When and how to use spot metering for accurate exposure

It would be easy to say use spot metering most of the time in portrait photography for accurate exposure of your subject. However, that’s not particularly helpful for learning why and when to spot metering is best. You need to know:

  • Why spot metering is a good choice for portrait photography
  • When it’s the only suitable metering mode to use
  • How skin color affects spot metering
  • The two times spot metering is not ideal

But first you need to know what it is.

What is spot metering in photography?

Spot metering measures exposure using the smallest area of all the metering modes as you measure just 2 – 4% of the frame.

Because the other metering modes measure much wider areas, they aren’t as targeted as spot metering.

The 3 main metering modes on your camera used for measuring the brightness of a scene and setting exposure are:

  • Spot metering
  • Center weighted metering
  • Evaluative metering (Canon) or Matrix metering (Nikon) or Zone metering (Sony)

Canon is the only brand that also offers partial metering.

Unlike the other metering modes, the icon for spot metering is the same across all camera brands.

Camera icon on all brands for spot metering mode

Spot metering icon

How to use spot metering in portrait photography

Does spot metering work in manual mode?

All the metering modes work across the different shooting modes. They just work differently. So, yes spot metering works in manual mode.

In the semi-automatic and automatic shooting modes, once the camera has measured the scene based on the metering mode you selected, it adjusts the exposure settings. These are:

  • Aperture priority mode
  • Shutter priority mode
  • Program mode
  • Auto mode

In manual mode, you can see if your exposure settings are accurate by looking at the exposure indicator. It’s up to you to change either the aperture, the shutter speed or the ISO according to the exposure indicator’s recommendation for the correct exposure.

However, sometimes the exposure setting is wrong, because your camera can get confused in center weighted and evaluative / matrix / zone metering modes.

Which leads me to my next point…


Why use spot metering?

If the scene has both bright and dark areas, your camera will struggle to meter the scene accurately in the other metering modes.

It’s up to you as the photographer to decide if you want the bright areas or the dark areas to be exposed correctly.

  • If you want an average exposure for the entire scene, use the default metering mode, which is evaluative / matrix / zone.
  • If you want the central part of the image to be correctly exposed, select center weighted metering.
  • To ensure that a very specific part of the image is correctly exposed, use spot metering, because it allows you to select and meter a small area.

Examples of when to use spot metering mode:

1. When your subject is backlit

To avoid including the bright light behind your subject, which will influence the exposure reading, use spot metering to meter only your subject so that they’re not underexposed.

Bear in mind though, that in backlit scenes, without adding fill light or reflecting light back into your subject, the background will be overexposed as it’s brighter than your subject.

How to meter when a subject is backlit

To accurately expose the subject I used a reflector to bounce light from the setting sun behind her back into her face and measured the exposure with spot metering

2. Setting exposure when the background is very dark

On the other hand, if the background is dark and is included in the exposure measurement, the camera will want to brighten the background, which will overexpose your subject.

So, to avoid including the background in the exposure reading, use spot metering (and meter off the subject) for an accurately exposed subject.

3. Spot meter when your subject is wearing very light or very dark clothing

Digital cameras measure reflected light, so the color of the surface you meter affects the exposure reading.

So, because the color of your subject’s clothing will influence your camera’s ability to give an accurate exposure, you’ll need to measure the exposure of your subject’s face only. This requires spot metering.

Why spot metering is the best metering mode for portraits

4. Measuring exposure in snow or at the beach

Because your camera wants everything to be average gray, it’ll want to underexpose the bright white beach sand or snow to medium gray if you allow it to measure the exposure with these areas included.

So with any metering mode, other than spot metering, in these conditions your exposure will be wrong.

To summarize, spot meter for portraits:

  • When the subject is backlit
  • In high contrast scenes

Is spot metering best for portraits?

In portrait photograph your subject is the most important part of the image, so must be correctly exposed, especially their face.

Because such a small part of the scene is the most important part to be correctly exposed, spot metering is ideal for portrait photography. I use it at least 90% of the time.

However, sometimes the other metering modes are better.

When not to use spot metering

If spot metering worked for every type of photography in every scenario, camera manufacturers wouldn’t have developed the other metering modes. In portrait photography, the other metering modes are better for:

  • Documentary style photoshoots using semi-automatic shooting modes
  • Extreme close ups

1. Documentary style photoshoots

Because spot metering covers such a small area, in a fast paced documentary style photoshoot, using spot metering in one of the semi-automatic modes could be difficult.

You’d have to pay close attention to what’s being metered as you move from one scenario to the next, which could slow you down or result in overexposed or underexposed photos.

If shooting in manual mode, I recommend spot metering.

The best metering mode to use for portrait photography

2. Extreme close ups

In portrait photography we focus on the eye, but we meter for the skin. If you meter the eye, which is darker, your exposure won’t be correct, especially if your subject has light skin.

For an extreme close up of your subject, where their face fills the frame, spot metering isn’t essential. Use matrix metering instead for an accurate exposure.

If your focal point also acts as the area to meter for spot metering, as with Nikon cameras, it would actually be better to use matrix metering for close ups. Otherwise, you’d have to meter your subject’s skin, set your exposure, then focus and take the shot.

How skin color affects metering mode choice

Cameras see in black and white and their exposure system wants to make everything medium gray. So your camera doesn’t like to record white as white or black as black. It’ll always try to bring both white and black back to gray.

What that means in portrait photography is that your camera will want to brighten dark skin to medium gray and darken light skin to medium gray.

Asian skin, in black and white terms, is medium gray, so your camera will expose this correctly.

Obviously there are many different skin tones, so this is a simplification, but it’s a good starting point for accurate exposure.

Knowing this, you can take steps to help your camera expose correctly using exposure compensation. It’s a camera setting hat allows you to adjust exposure up or down:

  • Black skin: -1 exposure compensation
  • Light Asian or tanned white skin: no need for exposure compensation
  • White skin: +1 exposure compensation

I strongly recommend learning how the zone system works for exposure to help you understand how color impacts exposure.

How do you use spot metering?

Setting your metering mode varies between camera brands and even between models of the same brand. With higher end cameras you can select the metering mode using buttons and dials on your camera, but with entry level cameras you need to use the menu system .

Either way though it’s easy to do.

Before you begin, check your manual to see if the area your camera meters is at the very center of the frame like Canon, or if, like Nikon spot metering, it moves with the focal point.

It’s a three step process once you’ve selected your metering mode:

  1. Meter
  2. Adjust camera settings
  3. Take photo

1. Meter the exposure

  • If the light on your subject’s face isn’t even, such as when it’s lighting only one side of the face, decide which side you want to expose for
  • Position the spot on the cheek you want to expose for to take a meter reading
  • Take note of skin coloring

2. Adjust camera settings

  • Underexpose by 1 stop for black skin and overexpose by 1 stop for white skin. Asian skin won’t require any exposure compensation
  • In manual mode, once you’ve taken the reading and adjusted your settings accordingly, you’re good to go. As long as the light stays the same on your subject you can continue to photograph without having to measure again
  • In program, aperture priority or shutter priority modes adjust exposure compensation for skin type, then lock in the exposure using the Auto Exposure Lock (AEL or AE-L) button so that your settings don’t change as you reframe the shot. For this reason, manual mode is best when using spot metering, especially if you also use back button focusing 

3. Take photo

Although spot metering is ideal for when your subject is backlit, the process is the same regardless of light direction.

What metering mode to use in documentary portrait photography

Which metering mode is best?

Every metering mode has its place, but for portrait photography spot metering mode is best most of the time, especially if you photograph in manual mode.

That said, when it comes to shooting style, so many factors influence the camera setting decisions you make, including subject, lighting and activity.

Plus, what works for one photographer might not work for another.

Only practice and time will help you to decide for yourself …but meanwhile, get to know all the exposure metering modes.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about how to use spot metering in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my exposure metering tips have helped you, share that too.

13 thoughts on “When and how to use spot metering for accurate exposure”

  1. Hi Jane,happy 2020 to you also.
    I like wildfire photography most of time,I going to Hawaii soon to photograph Humback whales off a boat,what is the best meter mode to use? And also which one is the best to use Aperture priority or shutter priority?,i am using a Canon 80d. Thank-You.

    • Hi Thanh. Firstly – I’m a little bit jealous of your trip. It’s going to be amazing!
      My preference would be shutter priority and keep an eye on the aperture. You don’t want to shoot too wide as the shallow depth of field could make it difficult to capture their movement in sharp focus if they move towards or away from you. You’ll also need a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (at least 1/500).
      For exposure I would use evaluative metering.
      Use AI servo for continuous autofocus.
      Continuous drive mode would be ideal too so that you can shoot off a short burst of photos when the whales do something interesting. Just don’t go mad with that or you’ll fill up your memory card fast, but also you might miss a shot while your camera is buffering. When the whales are breaching I’d use CH (Continuous High).
      Hope that helps. Have a fantastic trip!

  2. Thank you for your most insteresting articles. My main photographic interest is bird phography.
    The main focus point being the eye.
    Is spot metering the best setting to use?
    I wouldalso like to have a sharp image of the eye and also have good detail of the body (feathers, beak and legs).
    Should I consider using a different metering mode?

  3. Your meter reading will be for middle gray and thus your portrait will be underexposed. You need to add a stop for caucasian skin and more for darker skin tones.

    • Hi Koen
      Thanks for your comment – yes you need, roughly speaking, +1 stop for white skin, but -1 stop for black skin. Asian or tanned white skin won’t require exposure compensation.

  4. I have only now discovered your articles! Amazing! Thank you. I am a photography student, really into portraiture, and have been struggling with the recent module on metering and its textbook…then I found your articles online and I now understand! Regards, Yelena

  5. Thank you for the article. It’s so clearly explained. You don’t mention eye detection and that’s what I am stuggling to get to grips with. Would you use eye detection in preference to spot metering for some portraits? Many thanks Sue

    • Hi Sue

      Eye detection for focusing is the main reason I would like to switch to a mirrorless camera. Brilliant technology! I would still recommend spot metering for exposure, however, because it’s a separate function. Instead of metering for the entire scene or a general section of the scene, spot metering allows you to meter for the area that you want correctly exposed. As a portrait photographer correct exposure of the subject’s face is my priority.

  6. Thank you for your reply. I now understand! I had previously left exposure on evaluative and thought no more about it. Yesterday I did a non-professional photo shoot for some friends and used spot metering the whole time-a huge improvement.


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