Tips for Using Exposure Metering Modes

Woman looking through camera
freemixer/Getty Images

The metering modes in DSLR cameras are designed to give the photographer more control over the exposure meter reading. To use a DSLR to its fullest potential, it is important to understand how each of these modes measures the amount of light in a scene.

Automatic exposure is a feature on all DSLRs, but you can also select from different metering modes to fine-tune your exposures. Depending on the camera manufacturer and model, there will be three or four metering modes to select from and they are each explained below.

Evaluative or Matrix Metering

Evaluative (or matrix) metering is the most complex mode and it offers the best exposure for most scenes.

Essentially, the camera divides the scene into a matrix of metering zones and takes individual readings for each section. An evaluative meter reading is then diagnosed and an average is used for the entire scene.

What We Like
  • Very easy to use

  • Good for landscapes, group photographs and other scenes with a lot of details

What We Don't Like
  • This mode is not great for scenes with strong light or a lot of shadows as parts of the photo may end up over or underexposed

  • The camera will struggle to meter for a small subject

Center-Weighted or Average Metering

Center-weighted (or average) metering is the most common metering mode. It is also the default option for cameras that do not have metering mode options.

In this mode, the exposure is averaged from the entire scene though it does give extra priority (or 'weight') to the center area.

What We Like
  • Ideal for photographing people or objects in the center of a landscape or scene as it will meter for them rather than the background

  • Good for portraits as it exposes for the subject and not the background

What We Don't Like
  • Not a good choice if your subject or object is not in the center of the frame

  • Not great for head-and-shoulder shots that fill the frame. It will meter for the center of the face and the outer areas could be over or underexposed

Spot or Partial Metering

Some DSLRs have both spot and partial metering modes. Other cameras may have only one of them and still, other cameras have neither.

These metering modes are used for very specific purposes. Spot metering meters for the center 5% of the image. Partial metering meters for the center 15% of the image. In both cases, the rest of the exposure is ignored.

What We Like
  • Great for macro and still life work because it allows for very precise metering on small objects

  • Good for photographs that are brightly backlit because it helps avoid silhouetting of the subject

What We Don't Like
  • Requires extremely careful use and is time-consuming. Patience is required to get the ideal shot!

  • Limited uses, and it is only really required for specialist photography.