Metering Modes in Wildlife Photography

Andrew Beck All Authors, Andrew 33 Comments

There is a wealth of information on metering modes available online but almost none of this info makes specific reference to scenarios that us as wildlife photographers face in the field. Whether its on our digital photography course or the wildlife photography course that I host, or even on safari, the question on the various metering modes always pops up.

I’m going to try and make the various metering modes simple to understand using a couple of “out of the box’ illustrations which I hope will resonate with some of you.

The Technical Stuff

Every camera has a sensor which, when exposed to light, creates an image. The camera also has a secondary sensor which measures the light that’s coming through the lens and determines how much is needed to produce a well-exposed photo based on the scene in front of you. As light is reflected from a scene or subject through the lens, it hits the mirror in front of the imaging sensor and is reflected up to the camera’s focusing screen and metering sensor and the camera assigns a shutter speed (in Auto, P and AV) modes.

The majority of cameras these days will have Spot, Partial, Centre-weighted Average and Evaluative (Matrix) metering modes, all of which work in the same way. Each of these modes takes readings from different parts of a scene in order to calculate the shutter speed necessary for obtaining a “correctly exposed” image. As the name suggests, Spot metering offers the most precise metering – anywhere from 1.5%-10% of the total picture area, depending on the camera – while at the other end of the scale, evaluative metering takes a series of readings in zones that covers around 80% of the entire frame.

This “Cheat Sheet” from Digital Camera World pretty much sums up how and where these various metering modes are taking light values from when selected.


Got it?


Now, lets see how this works in the field.

Assume we are shooting in evaluative metering mode and we have selected the right hand focus points to achieve focus on our very bright white egret to the right of frame. The camera will now measure light across pretty much the entire frame with a bias towards the active focus point.

Evaluative Metering OEV

Now, this is where I’m going to share how my mind works to try and illustrate what happens when the camera meters of the scene and gives you a shutter speed based on your desired aperture value and ISO setting.

Please keep in mind that these are not actual values but I’m using this to illustrate the way evaluative metering mode works – bare with me on this one!

In order to correctly expose the darker areas of a scene the camera would need to use a slower shutter speed (1/125) in order to allow sufficient light in and correctly expose these shadows or darker areas. At the same time the camera is picking up average shutter speeds for the mid tone areas (1/250 – 1/320) and then a very fast shutter speed (1/1000) for the bright egret which takes up only a small portion of the frame.

Evaluative Metering With Shutter Speeds OEV

Based on all of this information the camera then averages out the shutter speeds to keep the exposure “in the middle” and not too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed). In this instance the camera may have chosen an average shutter speed of 1/320 to capture this scene. As you can see, the egret ends up being overexposed but we can see some detail in the shadows.

In spot metering mode where the camera will use ONLY the centre focus point to meter the scene the results are dramatically different.

Spot Metering with Shutter Speed II0EV

Placing the centre focus point over your subject (only the new intermediate to professional level camera bodies has spot metering linked to the active AF point) and then locking the exposure (using the * or AE Lock button), you can now recompose and place your subject back on the desired focus points with the exposure reading locked to the original position of the centre AF point. Based on this, the camera would have used only 2-4% of the frame to gain a reading and assign a shutter speed linked to the exposure value.

This means that the camera ignores the dark backgrounds and exposes only for the subject.

Spot Metering 0EV

Thats an example of a bright subject on a dark background, now lets look at the converse.

Here is an Open-billed Stork is set against a bright background and, in evaluative metering mode, the camera once again measures light across pretty much the entire frame with a bias towards the active focus point.

Evaluative Metering II OEV

Using my hypothetical analogy of assigning shutter speeds across the scene where the camera is metering from, the camera may have decided on something along the following lines.

Evaluative Metering with Shutter Speeds II OEV

Clearly the scene is dominated by faster shutter speeds (1/1250) assigned by the camera to ensure that the bright water does not end up being over exposed. Unfortunately for us, the dark subject which occupies only a small portion of the frame has only two shutter speeds of 1/125 assigned to it. In the bigger picture (pun intended) the bright water wins the battle and the camera would have chosen a shutter speed of 1/1250 which is too fast a shutter speed to render our subject correctly exposed.

Does this look familiar to you? If you have ever tried to photograph a Lilac Breasted Roller or any other bird in flight against a bright sky in evaluative metering mode you will almost always end up with a dark subject and a beautifully exposed sky.

Changing into spot metering mode and, once again, using our central focus point to meter before using the * or AE -Lock button to lock the exposure, the camera is only metering off of the dark subject resulting in a slower shutter speed (1/125) which ensures that our subject is correctly exposed.

Spot Metering II 0EV accurate copy

Spot Metering II 0EV

If you’ve grasped this concept you will see how each of these metering modes have their merits and quirks. The tricky bit with spot metering is the fact that you will not only need to change modes but will also need to lock your exposure on your subject if you are using anything other than your central focus point (unless you have set this up in the menu system on a newer intermediate to professional level camera body).

You will also, as always, need to be acutely aware of your shutter speeds to ensure that you eliminate any chance of camera shake or movement within the frame (unless you are panning of course)

When to use these Metering Modes in Wildlife Photography

Evaluative metering does a pretty good job 90% of the time and its really only in difficult lighting that one may need to consider switching into spot metering mode.

In the way that I analyse a scene and capture an image, I am constantly aware of the light within the scene and will more often than not, make some sort of manual exposure compensation adjustment which uses the cameras initial evaluation of the scene (based on evaluative metering mode) as a starting point before being adjusted to either underexpose (darken, faster shutter speed) or overexpose (brighten, slower shutter speed) a scene.

If you are wandering whether you cant achieve the same results as spot metering by using exposure compensation in evaluative metering mode then you are on the right track. This will be the subject of my next post which will look at “Manual Exposure Compensation in Wildlife Photography”.

Metering Modes Evaluative 0EV-3

Spot Metering in wildlife photography for me is almost only used in very harsh lighting situations or when shooting at night with the aid of a correctly positioned spotlight. Here the camera ignores the entire scene except for the centre focus point where the concentration of light is at its brightest. Rather than taking the super slow shutter speeds needed to correctly expose the pitch black areas where no light is falling, the camera just looks at the centre point and the light that is falling on that small 2-4% of the frame.

This results in faster shutter speeds and, you guessed it, sharper images.

Metering Modes Spot Locked 0EV-3

I hope this helps shed some light on how the various metering modes work and how they can be used to deal with different lighting situations.

The really exciting part comes when you understand how to use manual exposure compensation to override the cameras evaluation of the scene and ensure that your RAW image is as close to your intended interpretation as possible.

Thats what I’ll be sharing in my follow up post so please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or comments on what I’ve covered here.

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About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

Comments 33

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  1. Craig Parsons

    Hey Andrew, thanks for taking your time and effort into making that blog or whatever you call it. It deffinately made me understand metering a lot more. Cheers Craig.

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  2. Carol Bell

    Thanks so much for this Andrew……. Since you first mentioned that you were going to do this blog I have been playing with metering modes in Av and Manual. This article has helped me understand so much more and why I am getting different effects in my photos. Just cannot wait for your next blog. (I have been trying so hard to take photos of genets and bush babies in my garden at night without any success…… I will now try again.)

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      Andrew Beck

      Thanks Carol! You should definitely be in spot metering mode for those night shots of the bushbabies. I would also shoot those kind of scenes in manual depending on your light source…

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Ivan

      Its only a pleasure and I’m really glad to see that this out of the box way of sharing my understanding of metering modes is resonating with others.

      anks for taking the time to read and leave a comment!

  3. Martin Brasg

    Andrew, you have simplified (put in lay-mans terms) an otherwise complex topic. Well done. For those of us “oldies” coming from the 35mm days, I have not read a better explanation. I’m still trying to grasp the idea of being able to change ISO when shooting. Something you were not able to do in the past other than “pushing or pulling” a stop or two in the darkroom or lab.

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Martin

      Thanks so much!

      Thats exactly what I was hoping to do. I often refer to ISO as a Trump Card which we can used to manipulate the camera into giving us the desired shutter speed. Another simple but effective way of understanding how ISO works.

      You may be interesting in check out a post which Gerry did on “What Should My Iso Be?” and a post which I wrote titled “ISO: Whats all the noise about“.

      I hope these too will help you!

      Chat soon!

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  4. lute vink

    Hi…thanx 4 sharing…im an artist painting wildlife in oils…I do have top quality camera gear but wouldnd call myself a pro photographer…nice to learn new things…ive been in the dark on may things photographicly speaking…I feel more xposed now thanx…

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Lute

      Thanks for your comment. That is so often the case. People have all the gear but lack the knowledge on how to get the most out of the gear. Thats exactly what we try and share with them whilst out on safari and, being in the field and gaining practical experience is the best way to learn.


    Enlightening information, thank you! Too often I spend a lot of time adjusting settings but am frustrated at the results. Have taken note of your valuable tips.

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      Andrew Beck

      Thanks Renee

      I have found that shooting in evaluative metering and adjusting manual exposure compensation saves a lot of time in the field. Hope the tips will help you out in the field!

  6. Victor

    Great blog I am one that uses center or spot reading and manual camera composation a fair amount I will be reading again and trying it out to put in practice and learn more understanding do you do amy practical work in the field Thanks saveing

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  7. Kirsten De Laet

    Great article Andrew, very informative and nice illustrated !
    I hope i get better wildlife (birds) pictures now cause mostly they are over or underexposed and completely unsharp.
    With the above tips it cannot go wrong anymore. 🙂

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      Andrew Beck

      I’m glad to hear that Kirsten!

      keep an eye on that shutter speed and make sure you have the correct AF mode selected – those are the most common culprits behind soft images of birds in flight!

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  8. Lindsay Fraser


    Thanks for the great article. You covered Spot Metering & Evaluated metering. In what situations would you use Partial & Centre weighted metering. These days i tend to use spot metering with exposure compensation but this can change with my mood.

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Lindsay

      I don’t use partial or centre weighted at all and prefer to make use of manual exposure compensation from evaluative metering mode, occasionally switching to spot metering in really tricky lighting situations.Any adjustments made from evaluative metering would be able to replicate the results obtained from centre-weighted and [partial metering modes.

      You can check out more on manual exposure compensation here.

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