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Controlling exposure: how exposure metering works

In the second part of our series on controlling exposure we’re looking at how exposure metering works. Understanding your camera’s exposure meter is essential to understanding how your camera works and then moving on to shoot in manual mode.

But let’s not jump in at the deep end yet. Let’s first understand how exposure metering works and why you need to know it.

If you missed part 1, you can find it here – Understanding the exposure indicator

What is meant by exposure metering?

When you measure the exposure of a scene, you are measuring the available light. If the scene is not measured accurately it will lead to an under or over exposed photograph.

There are two ways of measuring light:

  • a handheld light meter
  • your camera’s inbuilt metering system

In this article we’re specifically looking at how a camera meters light, which is the light reflected off the subject.

You can use the camera’s metering system when in program mode, aperture priority shutter priority and of course manual mode.

Exposure metering modes

There are three exposure metering modes for Nikon and four for Canon. The symbols for the different metering modes vary between brands, as do the names. I’ve listed the metering modes for Canon and Nikon,

  1. Spot metering
  2. Partial metering (Canon only)
  3. Centre-weighted metering
  4. Matrix or evaluative metering

What’s the difference between the metering modes?

Spot metering

Meters the brightness of a specific area that you’ve selected, which is about 2 – 4% of the scene.

Use this when the light is coming from behind your subject, like when you’re indoors photographing a subject in front of a window. Your background may be overexposed, but your subject will be correctly exposed.

Partial metering (Canon only)

Meters 8 – 13% of the center of the scene.

This, like spot metering, is really useful when your subject is darker than the background, such as when your subject is backlit.

Centre-weighted metering

Meters the area around the center of the scene, which is about 60 – 80% of the scene, regardless of your focus point.

Matrix metering (Nikon) or evaluative metering (Canon)

Meters the overall brightness of the entire scene, so is ideal when the scene is lit from the front.

Learning when to use each of these types of metering will make a big difference to your photography.

understand how exposure metering modes work

What’s the point of different metering modes?

If the camera knows what part of the scene you want correctly exposed, it will be more able to do what you want it to do.

Things to watch out for

Because your camera measures reflected light and is designed to average the exposure out to an average midtone (that’s medium gray if you’re thinking in black and white), it will struggle when the scene is either dark or light.

Easy to meter scenarios are scenes without much contrast between light areas and dark areas, such as a brick wall, your back garden on an overcast day, a green landscape. Anything that is evenly lit and doesn’t have huge variations between lights and darks.

Dark scenes

Because your camera measures the scene to expose it at an average tone, when faced with a dark scene, it might overexpose the scene as it tries to lighten the dark tones.

How to meter a dark scene to ensure a good exposure

Light scenes

On the other hand, if the scene is very light, such as a field of snow or a white building, your camera will read this as very bright and will underexpose the scene.

Knowing this allows you to take control when faced with challenging situations for your camera’s exposure meter.

You have three choices to help your camera measure a scene correctly:

      • Meter off a midtone within the scene
      • Meter off a gray card
      • Use exposure compensation

We’ll look at the first two below, but will look at exposure compensation in part 3 of this series on controlling exposure.

How to meter a bright scene with a lot of white

Where to find midtones in a scene

Grass, gray wall, skin (as long as it’s not too fair).

How to meter off a midtone in a scene:

  • Select spot metering on your camera
  • Point it at the midtone area to assess the exposure
  • Adjust your ISO, aperture and shutter speed as needed
  • Start shooting

What is a gray card and how to use it?

Gray cards are exactly that – medium gray non reflective material.

They don’t cost much and can be bought from from a camera dealer, or online. I use a Lastolite fold away gray card that looks like a really small pop up gray reflector (it’s the Lastolite EzyBalance 12 inch – 18% Grey / White).

How to use a gray card if you’re photographing a person:

  • ask them to hold up the gray card,
  • aim your camera at the grey card.
  • Put your camera into manual mode,
  • meter the exposure,
  • adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed,
  • focus and start shooting.

If the light changes, or you change your position, meter again, but otherwise you’re good to go.

How to use a gray card if you’re photographing a scene without a person in it:

  • position the gray card in the scene facing you,
  • meter off it as above,
  • remove it from the scene and start shooting.
Before taking a photo, get into the habit of asking yourself what metering mode would be best for the situation.Click To Tweet

Further reading: How to use a gray card to meter exposure

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If you have any questions about exposure metering, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our exposure metering tips have helped you to understand how exposure metering works, share that too.

Missed Part 1? Here it is…

Read Part 1 of Controlling Exposure – Understanding the exposure indicator

Part 3 – How and when to use exposure compensation

The exposure metering system on your DSLR camera can be fooled, such as when shooting in snow.

We look at the different situations that will confuse your camera and what you can do about it. This is exposure compensation.

Go to: How and when to use exposure compensation

Part 4 – How to control exposure in all shooting modes

Maybe you want a faster shutter speed or shallower depth of field?

The camera doesn’t know how to achieve creative results, it only knows how to give an accurate average exposure reading for the area that’s being metered.

We look at when and how to use program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode for creative results and controlled exposure.

Go to: How to control exposure in all shooting modes

Part 5 – Pros, cons and how to use auto ISO

Sometimes there’s so much going on that you need a little auto help. We look at the benefits and limitations of using auto ISO – even in manual mode!

Go to: Auto ISO – pros, cons and how to use it


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    Tutorial on how exposure metering works. Learn to use the correct exposure metering mode for a particular situation to guarantee well exposed photographs. Understand how your camera\'s exposure meter works, use it quickly and reliably for consistently great images. Click through to learn how exposure metering works. #exposure #exposuremetering #photography #phototips