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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.