I'm interested to hear what exposure/metering techniques people use when taking out-and-about shots (no tripod). I almost always have my camera set to Aperture Priority mode, and I suspect most people do the same. I have been using back button focussing for a while now, so I am able to lock the focus point and exposure point individually before composing and taking a shot. I use a single, centred focus point and find that fairly straight forward to use. However, I really struggle with the exposure point. On my Canon 30D there are 4 metering modes:

  • Evaluative (called Matrix mode on Nikons)
  • Center-Only (Partial Metering)
  • Spot (Center-Biased)
  • Center Weighted Averaging (Full-Frame Averaging)

Of the 4, Evaluative is the most 'automatic'; the camera makes judged decision on exposure based on the whole scene. I wanted to try to avoid this mode because I thought I would learn more going for one of the more manual options. So I started using Spot mode for a bit, but most of my photos ended up either under or over-exposed. So I reverted back to Evaluative mode.

So, after that lengthy introduction, my question is: do you have a good technique for getting the best out of your cameras metering modes? and Which metering mode(s) do you usually use?


8 Answers 8


It doesn't make a huge amount of difference what mode you use because if you want accurate exposures, 9 times out of 10 you have to correct it manually.

I use AV (aperture value) and evaluative metering; it gets the closest in the widest range of circumstances. Then I shoot and chimp (check the exposure on the rear LCD screen), I often have to adjust the exposure and shoot again. However sophisticated the metering algorithm it's based around the assumption that everything you shoot is middle grey. The camera doesn't know what you're photographing so it can't really decide what's over or under exposed.

In this sense all metering modes are "manual", I prefer evaluative over spot as it's less likely to change due to slight composition changes so I can dial in the required exposure compensation.

However if I'm feeling lazy then it's a case of pointing the camera up to get more sky if the image on the LCD is underexposed or pointing it at the ground when it's overexposed (provided you separate metering and focus as you suggest).

The point is you have to decide the exposure not the camera. Metering is however useful for getting you close, or for when you don't have time for a second shot! If you have time, always have a few goes at setting the exposure, as digital film costs (approximately) nothing.

  • 1
    Just for kicks, an 8GB SD card costs about 30 bucks. MLC flash has a mean life of 5000 read/write cycles. Assuming a somewhat dumb controller and 22MB raw files each picture costs: 0.000034 dollars (0.0034 cents). Nov 11, 2010 at 15:59
  • @Ron Warholic - Lots way less than 30. newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820208293
    – rfusca
    Nov 11, 2010 at 16:11
  • 4
    If you're using a DSLR with a physical shutter that cost jumps to a shocking 0.2 cents (assuming a $100 rebuild after 50,000 actuations). But still a fifth of a cent. To me lightmeters, complicated metering modes, formulas and rules of thumb are worthless compared to actually taking a photo and looking at it. Why use a reading when you can use the real thing!
    – Matt Grum
    Nov 11, 2010 at 16:29
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    @Matt: Completely agree. If at all possible check your exposure and reshoot until you're absolute happy with it. There are some cases where the first shot counts but in Av mode with reasonable metering and frequent chimping theres no reason to lean on the metering too much. Nov 11, 2010 at 18:37
  • 1
    @Matt Grum: Great point, being able to look is one of those huge digital advantages.
    – rfusca
    Nov 11, 2010 at 18:48

A lot of good information on the other modes, but here is a great technique for using spot metering.

When using spot metering correctly, is the by far the most consistent and very easy to use. What you do, is you spot meter on your white point, the brightest part (ignoring specular reflections), and set your EV compensation to +X.X EV to push that metered gray point to the white point.

More information can be found here.

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    Thanks. This seems to be a more in-depth description of the 'Highlight-spot' emulation that Itai described photo.stackexchange.com/questions/4832/…
    – ltn100
    Nov 11, 2010 at 20:07
  • thanks for this tip. I have been trying out spot metering on the highlights and it does indeed work very well.
    – labnut
    Nov 16, 2010 at 7:22

Evaluative (Matrix or Multi-Segment are all names for the same thing, depending on your camera) is a sophisticated mode that tries to find a good exposure based on the entire scene. That is the mode you should use when you don't have time to think about exposure.

Center-weighed is basically a less sophisticated version of Evaluative. You can use it for general purposes too but since it is simpler it tends to miss more than Evaluative. On the other hand because you know it is biased on the center, it is more predictable. After using it for a while, you may be able to know when your camera will miss and by how much.

Spot is to be used when you know what your mid-tone is. That is, when you know which part of your scene should be shown as 18% luminance in your image. With experience I know some people who are very good at it (you can memorize some rules-of-thumb to help though). Personally, I don't find it that easy, so I use a grey-card to set as reference when needed. You basically put it in the scene, take a spot-meter reading of it and lock your exposure to that.

Now, if you had an Olympus DSLR, you would have 2 extra modes: Highlight-spot and Shadow-spot. These will let you 'spot-meter' using a highlight (brightest area to show details) or a shadow (darkest area where you want details). These are easier to use than regular spot-metering because it is easier to see what part of your scene is brightest.

All is not lost if your camera brand does not start with '0' since these can be emulated on most cameras. If you put your camera on spot-metering and set EC to +3 1/2 (more or less) then you have a Highlight-spot mode. Use -3 1/2 EC to get Shadow-spot. That way you can point the camera at a highlight or shadow, lock exposure (AE-L or Shutter half-press), re-frame and take your picture.

My preference is usually for expose based on highlights and let the shadows and mid-tones fall wherever they do... but that is up to you. Choose what do do based on the results you like! That's what the metering modes and manual mode is for.


Most of the time I am in Manual mode and Center-Weighted metering, but that's just what I am used to. I find that it's also easy to just follow basic exposure rules and use exposure compensation in AV mode, for eg, +1 EC for backlit subjects, etc, and a lot of it is down to practice and familiarity with your camera, as there are variances even within the same model. My 5D2 for eg tends to be a tad underexposed in artificial lighting but works out fine in daylight.

Where I can afford some time to be careful, I use Spot metering. This is done most often when I am shooting landscapes, where I can decide where and what I am exposing for in order to get the desired effects.

Knowing your equipment, practice, learning to read the light, will all help you decide what to do. Once you get results you like then keep at it.


Manual mode for me all the way. Something a film professor told me that I follow (when doing film anyway, but i carry it over to digital) is "meter for the shadows, expose for the highlights"

I figure out what I need for the shot, in regards to depth of field, meter in the shadows and shoot. It works great for film, for digital im sure its just a small correction in post.

  • A difference in digital is that there's no smooth rolloff for highlights — once you've clipped them, there's an ugly flat line between useful data and blown-out. So the "expose for the highlights" half of the phrase becomes more important.
    – mattdm
    Dec 1, 2010 at 0:38

You asked, specifically:

do you have a good technique for getting the best out of your cameras metering modes?

A lot of this has been touched on in other answers, so I'm just going to try to pull things together, to describe my personal technique:

I find that I get "the best out of my cameras metering modes" when I do two things: Shoot in manual, and use Spot metering (note: "center-biased" strikes me as a misleading phrase to tie to (a true) spot metering mode -- spot metering meters (or should, in theory) only what's at the very center of your viewfinder). Combine that with knowledge of the Zone System (as adjusted/adapted, perhaps, for a quite possibly decreased dynamic range in your digital sensor versus black-and-white negative film), and what kinds of subjects are in what zone (e.g. that caucasian skin tends to be zone 6), and you can then pick specific items in your scene to meter off of, placing them not necessarily at the center, but in a specific place on your dial (e.g. one stop above, or maybe 2/3 stop above, center, for caucasian skin), and you can often (with practice) get the exact exposure that you want on the first try.

"With practice" is a key point, there, of course. With practice comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes an ability to adjust for specific situations -- perhaps you're metering on caucasian skin, but it's in shadow, and not your main subject -- so you want it to read as a zone III, say. Or you have a middle grey that you want to appear black, to get a starkly low-key image. Or what have you.

That's how I get the best out of my camera's metering modes. Of course, "the best" is also subjective -- what I'm (usually) after is complete control of my exposure. Sometimes, though, "the best" for a situation is to have the computer inside the camera do the math for you, and take its best guess -- any situation with rapidly changing lighting conditions where you want to be sure to get an "OK" picture every time, and that's more important (e.g. because your purpose is to capture every person at an event, say -- wedding crowd, birthday party, something like that) than getting a "great" picture, then evaluative meeting and aperture priority is probably getting "the best out of your camera's metering modes" for that particular situation.

The way to truly get the best out of it, then, is to know when to use which modes, and how to use each one.

At least that's my take. :)

Happy shooting!

  • +1 Welcome to the forums, Lindes. Your answers are excellent, and very informative. Hope to see you around in the future!
    – jrista
    Nov 30, 2010 at 21:36
  • Thanks, jrista. I've been answering photo questions in various fora for a while; it's nice to have a place like photo.SE to centralize these things in a place with (or building towards) good readership, lots of questions, reputation scores, etc. I expect I'll be around for a while. :) (Though it may not be every day, I'll keep coming back.)
    – lindes
    Nov 30, 2010 at 22:58
  • I think "center weighted" or "center biased" is more than just spot-metering on the cheap. Actually, I suspect it's "full-frame average" on the cheap, with the alleged excuse that the sky tends to be at the edge of the frame so counting that for less works better.
    – mattdm
    Dec 1, 2010 at 0:36

This question is largely a duplicate of When best to use Multi-Zone/Matrix, Spot, or Center-Weight?, and hopefully you can find some of the answers there helpful.

Also, if you're interesting in thinking about this kind of thing, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Michael Freeman's Perfect Exposure and reading through it slowly. The book isn't your typical "here's how to adjust your aperture and this is what shutter speed does" deals — instead, it thoughtfully goes through a process for judging a scene and making an exposure decision which reflects your vision.


An useful tip is the sunny f/16 rule: basically in a sunny scene the correct exposure is given by 1/100, f/16 with iso 100. From this you can rescale the values accordingly (f/8 -> 1/400 and so on...)

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    Back in the day I took several afternoons and shot slide film with mechanical cameras using the Sunny 16 rule. It does work as long as the lighting isn't too weird. A little bit of an anachronism with digital cameras of course :-) To those wondering what we are talking about -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunny_f/16_rule Dec 1, 2010 at 20:00

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