Understanding metering modes

A few weeks ago I covered everything you needed to know to make move to manual mode. Part of the growth process of photography (for me, at least) is continuing to learn as much as I can. Ever since I made the financial plunge and purchased a "BIG" camera, I made a vow to learn the ins and outs, and ups and downs, of it's settings, functions, modes and what not. There is SO much that goes into taking a photo. It's more than just a "point and click" situation and I think my personality type is very much "but, why does it work that way??" rather than "oh, ok...I'll do that". In order for me to understand it, I have to know it inside and out AND I have to be able to explain it (both to myself and others). This week on the blog, I'm going to be tackling more in-depth features of your camera (metering, focus modes, white balance....) so get ready!! It's going to be awesome! First up is metering!

What is metering?

Metering is essentially how your camera's light sensor measures reflected light, which helps determine how your photo should be exposed. The meter doesn't necessarily measure the light as we see, but it measures HOW the light is reflected and the sensor basically tries to keep all tones balanced (not too dark, not too bright). A good example of here is taking a photo in the snow. Have you ever taken an image in the snow with a pretty white background and your image came out super underexposed and way too dark?? That's because the white of the snow is very reflective and tricks the sensor into thinking the scene is brighter than it is (and in turn, underexposes your image). Good thing we're going to learn all about metering modes, right?

What are metering modes?

Almost all DSLRs offer a few different options when it comes to metering modes. These metering modes help tell your camera's sensor about HOW you want your image to be exposed. The three most common modes are: evaluative (or matrix) mode, center weighted mode and spot metering.

1. Evaluative or matrix metering mode

Evaluative metering mode is going to assess almost ALL of the reflected light in your frame (as seen by the image below) and try to achieve a balanced exposure for the entire image. Depending on your camera, this metering option most likely reads the light from a few different areas from your scene to get as "accurate" of a reading as possible. If the light across your scene is nice and even, then this mode will likely be spot on. If your subject is in the sun, but everything else is a shadow, it will likely be way off. A good thing to remember is that your camera is just a tool. It can't look at the scene at hand and make an educated guess about how the image should be exposed. It's making a guess by evaluating the light (and often time it's a pretty good guess....but then other times, it's pretty wrong).

2. Center-weighted metering mode

Center-weighted metering evaluates the light in the middle (or center portion) of your frame. As you can see in the image below, the middle part is the main focus of this metering option. The outer edges are still evaluated, but the majority of the "exposure" metering is given to this middle, center area.


3. Spot metering mode

Spot metering tells your sensor to evaluate the reflected ight at a SINGLE point in your frame. As you can see in the image below, only a very small portion of my son's check would be metered (and honestly, that circle I added is probably too large of an example - it really is just a small pixel-sized area that's evaluated). Most camera's will let you move this spot metering point, although some offer only just a few points in their range, from which you must select. In this case, you would meter/focus and then re-compose your shot for accurate metering. 

Spot metering allows very precise pinpointing when it comes to what area you want properly exposed. If you want to retain the detail of the sky in your frame, then you would meter for a lighter spot in the sky (to keep your brights from being too bright). If you are shooting during the golden hour and you want your subject to be properly exposed, then meter a mid-tone in their skin (which is going to likely blow out your sky). 

How do you choose which metering mode is right for you?

Determining what metering mode works best for you is going to depend on what type of images you take and how the lighting falls across your frames. There really is no right or wrong when it comes to metering modes. It's more of how those metering modes are going to affect YOUR images. If the majority of your photos are taken in even lighting situations, I would think sticking with evaluative (matrix) metering would work out just fine (which is your camera's default setting). If you are a product photographer and take straight on images with the main item typically in the center of your frame, center-weighted metering would likely work out a-okay. And if you're light varies or you love shooting in high contrast lighting, spot metering is probably your best bet.

For me, I stick with spot metering 99% of the time. I like being able to pick the EXACT spot I want metered instead of relying on my camera to evaluate the reflected light for me. By selecting the area I want to be properly exposed, I'm able to get my settings just right and my image more like I envision it. This keeps me from overshooting and also saves a TON of time when it comes to post-processing.

Do you have a metering mode preference? I highly recommend playing out with them all to see what works best for you!! 

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