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Camera Metering Modes Explained (How & When to Use Them)

Camera Metering Modes Explained (How & When to Use Them)

Hi there! Welcome back to my blog 💚 So far we have covered some of the photography basics like focus modes, shooting modes, how to shoot in manual mode, etc. But the reality is that lucky for me, there is a lot more to know about cameras and photography.

In this post, we will be discussing your camera’s different metering modes, how they work, when to use them, etc. so stick around if this is something you’ve been wondering about.

As we learned previously, your camera takes a picture by letting the light reach the camera sensor. How much light we let into the sensor is controlled but the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (exposure triangle). To know whether we are over or underexposing, we use the camera light meter.

But how does that light meter know if we are overexposing or not? What kind of dark magic is that? Worry not… I’m here to explain it to you. If you don’t want to learn the ins and outs of your camera metering and only want to learn about the metering modes, click here to get to the good stuff.

Metering System

Your camera has a sensor installed that measures how much light is reaching it and how intense it is. This sensor, also called 'light meter', is a reflective light meter which means that it measures the reflected light from your subject/scene. Nope, that’s not a mistake. It measures the light REFLECTED from the subject.

You may be thinking, aren’t we supposed to know how much light is ON the subject and not reflecting FROM it? Well yes, which is why you have to know how to use your meter properly.

Also, to be perfectly honest, there is an incident light meter which measures the light on the subject which you have probably seen in movies when there is a photographer. I’ve never used it, I learned that it existed and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. But to me, having to run to measure the light, come back to my camera and set it and then take the shot doesn’t make much sense. Also, I don’t think if you are taking a picture of a lion, you’ll be brave enough to get next to a lion to measure the light before running back to your camera.

Sekonic L-308X-U Flashmate Light Meter
Sekonic L-308X-U Flashmate Light Meter

So, as I was saying, your camera measures the light reflected on the subject. It would be fine-ish if the subject was the same color or at least similar ones so the light was reflected evenly. Of course, this is not the case. To make matters harder (or worse), your camera meter measures 3 tones in a scene. The key point to note is that this scene is in black and white. Therefore, the tones that your camera will be measuring are pure white, pure black and a mid-tone (this doesn’t mean that it’s only measuring the gray tones of the scene but colors too - a mid-tone of any color seen as B&W… hopefully that makes sense).

The problem with this is that your camera meter is going to find those 3 tones in every picture. If it’s a dark scene, like a black swan in a lake on a cloudy day, then it might be that the mid-tones are actually on the darker side and not really mid-tones. Same on a bright scene, for example, a ski field full of snow; even though is closer to pure white, the camera meter will read some of those white tones as mid-tones. What’s the big deal with this? Well, your meter might tell you to overexpose (in the case of the dark scenes) or underexpose (in the case of the bright scenes) because is trying to make those “mid-tones” a mid-tone.

I can show you this with a white piece of paper. So your camera is going to think that this white paper is your “mid-tone” so when we take the picture, the white paper comes out gray.

So how do we fix this? Well, we learn about the mid-tones. Sorry if it’s not the answer you were looking for but don’t panic just yet. Now that you know why sometimes your camera doesn’t do what it’s told to do, we can work around it and if you keep practicing it will come automatically to you.

One thing that helped me to understand what the camera meter is seeing is setting my camera to B&W and then defocusing my scene (see images below). That will show you the tones your camera is seeing. When I see it on the darker side, my camera meter is going to try to make me overexpose so I just stay 1-2 stops under what it recommends. I understand you can’t do this every single time because it will take you a lifetime for each shot but if you do it when possible, you’ll start to get an idea of how your camera meter will operate. Also, the more you shoot, the more you’ll understand your equipment and how far you can push it.

The first picture is how we see through the viewfinder, the second one is how the sensor sees it (in Back & White). The third image helps you see where the mid-tones are.

Dog sitting on grass