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Spot, Center or Matrix? Which metering mode is the best for you? & 5 ways to master the metering modes

Shubham Davey 0
Reading Time: 14 minutes

The most basic element of photography is light. How to measure the light on the subject that you are photographing. By default, there is TTL (Through-the-lens) feature that measures the ambient or reflective light on the subject. In order to expose your photographs right and understand digital photography, you will need to master the TTL and exposure composition. Irrespective of which camera mode you use, the metering mode stays unaffected.

Considering the fact that photography is the game of light and brightness, isn’t it important to master the metering mode? In photography, metering mode is the way by which your DSLR determines the right exposure to take the perfect picture of your subject.

In this post, I will be sharing some insights on metering mode and ways with which you can master this to great rightly exposed pictures.

Exposure and composition are the two main pillars of taking a perfect image. Out of these two, exposure comprises of three things.

  1. ISO which determines the sensitivity of the light
  2. The aperture which determines the size of the opening of the shutter that will let in light  &
  3. Shutter Speed which determines the duration the light will be entering the lens.


What is Exposure composition?

In photography, exposure is measurable using light meters. In many situations, you will need to tune the exposure a bit to get the perfect shot.  You’ll understand that the composition is under-exposed or over and this comes with the practice. Scenics with a bright daylight will be over-exposed and will require a lower F-stop of exposure to make the sky look rightly lit.

Furthermore, there are two types:

  1. Incident light: This meter measures the light falling on the subject.
  2. Reflecting light: This meter measures the light reflecting off the subject.

By default, all the meters that are in your DSLRs are reflecting light meter. If you want to master the exposure composition and make the best out the all the light you have.

Where can you find metering mode

Generally, the metering mode can be found in live view mode as follows.

metering mode

Within these settings, you will find the metering modes to chose from as follows.

  • Spot metering mode

metering mode

  • Center-weighted metering mode

metering mode

  • Evaluative/Matrix metering mode

metering mode

Apart from this, you also find the metering modes inside the menu of your DSLR as shown below.

metering mode

metering mode

Irrespective of the model or variant of DSLR, these settings remain common.

How is exposure calculated by DSLR

The default reflecting light meter tries to analyze the amount of light in the scene you are about to capture. However, these readings are the assumptions and incident light meters are way more accurate than this.

Did you get chance to shoot both dark and bright photos, like a night and snow? If yes, then you would have noticed that dark (or night) photos are over-exposed. On the other hand, the photos of snow, are little under-exposed or grey to be exact. Thanks to reflecting light meters, this needs manual control to capture exactly the way it is.

Your DSLR doesn’t know about the right exposure, as it averages the light from everything that it sees. That is, the DSLR assumes that most scenes are mid-point between the dark and bright side, which is mid-grey or 18% grey.

In order to get over it, you need to spoon-feed your DSLR so that it can read the lights correctly, and that’s exactly what metering mode do.

Let’s explore the metering mode in detail.

What is a metering mode

Depending on how much to compensate the exposure, your DSLR has three metering modes. Matrix (aka evaluative), Spot and center-weighted metering. Furthermore, each of these suit various conditions and since these are reflecting light meters, don’t expect it to do everything for you.

metering mode

What is Evaluative/Matrix metering and where to use it

While you spet your DSLR to this metering mode, the reader will divide the scene into a grid and calculate each segment for highlight and shadow(bright & dark) data. Your DSLR will calculate the average value the exposure on that average.

All the camera do not have the same number of areas within the frame, so it would vary on various DSLRs. Furthermore, these DSLRs don’t calculate the average value of exposure the same way. Above this, it is also important to understand how your DSLR behaves in various situations and learn when to trust it, and when not to trust it.

In order to understand matrix/evaluative metering well, let me show you some example pictures of classic dark & bright photos.

metering mode

In this image, the camera reads the exposure from the center of the board, i.e. the DSLR was made to point at the middle with matrix metering mode on. The DSLR rightly read the bright and darks of the board and did the averaging of the exposure.

metering mode

In this image, the shot was taken with the camera reading the light sensitivity from the whiteboard end. Hence the white becomes grey and the black becomes darker grey. Reason being the camera tries to make everything 18% grey, or in other words, it averages both the board colors.

metering mode

In this image, the camera is reading from the black or darker side of the two boards. Hence the resulting image is over-exposed making the whites too bright, and the black becomes grey.

You can use matrix metering mode to self-educate yourself, as this is the easiest and least confusing mode. This mode is beyond the sophistication of other two complicated modes. Most of the photos turn out to be great with this mode active.

What is a Center-Weighted Metering mode and where to use it

As the name suggests, your DSLR will read the light readings from the center of the frame. Little to no importance is given to the corners of the frame. As far as accuracy is concerned, many Pro DSLRs have the setting to control the diameter of the center weight area.

Center-weighted metering is way more easy than matrix metering, as the reading is taken from the center. And in most of the cases, the subject is in the center of the frame. This mode is a lot more helpful in controlling both metering and light composition. That is, you can control where your DSLR gets the readings from and the light sensitivity in the frame. to compose your image prior.

You can utilize center-weighted metering when you are outdoor shooting portraits, scenes with high contrasts and close-ups etc.

What is Spot Metering mode and where to use it

The most precise and my personal favorite metering mode is spot metering. Reason being, you have complete control over the exposure composition. As in, you can choose which part of the scene should be highlighted. In this mode, the camera reads the light sensitivity

Unlike center-weighted metering mode, where the reading comes from 75% of the frame, in spot metering, less than 5 % of the frame is read. In spot metering, you can adjust the placement of the spot to capture the reading. Usually, it is the focus point that becomes the spot from the reading will be fetched.

Spot-metering comes handy in macro, back-lit and darker zone in landscapes. Lunar photography owes a lot to this mode. In short, spot-metering will save your day when you subject is either dark or bright than it’s surroundings.

Which metering mode should you use

Depending on the situations you and your subjects are in, the metering mode would vary. It also depends on light direction, the intensity of light, the subject’s position etc. Furthermore, examine the scene beforehand through the viewfinder. This will give you a rough idea of what the picture will look like. So you can choose matrix/evaluate when you have evenly lit subject. Use Center-weighted metering when you have a lot of light behind the subject, i.e back-lit scenes.

Use Spot metering when you are shooting smaller objects like flowers, insects, toys etc. This will give you a great precision and control over the composition. Furthermore, an incident light meter will further enhance your exposure composition. If your subject covers most of the frame, use spot metering mode so that you can precisely control the light through it.

5 ways to master the metering mode

Now that you know what is a metering mode, where to find it, where to use it. Let me tell you the ways by which you can master this important feature in your DSLR.

#5 Compose your scene beforehand

If you are familiar with photography, you’d be doing this already. It is best practice to compose your scene beforehand so that you know what will be the final image. When I say composing, the first thing that comes to my mind is setting the exposure.

However, we’re not privileged to compose the scene beforehand always. For example, you are shooting a wedding and things happening there are not under your control. So in such situations, you will need to anticipate the situations and set the camera accordingly for the best results. However, it will take time for this to happen till then you can set the metering mode to matrix/evaluative mode.

#4 Control your subject

Not everytime it happens that you have zero control over the subject unless you’re shooting a mountain. In scenes where you can control the subject, make sure that the subject is in the proper light. If shooting in daylight, use reflectors to further bring out the details from the scene.

Furthermore, scenes where you cannot control the subject, there are chances that your scene will go over-exposed or under-exposed in such situations. In such cases, you can control the exposure level in your DSLR.  You can find the exposure level in live view(Lv) as shown below.

  • Switch to Live view(Lv), and find exposure setting in here.

  • Change the exposure metering level as per the scene your photographing

metering mode

#3 Scale the light

Scaling the light is to understanding the intensity of the light and making the changes in your composition. You will need to evaluate the light more than anything. What will you compose if you are not aware of the lights in your scene?

So if you understand how the light is and how will it affect the photos you are going to take will help you have a better photo collection. Try taking photos in sidelight and backlight to understand the effect on the final photo. Doing this will help you determine the degree of composition you need to do.

#2 Use a tripod

When shooting in the night light, you will be in trouble to manage your DSLR. Reason being, the objects at night are under artificial light, and there are very high chances that your DSLR will up the shutter speed, aperture or ISO depending on the camera mode you are operating in.

For example, you are shooting a sports event, a car race or just a busy road with a lot of vehicles moving in a direction. In case of shooting cars, you’d not necessarily need a tripod. Just open the aperture a bit, chose a smaller shutter speed (smaller shutter speed will close the shutter faster). Furthermore, you will also need to play around with ISO and aperture unless you get the perfect exposure.

In case of, light trails of the busy traffic, you definitely need a tripod as you will open the aperture, have a least possible ISO(to avoid the digital noise in the picture) and a slower shutter speed to capture the light trail beautifully.

In cases where you have to use the tripod, opt for matrix metering if you are taking a wide shot, center-weighted for a portrait, and spot metering for smaller or fast moving objects. Spot metering will give the best results for fast moving objects, just a little bit of anticipation and guesswork will help you have beautiful shots.

#1 Practice all the modes

No matter how detailed or informative this post be, it won’t make sense if you don’t implement it in real time. To have a better picture of these power packed feature, you will need to operate in each of the modes individually. To begin with, you can opt for matrix mode so that you don’t have to do much as part of exposure composition.

As you grow and understand the scenes, lights, subjects and have better control over your DSLR, you can experiment all the modes.

Conclusion

Metering mode sounds very basic feature in a typical DSLR but when it comes to exposing the scene right to your DSLR, nothing comes helpful other than the exposure meter.

Many beginners tend to ignore the metering mode, but once they understand the power of it they seldom ignore. Even I used to ignore it at the beginning, but since the time I understood and began using it, I got great results.

Metering mode is like salt, it’s presence isn’t felt but absence is definitely felt.

Lastly, the metering mode is something that will make itself more and more clear upon regular practice. The more you use it, the more you will understand where to use it.

As a summary, you saw three metering modes in this post:

  1. Matrix Metering Mode: This mode reads the lights from all parts of the frame, averages it and records the light reading for the image. Useful for landscapes and in case you are not sure which mode to use.
  2. Center-Weighted Metering Mode: This mode reads the light from center of the frame, averages it and records the light data for the image. Useful for portraits, high-contrast scenes, and close-ups.
  3. Spot Metering mode: This mode is most precise and powerful mode that gives you complete control over the exposure. The point of focus is the spot where the reading is taken from. Useful for macro shots, subjects that are too small for the frame.

Over to you. What do you think of these metering modes? Which one do you find the most useful? Let me know in the comment section below.

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