There are two areas I find that many photographers are making errors which often holds back their ability to drastically improve their photography. These two areas are metering modes and focus modes.
Modern advanced cameras, such as digital SLR cameras have a variety of metering modes; spot, center weighted, and matrix or evaluative, etc. and a variety of focus modes; Auto-Servo, Single Servo, Continuous Servo, and Manual. We also have autofocus (AF) area modes where we can designate the number of dynamic focus points, single points, and tracking modes.
I recently read a post in an online forum where the photographer was taking a photography course that said to “ALWAYS” use spot metering. I cringe at the “ALWAYS and NEVER” statements with the exception of some very rare situations, such as “always avoid saying always and never” especially in the realm of photography.
Cameras today come with a variety of metering modes and focus modes for a reason. If one mode fit always there would have been no need to include the other modes. For me, this is the “one size fits all” which we have figured out is “one size fits no one.”
ADVICE: “Be leery of a photography instructor that says, “Always or Never”. Question them as to why they say always or never. Question the answer they give because it is best to understand why they say always or never. Verify the answer through other sources. I say this even as an instructor and believe my students have a need and right to know the why and fully understand even though I can say I rarely ever say always and never.
Let’s talk specifically about these two areas.
Note: In this article we are working in the non-automatic camera modes. These would be aperture, shutter priority, and manual. In many of the automatic modes, including “program” the camera will try to achieve a zero meter exposure, e.g. not over or under exposed. The reason we want to work in these more manually controlled modes is to achieve the exposure we want at the shutter click to fulfill our creative needs.
Most cameras have, at least, three metering modes; matrix or evaluative, center-weighted, and spot. Some brands and models may include modes such as highlight weighted and partial.
Check the examples below:
Spot darkestSpot metering on the building on the left.
Spot metering on the building on the left.
spot lightestSpot metering on the white trailer (center of image).
Spot metering on the white trailer (center of image).
In each of the photos above the exposure was adjusted to zero out the exposure meter. In others words, what the camera’s meter showed to be exposed properly and not under or over exposed based on the metering style.
As you can see, the photographs each look different. You may think, I like x metering mode example best so can I just leave it there and get a “good” reading in all situations? The answer is maybe but probably not. You may come across scenes that would be best rendered by using matrix metering and another that would benefit from spot metering on the brightest area, and yet another using center-weighted.
Many of you are now thinking, “how will I know which one to use?”. The answer to that question is to understand how the metering modes work, practice, and how you envision your photograph to look. Let’s take a brief look at each mode to get a very basic understanding of how they work.
Matrix or Evaluative metering.
You camera’s manual may go into far more details on how this is achieved and what criteria the camera uses it is basically evaluating the scene and making a suggestion based on the overall scene.
Your camera is basically selecting a “spot” typically this is the same as your focus point and making a suggestion for a proper exposure.
The camera meters the entire frame but assigns greatest weight to the center area.
In our examples above the camera, each photograph was shot in manual. The ISO, aperture, and focus remained constant. The only setting changed was the shutter speed.
Matrix metering displayed a zero exposure at 1/125th of a second. Spot metering on the building was 1/50th of a second. Spot metering on the white trailer was 1/320th of a second. Center-weighted metering was 1/80th of a second.
Why is this important
This is important to understand because it is best to achieve our best exposure at the time of capture. The more we have to adjust exposure the more noise we can introduce, or we may lose important details in the highlights (bright areas) or shadows (dark areas). We as photographers need to determine what is important for the image and ensure we capture those elements. This becomes especially true when attempting to capture dramatic natural lighting such as in the image below.
In this photograph, I used spot metering and metered the bright area. This allowed the darker areas to become almost black and nearly void of details even though this was shot in the middle of the day. The reason I wanted the background darker and void of details were because I believed it to be distracting and wanted to ensure I captured the flowers in the dramatic natural light falling upon them.
In the photograph below I used matrix metering because I wanted to ensure I was able to capture details in both highlights and shadows.
Understanding metering modes are essential, in my opinion, when attempting to bring out the best in photography. The use of the appropriate mode and exposure allows us to be more creative. We can use these tools to ensure our photographs express the mood, emotion, drama, or scene as we saw it or envisioned it. Study the various exposure modes, practice using each on the same scene and compare the results. Practice with each and you will soon be able to determine when to use the various metering modes and why you chose to use that particular mode for the scene.
Focus modes are just as important, in my opinion, as are metering modes. In this article I will limit our discussion to on four focus modes, of Auto-Servo, Single Servo, Continuous Servo, and manual.
The camera automatically selects single-servo auto focus if the subject is stationary and continuous servo if the subject is moving.
This may appear as if this is the mode you want to use all the time right? The camera will decide and use what is best. You will find there very well may be times that you want keep the focus on a specific area and an object you don’t want to be the focus point will move, i.e. a leaf moves, which may fool your camera and it may refocus.
The focus locks when the shutter button is pressed half-way. Using this mode will allow you to use a focus point, press the shutter button half-way to lock the focus and re-compose the shot.
For moving subjects. The camera focuses continuously while the shutter-release button is pressed half-way. You may be thinking, “but auto-servo will adjust if the camera decides my subject is moving right?”. The camera may not know exactly what your subject is. This mode would be useful for action sports, wildlife, etc.
You focus the lens. Have you ever tried to take a photo in low light and the lenses keeps searching for focus? Have you ever shot macro (very close up photos) and your camera focused on a portion of your subject you didn’t want? These are all good reasons to use manual focus.
As with metering modes try each mode on the same scene. Practice, experiment and soon you will feel comfortable in knowing when and why you would use each mode.