One of the most fundamental aspects of photography is to meter a scene. Metering denotes measuring the amount if ambient light in a scene and then using the camera’s exposure adjustment functions in order to find the right exposure value for an optimum exposure. The way scenes in real life are there is no way that every part of an image can be optimally exposed. Some are bound to be under exposed while others are bound to be over exposed. So, despite the best metering mode, some amount of adjustment is inevitable in post. More on that later.
Finding the best metering mode
It is the job of the photographer to find the best metering mode in order to reach that degree of optical perfection that s/he is looking for. It is pertinent to mention here that there is no camera, which can produce a perfect exposure of a scene, one which has variable levels of ambient lighting across the scene.
As a matter of fact the concept of perfect exposure itself is a bit dubious. We shall try to explain it some other time as it is beyond the scope of this discussion. But in a nutshell what is ‘perfect’ for you may be ‘imperfect’ for anther photographer. This is because the vision of no two photographers are the same. The same way the treatment of their images cannot be the same as well.
What are metering modes?
Metering modes denote built-in systems inside a camera that measures the amount of light in a scene. These modes are built to perform a light measurement based on specific requirements. Let’s find out about the various metering modes and learn more about them.
Probably the most common and arguably the most used metering mode is Matrix metering. Matrix metering is one of the most widely talked about as well. Why? Because it makes more sense to leave the metering to its default setting. Matrix metering is the default metering set-up on most cameras. Most beginner photographers don’t realize that they have their camera metering set to the wrong metering mode half the time.
Matrix metering mode takes into account almost whole of the frame. Everything almost from corner to corner is taken into consideration when evaluating the amount of light. The whole scene is divided into zones. These zones are individually analyzed on the basis of light and dark tones. This ensures that the camera get a good evaluation of the light across the scene.
What more, when your camera is set to matrix metering mode the metering system takes into account the focusing point, which is an advantage in some situations. We will come to that later on.
Center-weighted metering mode samples the area around the center of the frame. This metering mode, personally, speaking is a bit flawed. Because, although this mode was designed for portraits and those sort of images where one would usually keep the subject right in the middle of the frame, this is not the best way to compose.
We have stressed at different times on the importance of the Rule of Thirds and the phi grids for making off-center compositions. The Rule of Thirds as well as the Phi grids help us to create a structure for our compositions.
Both these compositional guidelines encourage off-center compositions. However, the center-weighted metering mode is unsuitable for off-center compositions. This is because you cannot meter for your subject which is at a side of the frame. At least not in the usual way. You can still do it if you meter the scene and obtain the focus by first placing the subject at the middle of the frame. Then you can lock both focus and exposure before changing the composition. In other words you will have to adopt the ‘focus and recompose technique’. I am not a big fan of this technique.
Spot metering meters the point where you are focused at. This is the best metering mode to acquire pin point metering accuracy for small subjects. This is also the preferred metering mode when you are unsure of the whole scene and need a small reference point. Let me elaborate.
Traditionally, the hand-held light meter is considered the best for accurate metering of light. The built-in light meter is not as accurate. Except, for the spot metering option where the sampling area is about 3.5 – 5% of the frame. Still, it is too large compared to the accuracy of the sampling area of a hand-held light meter which is about 0.05% of the frame.
Spot metering mode is, thus, the next best thing to hand held (external) light meters. This mode allows you to sample something which you feel is more middle-gray and then accordingly make an accurate exposure.
Canon systems have yet another metering mode. This is known as partial metering. Partial metering samples about 8% of the frame. This mode is suitable in some situations where the spot metering mode is too small and the center-weighted metering mode is way too large.
Now to look at a few photography situations and the appropriate metering mode to use in these situations.
Best metering mode for Weddings
Center weighted metering mode is arguably the best metering mode for shooting weddings. Let me elaborate why. In most situations, when shooting weddings, you are faced with portrait opportunities. A face, either brightly or under-lit. Matrix metering, which takes into account the whole of the scene, will be an incorrect way to approach such a scene. You need something that only takes into consideration the center of the frame. In other words Center weighted metering is the best solution in this situation.
Interestingly, however, center-weighted metering will not take into account the point of focus, which Matrix metering does. Which means even if you use center-weighted metering mode you won’t have the metering mechanism stressing on the point you are focusing at. That is a real downside. So, make sure that you use the focus and recompose technique to get an accurate reading.
Exceptions to center weighted metering mode for weddings
Having said that, there are some exceptions to the rule; and a number of them as well. You can’t expect to shoot portraits all the time at a wedding. There would also be a number of situations where you have to take group images. The matrix metering mode is a better solution in these situations.
We have already learned that the matrix metering mode takes into account the whole of the frame. When shooting a group photo, a large part of the frame will be filled in. As the matrix metering mode divides the whole frame into zones and individually measures the amount of light and dark tones in them, it is ideal for shooting group photos.
Best metering mode for portrait
I have a particular fascination for the Spot metering mode. So much so that 80% of the time my camera is set to spot metering. Except in those occasions when I am shooting landscapes or portraits, I tend to change the metering mode. My favorite metering mode for portraits is the center-weighted mode.
Why? Because center-weighted mode has a larger sampling area. Though by default it would not meter around the focusing point and that kind of makes it a two-step process to shoot portraits. I first have to meter by bringing the subject at the middle of the frame (because center-weighted metering mode will only consider anything that is at the center of the frame).
Next, step I have to lock both focus and metering by pressing the AE/AF lock button. This will ensure that the camera will not try to reacquire focus or try to re-meter the scene when I change the composition. Finally, I will press down the shutter release button all the way to make the exposure with the subject at a side of the frame.
Best metering mode for sports
Sporting actions are as varying as they can get and that means there will be as many different metering situations. But you don’t have hundreds of different metering modes to tackle them. Which means you will have to make do with the three or four modes, choosing the one that will work the best in a given situation and then recover the rest in post.
Let’s say that you are shooting outdoors and you have a soccer match to cover. Center-weighted metering is the best option for this. Why? Again because center-weighted metering takes into consideration the center part of the frame. In a fast sporting situation you will probably be keeping the subject at the center of the frame to ensure that you have good coverage of the action. In this situation the center-weighted mode is ideal.
Again if it a wide angle shot of the stadium, I would go for Matrix metering as that gives a better coverage of the scene and takes into account the whole of the stadium, the different tones of light and dark and should finally provide a better and more accurate description of the scene.
What if the scene is a snowboarding adventure? With that much snow around, the best option would be to meter for something that is a small portion of the scene. Then you need to cover for the inadequacy of built-in metering systems. In other words you need to over-expose the scene by one or may be even two stops.
Why would I do that?
Built-in light meters measure reflected light. That is an incorrect way to measure light because it depends on the luminosity of the subject itself. That means under similar lighting conditions red objects will appear brighter than brown objects and white objects will appear extremely bright while black objects will appear just like shadows.
This goofs up the built-in metering system because it has been designed to look at everything as if it is middle gray or of average luminosity. If something is brighter or darker the camera will try to compensate for that and bring it down (or up) to the average luminosity level it has been programmed to.
Best metering mode for landscape
Landscapes are much easier to meter, at least because the default metering mode on most cameras – Matrix metering is designed to work seamlessly with landscape scenes. Matrix metering, as you are already aware of, divides the frame into many zones. Each zone is evaluated for the levels of dark and bright tones and then accordingly exposure is set.
In some situations I would switch to Spot metering as well for landscapes. This is when the scene has an overbearing amount of bright or dark tones and I know that I have to not only compensate for the bright/ dark tones by manually increasing or decreasing the exposure, but I also need a small reference point for what would be middle gray. Spot metering would be my choice in such situations.
Best metering mode for street photography
Street photography is a slightly different cup of tea compared to anything that you may have tried before. Street photography is mostly about impromptu image making. You have to be prepared for a shot even before the shot presents itself and making it in a flash.
Such speed and quick reflex work requires that you choose a metering mode that would give you an acceptable exposure in most situations. I would personally go with Matrix metering. Why? Because Matrix metering takes into account almost whole of the frame and then sets the exposure value.
Additionally, when shooting street photography it is a good idea to explore something which you normally refrain from doing – use the auto mode. The auto mode will dial in the exposures on its own leaving you with the task of just having to compose, focus and press the shutter button.
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