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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Jim teaches at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school. His interactive Internet courses include:

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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, Id project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.