Know Your Metering Modes

Michael Laubscher All Authors, Michael 9 Comments

What is metering?

Metering is how your camera determines what the correct shutter speed and/or aperture should be, depending on the amount of light that goes into the camera and the sensitivity of the sensor.

Every modern DSLR has something called “Metering Mode”. It is so important to know your camera’s metering modes in order to use them to your advantage.

Knowing how metering works and what each of the metering modes does is important in photography, as it will help you control their exposure with minimum effort.

I know one can get very excited and lost in the moment when out in the field but before picking up the camera and snapping away, look around and assess the light, is the lighting flat? Is a ray of light illuminating your subject? Do you want the background to melt into darkness?

Once you have an idea on how you want your final image to look, meter for how you want your scene to be exposed.  Your camera will help you achieve your goal, you just have to tell it how to do it.

Take note of the information below, these are how the different metering modes will be symbolized on Nikon and Canon.


I will be focusing on two modes only in this blog. Reason being is because for my wildlife photography, these are the two I always use.

1 – Evaluative metering

I use evaluative metering for 90-95% of my photography.

Evaluative metering mode is the default metering mode on most DSLRs. It works by dividing the entire frame into multiple “zones”, which are then all analyzed on an individual basis for light and dark tones. Usually 60% of the information is evaluated in the centre of the frame and the other 40% is evaluated in the corners.

In the image below you will see an area highlighted in red. This is where your camera is gathering its information from when you choose the evaluative metering mode.

One thing to also remember because it is one of the key factors (in addition to color, distance, subjects, highlights, etc) that affects evaluative metering, is where the camera focus point is set to. After reading information from all individual zones, the metering system looks at where you focused within the frame and marks it more important than all other zones.

Another thing to keep in mind before taking the shot, you have looked around and assessed what will be in your frame. If you have a very dark areas behind your subject you will have to underexpose because your camera will pick up the very dark areas and will want to make those darker area lighter. If you don’t work the exposure your subject will be over exposed and you will loose detail in it.

Also if you have a very bright area behind your subject you will have to overexpose because your camera will pick up the very bright areas and will want to make those bright areas darker. Again. if you don’t work the exposure your subject will be underexposed and you will loose detail in it.


You can fool your camera by underexposing so that the darks stay dark and your subject still has its detail. The image below is where to find your exposure meter on the LCD monitor on the back if the camera if you push the Info button or on the top Info panel if your camera has one. (Remember all settings are symbolized slightly differently from make to make).

So each little dot on that exposure meter line is a single 1/3 (third). At every third dot you will then have one full stop under or overexposed. Moving the little line below the zero (which is neutral) to the left underexposes and moving it to the right will over expose it.

Here are examples of unedited images where I had to underexpose to keep the darks dark and keep detail in my subjects.

Here are examples of images where I had to overexpose, fooling the camera in keeping the bright areas bright and keep detail in my subjects.

Lastly, underexposing a lot with a subject against a bright sky while on evaluative metering is great for silhouette type images. There is a difference between a silhouette image and an into the sun image but will get to that when I chat about spot metering.

Just before we jump to the next mode, here are examples of a silhouette images.


Now onto…

2 – Spot Metering

I use spot metering for the other 5-10% of my photography.

Spot Metering only evaluates the light around your focus point and ignores everything else. It evaluates a single zone/cell and calculates exposure based on that single area, nothing else.

In the image below you will see a very small area highlighted in red. This is where your camera is gathering its information from when you choose the spot metering mode.

I personally use this mode often for my bird photography, because the birds mostly occupy a small area of the frame and I need to make sure that I expose them properly, whether the background is bright or dark. Because the light is evaluated where I place my focus point, I could get an accurate exposure on the bird even when the bird is in the corner of the frame.

Here are some examples of birds I photographed while using spot metering;

I also use it all the time during night time shooting spot lit animals. Using evaluative metering at night does not do the trick for me and this is because the camera struggles with the extreme darkness. Examples to follow;

Also, and now getting back to into the sun photography and silhouette photography. As you saw in the silhouette images earlier, there is no detail in the bird/subjects, to say this in a simple way, the bird/subjects are very dark.

Into the sun photography is a little bit different due to the fact that you are trying to keep some detail in your subject and spot metering works great for back-lit subjects like that.

These are examples of into the sun images.

So now that you understand what the two modes do and how it can help you, you may be wondering, how do I change the metering modes?

Unfortunately, this varies not only from manufacturer to manufacturer, but also from model to model. On more basic level cameras  for example, it is done through the menu setting/(Info button). On more professional cameras there is a separate button on the top of the camera for metering modes.

I would suggest that you pull out your cameras manual. That will tell you exactly how and where to change your metering modes.

I will be concluding with these two last points;

Firstly, when we talking about the correct setting/exposures, there is not really a right or a wrong. You as the photographer should have a picture in your head as to what the end result must be, once you have that you make your adjustments accordingly.

I will be leaving you with this last image which can be of help when out in the field, truly a great reference when it comes to metering.


Until next time…

Happy snapping!


About the Author

Michael Laubscher


Haunted by the allure of spectacular wildlife and African sunsets. I am a hunter-gatherer of natural light and candid moments, an appetite whet with a taste of the unknown and the smell of home; “This Is Africa”! I look forward to sharing life long experiences with you and helping you capture them. Please feel free to go check out my Instagram account

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Comments 9

  1. Pingback: Know Your Metering Modes - Africa Freak

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    Michael Laubscher

    Hello Sherry McKelvie

    Thank you so much!

    If you look at the brightest part on the lions mane, that was my focus point and on the leopard, my focus point was where the light was hitting her face, so around the eye region.

    Keep well!

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  3. Joe

    travelling to Amboseli this weekend can’t wait to apply this valuable lessons in capturing speaking pictures. a self taught photographer with a disease for traveling n capturing rare moments…talk to me about capturing the night sky too the Best way possible. .

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  4. Pingback: Have You Tried Rim Lit Photography? - Wild Eye

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