In the first portion of this blog series I discussed how to obtain correct exposure in your camera by following the guidelines of your integrated light meter on your DSLR. Today we will take the process one step further by metering isolated areas of your photo, and discussing the various metering modes. The previous metering method discussed will still work flawlessly when the frame in question is perfectly and evenly lit. However, it becomes more problematic when there are subjects within your frame with varying light levels and intensities.
Take a blank wall for instance: In this case, your camera is measuring the light levels or a blank slate, meaning there is one constant light source. Our previous method would work great here because changes in your settings will have a constant effect over your whole picture.
Now, add a window to your wall: The meter now needs to evaluate the brightness of the light coming through your window as well as the indoor light on your wall to determine the best exposure settings. As a result, your meter may suggest to over expose your window to prevent your wall from being underexposed.
Last, add a person in front of the window: Your camera is now assigned the task of compensating for A) Darker shadows on a person, B) The light on the wall, and C) The incoming light from the window. The camera meter will be evaluating the entire frame while attempting to find a happy medium to balance the highlights and shadows.
To conquer this dilemma, cameras are equipped with various metering modes to help produce the appropriate results. Let’s discuss these options now!
Matrix (Nikon) or Evaluative (Canon) Metering Mode
This mode considers the largest portion of your frame when metering your light. This very simple method is about as close to automatic metering as you can get.
In this mode, your camera considers ALL available light and comes up with its’ best suggestions to maintain proper exposure for the whole frame. The best time to use this mode is when you have relatively even light throughout your frame or if you subject in question fills up most of your frame.
Spot Metering Mode
Spot metering is precisely what it sounds like. Your camera will be looking at a specific spot within your frame while ignoring the light from every other aspect. If you are shooting in to the light or against a light/dark background this is the mode that will be most helpful as it will only take the exposure of your subject in to consideration. More often than not, my camera is set to spot metering.
When shooting people in particular – I try to set my metering point to the cheek or eye of my subject. I’ve found this method to be immensely helpful in avoiding shadows under the eyes and overall correct skin tone of the image.
Center Weighted Metering Mode
Center weighted metering is similar to Matrix Metering in that the camera meter considers a wide area of the frame – assuming that the point of interest is positioned in the center of the frame. Center weighted metering is great for portraits where the subject is the largest portion of the photo.
Center weighted metering can be a great tool when shooting portraits because your subjects will rarely be located on the outer corners of your frame.
So Which Mode Is Best?
I wish I could give you an answer as to which metering mode works best, but honestly every photographer has different techniques that work best for them and it really depends on what exactly you are shooting. I personally avoid Matrix (Evaluative for Canon) as my main focus is almost always people and I want to make sure that my metering is focused near the skin tones. Personally, my camera never leaves Spot Metering Mode. I really enjoy having complete control over what part of my frame is gaining the best exposure. However, Center Weighted Mode is a quick and easy option for close up portraits.
Practicing with the separate metering modes can be really fun and gives you a chance to get creative. Taking photos at sunset and metering for the background can create some really neat silhouettes of your subjects while metering for the foreground has the opposite effect results in some beautifully backlit subjects. Mastering this feature in your camera is going to open a huge door to creative possibilities!