Digital Camera Settings: Which Metering Mode to Use?

by Jim Zuckerman

Sunlight & Shadow - Rajasthan, India
Sunlight & Shadow - Rajasthan, India
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
All digital cameras offer you several choices as to how the meter reads light. They are: evaluative for Canon cameras (or matrix for Nikon cameras), spot, partial, and average or center weighted. How do you know which one to use?
    Evaluative (matrix): This is the most accurate method of interpreting the light in a scene. The viewfinder is divided into sections, and each section is assigned a level of importance with the center sections being the most important.

    Spot: The center 3% to 5% of the viewfinder is the only area the meter uses to read the light. You can use this when you photograph someone standing in front of a bright window or when a performer on stage is lit by a spot light and the background is very dark. The "Sunlight & Shadow" photo would be a lighting situation where you could take a spot reading on the women so the meter wasn't influenced by the bright sun. You would then lock the exposure in place with AE lock, recompose, and shoot.

    Partial: The meter reads the center 9% of the viewfinder.

    Average (center-weighted): The entire viewfinder is considered by the meter, but the center is given a little more importance.

Dancers, Papua New Guinea
Dancers, Papua New Guinea
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
Since I bought my first high-end digital camera in 2005, I have only used one metering mode: evaluative. I never take the camera off this mode. Obviously, I have encountered thousands of exposure situations that are challenging, so let me explain my rationale for doing this.
  • First, I try to minimize the camera adjustments because this saves time. Fiddling with camera controls while colorful festival dancers are performing, like in "Dancers, Papua New Guinea," means I may very well miss a great photograph. The same is true when photographing children with quickly changing expressions, sports, birds, and so many other subjects.

  • Second, I check the LCD monitor on the back of the camera constantly to make sure my exposures are correct. If they are not, I use the exposure compensation feature to tweak them in 1/3 f/stop increments. In this way, I can make imperfect exposures perfect very quickly. And, there is no guesswork.


  • Third, with the ability to adjust the exposure in post-processing, my exposures can be off somewhat but I know I can correct them to a large degree after-the-fact. In fast-changing situations, I feel I need to get the picture and then, if necessary, modify it later.

  • Fourth, even if I choose another metering mode, it's only an educated guess as to the results. I would still have to study the LCD to see if the exposures were good. I may still have to tweak the results with the exposure compensation feature. I would much rather save the step of changing the metering mode in lieu of speed - getting the shot - and then dealing with the exposure when I had the time during post-processing.


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