Camera Metering – How Your Camera Sees the World

In Photography, how the camera sees the scene is much more important than how you see the scene…and this is where camera metering comes into play.

It’s the camera that takes the final image. In order for you to “see” the scene the way the camera will expose it, you need to understand how the camera’s exposure metering system works.

camera metering with water and sea scene
© 2011 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.

Once you understand how the camera sees the scene, you can select the appropriate metering system. Once you select the right metering system, you are on the right path to getting a good exposure.

Many manual cameras, and some introductory auto focus models, only have one metering system. This makes it easy to figure out how exposure metering works once you understand the metering system. If you have a camera that fits this description, don’t worry, there are some techniques that you can employ to simulate some of the other metering systems.

We will use the provided seascape to demonstrate how each of the metering systems operate.

The Different Types Of Camera Metering

CENTER-WEIGHTED METERING

This is the default metering system for all manual cameras. It is also the default metering system for most auto focus cameras when they are used in Manual mode.

In auto focus cameras, it is not the most sophisticated metering system available. Manufacturers often provide center-weighted metering on auto focus cameras to ease the transition moving from manual to auto focus cameras.

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved. Center-weighted Metering
© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved. Center-weighted Metering

The center-weighted system operates just as its name implies. It concentrates the exposure on the central portion of the viewfinder. Typically, about 75% of the emphasis of the metering system is in the central portion of the viewfinder.

The remaining metering is feathered out toward the edge. In actuality, very little of the tonalities at the edge of the frame are even considered by this metering system.

The diagram on the left is a rough approximation of how this metering system works. It represents the central portion of the viewfinder, which is the location of the major emphasis of the metering system.

Center-weighted metering works best when your main subject covers the central portion of your viewfinder. In this instance you are probably only metering one tonality. Since the camera will make that subject a medium tone, you can have confidence when you make any adjustment to get the tonality correct.

You can meter other areas of the scene besides the main subject (here, the green/gold tones) if you want to find a medium tone to meter. Just remember that the tone should cover the central portion of the viewfinder for best results.

After metering another area, just recompose, make sure you “lock” in the exposure values, and ignore what your meter indicates after re-composing.

Unless you are metering a medium tone with the central portion of your viewfinder, you need to use some exposure compensation in order to get a good exposure. This is a very good system for learning to recognize different tonalities.

If you metered a scene without adjustment and it came out too bright, then you metered a part of the scene that was darker than medium (camera says: “the scene is way too dark, I need to add exposure”). Conversely, if the scene comes out too dark, then your meter was influenced by some really bright element in the scene (camera says: “the scene is way too bright, I need to take away exposure”).

Would the center-weighted system work with our sample image? In the image we have a variety of tonalities i.e. the white of the wave, the darker water in the shadows of the wave, and the other various tones in between those two.

Since our center-weighted system works best if we can have only one tone covering the central portion of the viewfinder, this might be a challenging image for this particular metering system. If there is a problem, then we need to find a way to still get the image.

If we did not re-compose the scene, our center-weighted circle would cover both the white, mid-tone and darker tones. The circle is too large to just cover the green/gold tones, even if we re-compose the scene.

When the metering system covers two tonalities, we can not make any adjustments with confidence that the exposure will be correct.

Do we just give up and not try to make this action image? No! If we raise our camera to the mid-tone waters above the wave, we can have one tonality in the central portion of our viewfinder. Our next decision is whether those waters are a medium tone. If they are, then there’s no need to make an adjustment. Re-compose and take the shot.

It sounds simple in hindsight. How do you do all of that while the wave keeps changing? You might miss the wave on the first attempt, but at least you will be able to see it repeatedly. In between the wave action, you could establish your exposure on the more still waters.

You can preset your exposure based on the large body of water (or any other large element in your scene). There is nothing wrong about anticipating potential exposure problems, and resolving them in advance.

SPOT METERING

A spot meter is usually found in most cameras. Manufacturers build cameras this way because they believe that beginning and intermediate photographers would get confused with the more sophisticated techniques of metering with this system.

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.  Spot Metering

Spot metering works differently than center weighted metering. All of the emphasis of the exposure meter is devoted to a small section of the viewfinder, and everything else is ignored.

This diagram above is a rough approximation of how the spot meter system works in camera metering . Only the portion of the scene covered by the gray circle is used by the exposure meter to determine exposure.

Although some people use spot metering for every situation, it is best used when either the scene contains a wide range of tones, or when you need to be very precise with your metering. In the latter situation, for example, you may be photographing a person and want to make sure that the face is properly exposed.

Spot metering is valuable to determine the tonal range in a scene. Your camera has a certain exposure range (light sensitivity). Spot meters allow you to check small portions of the scene to see how many stops difference exists between the brightest and darkest areas of the scene.

In-camera spot meters typically measure about 2-3% of the viewfinder area. Some Nikon models evaluate 1%.

Most spot meters in digital cameras are a little larger than average. You can obtain a hand-held spot meter with a 1% field of view in a variety of price ranges.

When a spot meter checks a part of the scene, it is similar to a center-weighted metering system checking one large tonality. It makes it easy for the photographer to exposure the scene since he/she only has to adjust for that tonality (if needed).

Since spot meters cover such a small area, it is a rare scene where your spot meter can not isolate one tone.

If you have a camera with multiple focus points, check your manual for the operation of your spot meter. Some cameras will automatically link the spot meter to the active focus point. Other models will keep the spot meter at the center focus point even if it is not the active one.

Usually these latter cameras have a custom function that allows you to link the spot meter to the active focus point.

How does our spot meter system handle our image?

The spot meter area is small enough so it is the only tonality included in the exposure measurement. If you were making the image, here’s the procedure. Before a subject starts moving, preset your camera to spot metering, and add the desired exposure compensation.

For instance, since you know the spray and crash of the wave is lighter than medium tonality, add one to 1.5 stops of exposure. As the wave peaks, all you have to concern your self with is placing the it within the spot meter (on the active focus point), and getting the right shutter speed, which you should do in advance, to ensure sharpness.

Spot meters differ from center-weighted meters in that they completely ignore anything outside their area. Center-weighted meters place a small amount of emphasis (usually 25%) on the area outside the center zone.

Spot meters are great, but don’t start grumbling if you don’t have one. If your camera uses a metering system other than a spot meter, you can still simulate a spot meter using the following techniques.

If possible, you can walk closer to your subject so the central portion of your viewfinder covers only one tone. Meter off the tone and make any adjustments. Return to your original location, and use the camera in Manual mode.

If this is not possible, because the area with the subject is too far away, change to a longer focal length lens. It should be long enough to allow you to isolate one tone in the central portion of your viewfinder. After metering, change lenses back to the original one, and use the camera in Manual mode.

Here is a word of warning about using a spot meter and a wide angle lens. These lenses include a lot of the scene in the final image.

Therefore, many of the elements in the scene are fairly small. When you spot metering with a wide angle lens, it is very easy for your spot metering area to cover more than one subject. Precise metering is essential with the spot meter. Be careful with wide angle lenses.

PARTIAL METERING

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.  Partial Metering
© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.  Partial Metering

Partial metering is identical to spot metering except that it covers a larger area of the viewfinder. Partial metering systems are common in most of the intermediate level cameras, and are appearing more often in entry level cameras.

Partial metering is included with spot metering in the advanced and pro level cameras. Since spot metering is so precise, you will probably choose it rather than partial metering. On my cameras, I disabled the partial metering since I always prefer to use spot metering for my precise exposure metering.

The image on the left show the partial metering area directed toward the the area above the wave action. At least two tonalities would be covered by the partial metering area.

Using partial metering, the best exposure strategy is establishing your exposure values in advance, just as we have done with other metering systems.

There is one big advantage of setting your exposure (and compensation) in advance…. there is less to worry about when the time comes to actual press the shutter button to take the photograph.

MULTI-SEGMENTED METERING

This metering system is found only on auto focus cameras. Since it is the most sophisticated system, it is the default system on all entry level cameras. Multi-segmented metering is a generic name.

It is called Matrix Metering on Nikon cameras, Honeycomb Metering on Minolta cameras, and Evaluative Metering on Canon cameras. Other manufacturers have different names. They all work in the same manner.

As seen in the image below, all of the viewfinders are divided into a certain number of zones. Depending upon the camera, there can be as few as 3, and as many as 35 separate zones. Most have a different pattern.

Typically, your camera’s manual will diagram the zones for your camera in the section where multi-segmented metering is explained.

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.  Multi-segment Metering

In simple terms, the camera’s computer evaluates the lighting pattern in each zone, and uses an algorithm to search its database to find a similar pattern. When the camera finds the pattern in it’s the associated f-stop and shutter duration appears in the viewfinder and LCD panel of the camera.

All of this takes place in the milliseconds after you press the shutter button halfway. How big are the databases? Professional level camera, has about 105,000 entries in the database.

Do the number of zones make one camera better than another? NO! However, the database size and search algorithm can make a difference.

That was the simple description. The multi-segmented meter takes into account such things as the active focus point, lighting level, front/back lighting, subject size, and color. No wonder it is the most sophisticated system.

Multi-segmented metering is best used when there is not a wide range of tones in the scene. If everything in the scene is medium tone or averages out to medium, this system will not fail you.

The seascape image provided was made with a Multi-segmented metering system. Note the medium tone of the upper blue water, the very light tone of the sea spray, and the dark tones in the shadows of the wave.


© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.

Since the light and dark tones did not dominate the scene, the metering system was able to correctly expose the scene. As long as there is at least one fairly large element that is a different tone than the rest of the scene, the Multi-segmented metering system will probably get a good exposure.

Exposure compensation with the Multi-segmented metering system can be tricky. The camera searches the database to find a pattern similar to what it sees in the viewfinder.

If you make any compensation, you might be doing something that is counterproductive to what the camera is doing. Since this sophisticated system acts on several variables, you cannot be sure how it is weighting each one. Be conservative on using exposure compensation with this system.

There are two situations where exposure compensation is always acceptable with Multi-segmented metering systems. First is if the scene has only tone tonality in it, or is predominantly one tonality other than medium. Since there is no point of reference for the camera’s meter as to what is light, dark, or medium, it will make the entire scene medium. If the scene is either high key (predominantly light) or low key (predominantly dark) you’ll end up with medium gray.

The other scenario is when the subject is very small. Often in this situation there is another tonality covered by the focus point and often the camera has difficulty determining which tone to use as its base tone. Again, this is often a problem with wide-angle lenses.

Doing exposure compensation with a Multi-segmented metering system is the same as previously explained. If the scene is light, add exposure. If the scene is dark, take away exposure.

One exception to the above is back lighting (light coming from behind your subject).

Older auto focus Multi-segmented metering systems will have problems and tend to underexpose the subject. Newer models do much better. The advanced and professional level cameras should get it right most of the time.

Do a few experimental photos with your subject back lighted to see how your metering system reacts. If it underexposes, use your spot/partial (or simulated) metering to get the subject correct. Be aware however, that the background will probably be completely washed out (no detail). Another alternative is using fill (partial) flash to illuminate your subject properly.

This Camera Metering Article Is From Jim Altengarten
Images provided by Marla Meier.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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