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Metering and metering modes

Metering modes in photography are the compass by which we navigate the sea of light, guiding us to perfectly exposed images by interpreting how light interacts with the scene...

What is metering?

Metering is the process of measuring the available light in a scene to determine the optimal exposure settings for capturing an image. It's like having a sophisticated light meter built into your camera, which analyzes the brightness and contrast of your scene to achieve a well-exposed photograph.

If you need a quick refresher, remember that exposure consists of the three elements of the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

I like to think of metering as the bridge between your vision as a photographer and the technical capabilities of your camera, ensuring the final image you capture accurately represents the scene as you perceive it with your own eyes.

Let me share a personal example to illustrate the concept. Recently, I photographed a stunning sunset at the beach. The sky was ablaze with vibrant hues of orange and pink, while the crashing waves created a beautiful foreground. However, I noticed that my initial shots were coming out darker than expected, failing to capture the true brilliance of the scene.

At that moment, I turned to my camera's metering capabilities. I experimented with different metering modes, such as evaluative metering and spot metering, to accurately measure the available light. By adjusting the exposure settings based on the metering readings, I captured the colors of the sunset and the intricate details of the waves, resulting in a photograph that truly conveyed the magical ambiance of that evening.

Now that we know what metering is let's dive into all the reasons why it's important.

Why is metering important?

Metering in photography is important for four reasons: to achieve proper exposure, preserve highlights and shadow details, adapt to different lighting conditions, and exercise creative control.

1. Achieve proper exposure

The primary purpose of metering is to help you achieve accurate exposure in your photographs. As mentioned, exposure refers to the balance between light and dark areas in an image. Without proper metering, your photos can end up overexposed (too bright) or underexposed (too dark), resulting in a loss of detail and impact.

For example, let's say you go on a nature hike and come across a beautiful waterfall cascading through lush greenery. To capture the scene's dynamic range, you will rely on metering to ensure that the highlights of the flowing water aren't blown out while the shadows retain depth and detail.

By carefully metering the scene and adjusting the exposure settings, you can achieve a well-balanced photograph that showcases the beauty of the waterfall.

2. Preserve highlights and shadow details

The second reason metering is important is to preserve highlights and shadow details. This ties into achieving proper exposure, as mentioned above. In high-contrast situations, such as a landscape with a bright sky and dark foreground, metering can help you properly expose both elements.

For example, let's say you're photographing a stunning sunset over a city skyline. Without appropriate metering, the sky might appear beautifully saturated, but the buildings may turn into silhouettes lacking detail. By utilizing metering techniques like spot metering or exposure compensation, you can capture the rich colors of the sky while maintaining the desired level of detail in the cityscape.

3. Adapting to different lighting conditions

The third reason metering is important is so you can adapt to different lighting conditions. As a photographer, you may have noticed that lighting conditions vary widely, from harsh midday sun to soft, diffused light during golden hour. Metering enables you to adapt to these lighting scenarios and adjust your exposure settings accordingly.

4. Creative control

The fourth reason metering is important is to have more creative control over our images. After all, what is photography without creativity? Metering empowers you to exercise creative control over your images. By understanding the different metering modes and their effects, you can intentionally manipulate exposure to convey a specific mood or artistic vision.

For example, during a recent portrait session, I wanted to create a dramatic and moody atmosphere. Using spot metering, I measured the light falling directly on the subject's face, allowing me to underexpose the background and emphasize the subject's features.

This intentional metering choice resulted in a captivating portrait that conveyed the desired emotional impact. Now that we know why metering is important let's examine what a metering mode is and the different types you can use.

What is a metering mode?

A metering mode is a mode you can set your camera to in order to measure and analyze the available light in a scene to determine its exposure settings.

There are different metering modes, each designed to suit various shooting scenarios. Let's take a look at each one!

Different metering modes

Understanding the various metering modes available in your camera can significantly impact how you capture and expose your photographs. Each metering mode is designed to prioritize different elements of a scene and adapt to your specific shooting conditions.

Let's explore the most common metering modes and their applications, accompanied by some examples.

1. Evaluative/Matrix metering mode

Evaluative or matrix metering is the default metering mode found in most cameras. It utilizes a complex algorithm to analyze multiple areas of the scene, considering factors such as subject distance, color, and brightness distribution.

This mode aims to provide an overall balanced exposure across the entire frame. For instance, let's say you're photographing a landscape with a stunning sunset as the focal point.

Utilizing evaluative metering, your camera would "evaluate" the brightness and color distribution across the scene, considering both the sunset and the foreground elements. This mode would help ensure a well-exposed image where the vibrant colors of the sunset and the foreground details are accurately captured.

2. Center-weighted metering mode

Center-weighted metering gives priority to the central portion of the frame while taking the surrounding areas into account. It's particularly useful when you want to meter for a subject in the center while maintaining a balanced exposure overall.

For example, I've found this mode particularly helpful when photographing a person in a dimly lit room surrounded by a darker environment. If you set the camera to center-weighted metering, the camera would place greater emphasis on the subject's exposure, providing a well-exposed portrait while taking into account the surrounding ambiance.

3. Spot metering mode

Spot metering measures the exposure for a small, specific area in the scene, typically at the center of the frame or at the active focus point. As a portrait photographer, this is my go-to metering mode as it disregards the rest of the composition, focusing solely on the selected spot.

This mode is useful when you want precise control over the exposure of a specific subject or area. For example, when I'm photographing a close-up of a person, and I want to focus on their eyes, I can utilize spot metering to meter the person in front of me, ensuring their facial details are well-exposed.

4. Partial metering mode

Partial metering is similar to spot metering, but it considers a slightly larger area, typically around 10-15% of the frame, usually located at the center.

It provides a balance between spot metering and center-weighted metering, making it suitable for situations where you want to meter for a specific subject while considering the surrounding elements. For example, let's say you're a concert photographer photographing a musician performing on a dimly lit stage.

With partial metering, you can meter for the performer's face, ensuring the exposure is accurate and the facial expressions are well-captured while still taking into account the overall stage lighting.

Now that we've covered all the metering modes let's briefly discuss how to change the metering mode if you need some help.

How to change camera metering modes?

Changing the metering mode on your camera is a fairly straightforward process, but depending on your camera type, such as DSLR or mirrorless, it may be different.

It's good to know how to change your metering mode quickly in case you're out on a shoot and want to use a different mode quickly. For example, I shoot with a DSLR camera that has a dedicated metering mode button located on the top panel.

When I photograph landscapes, I often use evaluative metering as my default mode to capture the overall exposure of the scene accurately. However, if I'm out and want to capture a single subject or focal point, such as a person or animal I see, then I quickly switch to spot metering.

Here are three steps you can follow in order to change your camera's metering mode:

1. Read your camera's user manual

Refer to your camera's user manual to identify the specific buttons or menu options used to change metering modes. Each camera model may have a different layout and menu structure, so familiarize yourself with the instructions specific to your camera.

Here are the manuals for Canon, Nikon, or Sony. If these don't help you, a quick search on your search engine of choice will provide you with the correct answer!

2. Locate the metering mode button or menu

Most cameras provide a dedicated button or a menu option to access and change the metering modes. Look for icons representing metering or exposure, typically found on the top or back of the camera body.

3. Select your desired metering mode

Once you access the metering mode options, use the camera's navigation buttons, dials, or touchscreen to select the desired mode. The selected mode may be highlighted or displayed on the camera's LCD screen.

How to override metering?

While your camera's metering system is generally reliable, there will be some situations where you will want to override the default metering settings to achieve your desired exposure.

For example, if you're taking a picture of a bright blue sky and a few clouds. You will notice that the light meter will have trouble determining the optimal exposure because it will try to evaluate both the bright sky and the clouds.

In short, selecting the best metering mode may get you there 75% of the way in terms of perfect exposure, but you may find that it can't hit that other 25%. In order to get that extra 25%, we have exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is a powerful tool that allows you to manually adjust the camera's exposure settings while still using the metering system.

It lets you override the camera's suggested exposure by making the image brighter or darker.

It's really easy to use- just locate the dedicated exposure compensation button on your camera or access it through the menu. Typically, it is represented by a "+" and "-" symbol. By pressing this button and using the camera's control dial or arrow keys, you can adjust the exposure compensation value in increments of 1/3 or 1/2 stops.

Here's a great use case of when I had to use it. During a recent outdoor portrait session, I encountered a situation where the camera's evaluative metering consistently overexposed the images due to a particularly bright background.

To override the metering and achieve a properly exposed subject, I used exposure compensation by dialing in a negative value. By applying a -1 stop exposure compensation, I ensured that the camera's metering system reduced the exposure, resulting in a well-exposed subject with preserved details despite the challenging lighting conditions in the background.

In conclusion, by mastering metering techniques and choosing the appropriate mode for each situation, you can retain highlight and shadow detail, adapt to different lighting conditions, and exercise creative control over your photographs.

Whether you're a beginner or an experienced photographer, learning about metering and experimenting with different metering modes will significantly enhance your ability to capture images that accurately represent your artistic vision.

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