering on other cameras. Some used the name Integral Metering.

Different brands use different names. There are also small differences in the metering modes on these cameras. We see a Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and a Hasselblad

Different brands use different names. There are also small differences in the metering modes on these cameras. We see a Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and a Hasselblad

Although the different modes and names may vary between brands, the metering modes all incorporate an average metering across the frame, a spot metering, and one or two metering modes that are a combination between an average metering and a spot metering. But what will be the difference between al these metering modes in real life?

What Are the Differences With the Different Metering Modes?

To have an idea how the differences in metering modes vary, I choose a landscape with a lot of contrast, but well within the dynamic range of the camera. The ISO and aperture was set to a fixed value, and the camera was set to aperture priority. In a way the results surprised me. On the other hand, the exposure meter did exactly what it promised. All images are without any post-processing.

This is the result of evaluative metering. It is an average measurement across the frame

This is the result of evaluative metering. It is an average measurement across the frame

This is the result of partial metering. It is an mainly in the center of the image, ignoring the surroundings.

This is the result of partial metering. It is an mainly in the center of the image, ignoring the surroundings.

This is the result of spot metering. It is measuring only in the center of the image, where the lightest part is located.

This is the result of spot metering. It is measuring only in the center of the image, where the lightest part is located.

This is the result of center-weighted average metering. The whole frame is measured, with the center as the most important area. This metering is a combination between evaluative and partial metering.

This is the result of center-weighted average metering. The whole frame is measured, with the center as the most important area. This metering is a combination between evaluative and partial metering.

Seeing these differences next to each other makes it clear how the different metering modes produce different exposures, and why. When the exposure is measured at the center, or near center, it will ignore the darkest parts of the image, resulting in an underexposed image. With an an average or near average measurement, the exposure is more in balance with this particular scenery. But the differences between the evaluative and center-weighted average metering mode, is very small. Also the partial and spot metering modes show only a small, but clear difference.

Why I Don’t Like Spot Metering

Spot metering is a very accurate metering. It measures just a small part, often the spot is not larger  than 9% of the complete frame. It allows the photographer to pick a small spot and measure the light without interference of the other parts of the frame. But this makes it also a risky metering method. Just a small movement of the camera can project the spot on a wrong part of the image. Especially when long lenses are being used, like 200mm or more. But also when the subject is very jumpy. This is why I did not produce the right exposure during my time as a concert photographer. The artist moved too much, making it very difficult to keep the spot at the exact location.

Korn in concert. If I used spot metering, the location of the spot had to be at exact the right place; the body of singer Jonathan Davis. Just an inch to the left or right would have measured the light in the background, resulting in an underexposed image

Korn in concert. If I used spot metering, the location of the spot had to be at exact the right place; the body of singer Jonathan Davis. Just an inch to the left or right would have measured the light in the background, resulting in an underexposed image.

For Canon, the partial metering mode is similar to spot metering, except it used a larger spot. Also this mode will react very quickly in light situations that have a large contrast, making it very tricky to use it for a good exposure.

Why I Prefer Evaluative Metering

When I look at the results of the test I performed, the differences between the evaluative metering and center-weighted metering is very small. There is a difference, but it is almost negligible. So for me it does not matter which one I choose. That is why I decided to keep my camera set to evaluative metering. An average metering across the frame.

When you learn how a metering mode react under certain situations, you can anticipate with the exposure compensation if you work in aperture priority of shutter speed priority

When you learn how a metering mode react under certain situations, you can anticipate with the exposure compensation if you work in aperture priority of shutter speed priority

Of course this will result in images that are overexposed or underexposed in certain light situations. But because I have my camera always on the same metering mode, I learned how the camera will react in different light situations. When I have a subject with a bright backlight, I know how much I have to compensate the exposure. If the surroundings are very dark, with a bright subject, I know I have to correct the exposure also. Because I learned how the meter will react in certain light situations, I can anticipate and set the correct exposure compensation. This is also why my concert photography worked very well with evaluative metering, despite all the back light on stage. Just by playing with the exposure compensation while shooting in aperture mode, I could work very quickly without the risk of losing control of the exposure.

Should You Ignore the Different Metering Modes As Well?

It would be stupid of me to advise every photographer to ignore the different metering modes just like I do. Every photographer has their own preferred way of working, or setting up their camera. I can think of a situation when spot metering will work well. Especially with photographers who work in manual mode, and just want to measure exposure on one bright – or dark – spot in the area. They can measure accurately on that spot without the need of walking towards it. But if you work a lot with aperture priority or shutter speed priority, spot metering may result in a lot of wrong exposures.

Learning to know the light meter of your camera reacts to every day situations is important. You will know a light situation like this needs an exposure compensation of one or two stops. It will help you set your cameras exposure the right way.

Learning to know the light meter of your camera reacts to every day situations is important. You will know a light situation like this needs an exposure compensation of one or two stops. It will help you set your cameras exposure the right way.

My Advice for Using Metering Modes

I don’t advise photographers to use a certain metering mode. I always advise photographers to choose just one metering mode, and learn how this metering mode reacts in different light situation. By learning how it reacts, you will learn to anticipate any wrong measurements. This way you will be able to set exposure compensation prior to the moment of the shot. It does not matter which metering mode you prefer, as long as you will know when to compensate it.

Do you use different measurement modes, or do you use only one of the possible metering modes? If you do, which one do you prefer, and why? I would love to read about it in the comments below.

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34 Comments

Ian Meyers's picture

When I began as a photographer I was a spot meter guy, but over time realized that this was creating way more problems with exposure than I needed and switched to evaluative about 4 years ago when I began shooting architectural photography full time. As you point out, the great thing is that over time you become familiar with how your camera evaluates a scene and recognize when it will require exposure compensation. Good article. :)

Matt Williams's picture

"Should You Ignore the Different Metering Modes As Well?"

Um, no, you should not.

Matrix/evaluative/multi-segment/whatever is definitely the most commonly useful mode for any given scene, but no, you should absolutely not ignore the others. The only one I never use is highlight priority (on Nikons anyway) and center-weighted doesn't get a ton of use.

Spot metering is *incredibly* useful. The author of this article apparently tried it in one scenario - a situation with a lot of movement - and decided it was useless. Yes, of course if your spot is not where it should be because your subject is moving quickly you will get improper exposure. That's... why it's called spot metering.

And the idea that using aperture or shutter priority somehow makes spot metering even more useless is incredibly bizarre. This feels like turning face-AF on and then complaining because you want to focus on a still object but it keeps picking up people walking past.

Really don't get these articles based on little experience whereafter they just threw up their hands and declared it pointless. The author tries to mitigate this in the last paragraph, but the entire rest of the article is nothing but a misunderstanding of various metering modes and how or why or when they are/can be useful.

FYI: "In the early days of photography it was very easy. A light meter measured the amount of available light and you would set the appropriate exposure with the aperture and shutter speed."

Assuming you're talking about in-camera meters (which it sounds like), ironically the original in-camera meters were.... spot. That's where the Pentax Spotmatic - one of the first 35mm cameras with TTL metering - got its name. Film cameras were either spot or center-weighted until the Nikon FA introduced matrix metering in the 80s.

Rayann Elzein's picture

Exactly... When I used to shoot concerts, I actually didn't rely on any metering at all, but rather on experience to get the right exposure. Now that I'm doing mostly wildlife, spot metering is the only method I use!

And I agree with you, sadly it is becoming the trend on such articles (not only on this site), that one guy found something that works for him and declares it as the universal truth. Well, the world doesn't work like this, and thank god for it!

Matt Williams's picture

Wildlife is one of the main types of shooting where I use spot metering quite often. Very very useful. I have one of my front function buttons (around the lens mount - Nikon) that activates spot metering when held. So I can be in matrix and quickly switch to spot and back to matrix in no time. It's amazingly helpful, especially for wildlife.

These kinds of articles annoy me not only because of the lack of experience/knowledge, but mainly because they're actively *harmful* to people who don't know better - to post such things on a photography site is just insane. An article explaining the uses of metering modes is useful. An article talking about why spot metering didn't work one time for someone because it was a poor choice to use and then positing whether people should use it at all is actively unprincipled.

Jon Kellett's picture

That's a cool trick - I must look at doing that too!

Matt Williams's picture

It's very handy! From what I recall, Canon has a function button there between the grip and lens. Olympus does, Nikon has two, I think Fuji has one. Sony doesn't because their lens release is on that side.

Obviously it can be mapped to any other function button, though. I just find it very easy to activate with my middle finger.

Jon Kellett's picture

With a lot of Sony lenses, there's a programmable button that I expect could be set to that. The only issue with Sony is that it'll probably cycle through metering modes!

Jon Kellett's picture

When I was using Canon, evaluative was the only mode I used with exp comp as required. Occasionally I'd use partial, but only when I needed to decide between highlights and shadow.

Knowing how the camera will "react" is pretty important, but I found that Canons generally had more "personality" than some other brands. That's not a good thing but every camera brand has it's caveats. With Canon it had personality and lots of noise in the greys and blues, but at least it was predictable and consistent. Panasonic m4/3 it's the lack of DR that you need to consider (especially in the highlights), but the metering is consistent. With Sony, I'm still experimenting but I find it to have less personality that the Canon but my awareness of it's limitations perhaps more in my mind - Highlight recovery is less than the Canon but the shadow recovery is amazing (thank you ISO invariant sensors).

Matt Williams's picture

I always found Canon's evaluative metering to be kind of unreliable and inconsistent - not as reliable as Nikon's matrix or Sony's whatever they call it. Canon seems to bias the metering more toward the focus point but it isn't always predictable. But, I haven't extensively used a new Canon model since the 5DSR. As far as I know, their sensors are ISO-invariant now too (the 5D Mark IV was, anyway).

Canon has terrible shadow latitude but quite nice highlight recovery, which I like. The newest Nikons - ever since the D810 - are highlight biased as well. Sonys do well with shadows. I prefer the highlight bias as it gives a nicer tonal roll off, but a lot of people love the seemingly endless shadow recovery of some cameras.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I agree with the highlights recovery! Most people say to under expose and recover shadows, but I find I can bring down highlights just as much as I can push up shadows. And noise in the highlights seem less noticable than shadows.

Matt Williams's picture

The highlights have a stronger signal (more light) so you have a higher SNR (signal to noise ratio) and therefore less noise. A lower SNR means less light (signal) and more noise.

Chroma noise is also a real problem for Canon cameras, especially since it usually presents in the three-quarter tones and into the midtones.

Jon Kellett's picture

Regarding the metering, I shot Canon from 2000-2018 and so I probably got so used to guessing how the camera would perform that I was no longer aware of any metering inconsistency.

The highlight recovery with Canon was a thing of beauty, that's for sure. I also loved Canon's flash control - Panasonic drove me crazy using off-camera flash, Sony seems nice but I'm still learning it's limits.

I've never shot Nikon - Just picking up one of their cameras does my head in. Dunno why.

As for shadow vs highlight recovery... In some situations I wish I was shooting Canon, in others I'm glad I now usually use Sony. It does mean a little retraining on how you previs the scene, to work within the limits of the camera.

Matt Williams's picture

Yeah, if you regularly shot Canon it wouldn't be an issue.

Panasonic has awful flash options. Olympus is a bit better but still not great. Sony wasn't great but has gotten better from what I understand. Canon and Nikon are still the best for flash options, at least in my opinion.

Jon Kellett's picture

I used Canon and Yongnuo branded units with the Canon. Godox for Panny and Sony. The Panasonic seemed to have some kind of personality disorder, so inconsistent.

Since I've only been with Sony since late last year (and with a flash since this year), I can't comment on their historical performance but I'm pretty happy so far. The flash does what you'd expect, when you'd expect. It's consistent and reliable, with no surprises (fill vs primary light on two identical exposures - Hello Panasonic)...

Matt Williams's picture

I use mostly Godox (or Flashpoint depending on where you buy them from, same thing). Great flash systems. They also have great LED lights with bowens mounts. And tons of great modifiers and accessories.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Exposure should always be EttR, Exposure to the Rights. That is the best way. But if hightlights are clipped, you can never recover.
If you need to recover dark shadows a lot, I think a exposure bracketing is in order to avoid too much noise. Even with the wonderfull DR of the A7R III I found multiple exposures is always better than trying to recover shadows.

Jon Kellett's picture

I agree that multiple exposures is the best option when viable, with what I shoot it's usually not viable. Also, true - Clipped (at either end) is clipped...

With respect to EttR - Definitely on the Canon, but for non-obvious reasons. The highlight clipping warning in camera isn't telling the full truth. In LR, you can easily recover ~1 stop of highlights because the clipping warning is too conservative on the Canons I've used. EttR is super-important on Canon because with Canon, recovering shadow is an exercise in self-flagellation by nature of their sensors being ISO-variant.

Sony (and to a lesser extent with the Panasonic G9) the highlights clip hard and fast. With Sony, pay attention to the clipping warning and don't push it more than 1/4 - 1/2 of a stop at most.

Shadow recovery on the Sony A7r III is almost miraculous thanks to being ISO-invariant. If you take an exposure at ISO 360 and then push the shadows 3 stops, it's exactly the same amount of noise as having used 3 stops higher ISO. - https://alynwallacephotography.com/blog/2018/5/6/testing-the-sony-a73-fo... - This is a good article explaining it way better than I ever could.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True, the histogram shown on the back LCD of any given camera is based on the embedded JPEG, not the RAW file. That is why you probably can recover one stop, or even a bit more.
That is why I am writing an article at this moment about making your exposure based on the histogram and EttR.
ISO invariance is something amazing, isn't it :) About time sensors behave like that

Ben Coyte's picture

Way back, the Olympus OM4 let you take up to 8 spot meter readings and as such, let you create an average based specifically off what you metered from. Knowing the dynamic range of the film, this let you work out where to put that average so you could tackle shadow and highlights best. Of course, other than landscape, by the time you'd done all that your subject was gone.

Matt Williams's picture

The multi-spot metering in the OM-4 was very cool. It also had Highlight and Shadow buttons that applied negative or positive exposure compensation respectively when activated - kind of the original (that I'm aware of) version of today's highlight priority.

Unfortunately the OM-4 came out around the same time as the Nikon FA with its matrix metering, so its innovation didn't gain much attention comparatively. Though the Rollei 6008 medium format camera and one of the Hasselblad models used a similar multi-spot metering mode.

I use matrix metering about 90% of the time but sometimes spot is the best thing.

I have my phone on center weighted (that's mainly for grab and go stuff), but if I tap the image, it adjusts exposure and focus to that point.

Matt Williams's picture

I use matrix most of the time too but I have one of the front function buttons near the lens mapped to activate spot metering - so if I quickly need it, I don't need to change modes, just hold that button, shoot, let go and I'm back to matrix.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I only use evaluative metering. As an event photographer I will select shutter and aperture and let ISO on auto.

When in back light condition, such as bird shooting or most landscape and some environmental portraits I will go full manual on ISO. I never really adapted to using exposure compensation.

John Ellingson's picture

Back in the studio in the days of film and smelly darkrooms I carried and used three meters - a reflected light meter, a spot meter for determining the zone range of the subject and an incident meter. With the limited zonal range of film it was critical -- today not so much. The tolerance of the sensors has doubled or more the zonal range that can be captured and processed in the digital darkroom. I no longer attempt to put the perfect image in the camera, but use the software on the backend for that purpose.

Ruud van der Nat's picture

I almost only use spot metering, shooting concerts, landscapes and cats, all in full manual. Works fine for me ( on Canon EOS 6D and 5D)

Eric Robinson's picture

Different modes for different situation, use them? Sure do. I’m not sure how metering is implemented these days on Canon cameras, but on the Sony A7R3 I mainly use, switching modes is pretty essential. For example, to avoid blown out highlights when doing still life images I always use the ‘highlight mode’ that in my opinion works pretty well, as opposed to using spot metering for example.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I believe highlight mode and those settings aren't related to the way you're measering. But it will help to avoid some clipping highlights, I think. Personally I never witnessed a lot of use of those settings when you're shooting in raw file format. But for JPEG I am sure it will help.

Sam David's picture

First, I found the article valuable, and appreciate Nando's effort and his views -- and views are what they are, not dictates, as he makes clear. Questioning his experience and knowledge is tasteless.
Most of my work is with nude models, generally outdoors in very mixed and quickly changing light and shadows. My experience (using Nikon 700 and 750) is that matrix works best for black/white, but spot or center weighted are better for color because of the importance of skin tone. And, again, making final adjustments is what Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop and Topaz are for. Yes, if you get it right in the camera, you have something better with which to work, but very rare is the image that can't be made better in the processing. I should also note that I've gone back to using ancient film cameras for some work, some with no meters, the rest with meters that aren't consistently accurate. The only choice is to make my own evaluative setting and most of the time it gives me images with which I can work.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thanks for the kind words, Sam. Appreciate it a lot.
Great to read about your experience about this topic.

I've always shot with center-weighted average metering. I started with an old Pentax film camera, and that was the only metering it had. On my Canon cameras, I stuck with it, unless I had a specific situation where spot metering was required. Now metering is easy, since I'm using an EOS R, and I can more or less see the exposure in the viewfinder. I still stick with center-weighted most of the time today.

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