What metering mode to use when photographing a wedding

Trying to decide which metering mode to use when photographing a wedding is a bit of a pain. It doesn’t help that there are four different modes to choose from, each with an icon that you need a Rosetta Stone to decipher. Last night I took some photographs that will hopefully shed a little light on the modes I use most: Evaluative (Matrix) and Center Weighted Average.

Evaluative meter mode is the most sophisticated meter mode in the camera. The meter reads the entire scene and then, get this, tries to figure out what you’re taking a picture of. The software has thousands of sample readings from different scenarios in its memory. It compares the readings from your image against the database. So, if the software “sees” all dark on the bottom and all light on the top it thinks, “Must be a landscape!” and alters the exposure a little. Dark in the middle and light all around the outside “Portrait!” Adjust, adjust, adjust …

Here’s another cool thing about Evaluative metering: It’s the only mode that takes into account what the camera is actually focusing on. The meter reads the entire scene but pays special attention to the focus points when determining exposure. This is way cool. If you are taking a portrait and you put the focusing point on the subjects face, the camera will give added consideration to the face when determining exposure. Perfect!

However (like you didn’t see this coming), both of these really cool features can work against you when shooting a wedding. First, the camera doesn’t always guess correctly when trying to figure out what you are taking a picture of, which could translate to a bad exposure. Second, I use selective focus all the time. I almost never allow the camera to select it’s own focus points. When shooting  at f2.8, I can’t take a chance that the camera might decide to focus on something in front of or behind the subject. I just don’t have enough depth-of-field to play with. So, I select the focus point myself and put it right on the target. But which target?   All white bride (dress)  or all black groom (tux)?   Remember, the focus point will affect the exposure.

Here are some test shots to illustrate what  I mean:

meter modes sm

I used f2.8 for all of these images. I let the camera select the proper shutter speed based on its internal meter. I also used selective focus in all of the images, and I placed the focus point in the center of the card. No Fancy Nancy dolls were harmed in the making of this film.

In the Center Weighted shot with the white card, the camera selected 1/40 of   a second. For the picture with the black card it selected 1/30th of a second. Now, that card is not a big part of the picture and doesn’t necessarily constitute a change in exposure, but 1/3 of a stop is not huge. You’ve got to look pretty close to notice that the picture on the right is brighter than the one on the left.

Now, look at the Evaluative images. For the black card it picked 1/30 of a second, same as with the Center Weighted shot. But, for the white card it picked 1/60 of a second.   That’s a full stop of light difference.  Twice as much light! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! Because the focus point moved from all-black to all-white, the exposure was changed three times as much  the Center Weighted shots. In fact, it dropped the exposure so much that the white card looks neutral grey, the same color my bride’s dress would have looked had I been focusing on her.

Now, imagine you are shooting the cake cutting. You’re close in to the bride and groom at f2.8, and you slap that focus point to the side to focus on the groom, SNAP! Then you move (or the groom does) and you lose the spot so you slap the focus point to the other side and SNAP! You now have two pictures taken from the same angle ot the same subjects that are a full stop apart in light. However, in Center Weighted mode the focus points would have been ignored, and since the components of the scene didn’t change the exposure wouldn’t either.

Note: When shooting the above scene, my camera would be in Manual mode, and so the camera would not be changing the exposure. However, the ETTL II system in the flash would be varying the flash power based on the meter which would result in the same change in exposure (ie: more flash when focused on the tux and less when focused on the dress).

So, that’s why I don’t use Evaluative mode at a wedding. It’s great everywhere else and I use it for everyday shooting all the time. Being able to “weight” the meter towards whatever you are focusing on is great in most situations. But when  I’m shooting two people, one in white and the other in black,  I need a mode that isn’t as affected by where  I put the focus point.

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  1. Booray Perry says

    First, it depends on where you put the spot. With spot metering (on Canon, don’t know Nikon) the “spot” os fixed at the center of the viewfinder, not the focus point. So, you have to continually put the center on the spot you want to meter, depress the shutter button halfway to lock it, then recompose the shot. Even then, you can get different exposures with just a slight change in the spot location. For example, when shooting the test pictures included with this article, I also shot some spot meter tests. I got different exposure settings just by moving the spot from the doll’s nose to her forhead.

    If I’m shooting a still portrait I might use spot because I have the time to do it but at a wedding I don’t want to be recomposing my shots all the time. many photographers will tell you that they use spot during the formals and put the spot on the brides face, then recompose.

  2. Booray Perry says

    I just realized I didn’t quite answer your question. No, it wouldn’t give the same results because with spot metering the spot is very small at the center of the image. With center-weighted the camera meters the entire scene but gives more “weight” to the center. So with center-weighted the camera still considers the area outside the center before making the exposure call.

  3. Mark says

    Thank you so much Booray Perry for this insightful artical. You have obviously done your homework, and hopefully saved alot of us having to do the same. Being a wedding photographer, you are under alot of pressure to get it right in a short amount of time, over and over again, all day long. I will try Centreweighted at my next wedding, and hopefully my results fit with what you are telling us. I have only shot 6 weddings since I started in November last year, with my new Canon 7D with 24-70 f2.8 lense. Not knowing how metering modes work, and which ones I can rely on is frustrating. Thank you very much for helping all who read this article.

  4. Yohan Maltais says

    Good advice. I’m stunt that Mark and Bob shot a wedding without mastering the exposure… You should always do you test and training before the W day not at the wedding, god!

    quote: “I have only shot 6 weddings since I started in November last year, with my new Canon 7D with 24-70 f2.8 lense. Not knowing how metering modes work, and which ones I can rely on is frustrating.”

    No comments…

    • Mike says

      Dear Yohan,

      Maybe you should spend less time dumping on people for attempting to learn more, and more time worrying about your poor knowledge of English vocabulary. You’re on the wrong “how to” site.

  5. says

    Wow! Your top example explains a lot. My frustration with Canon evaluative metering caused me to research the Internet and you gave me the answer. Thanks!

  6. sara says

    Yohan that kind of comment is actually quite unhelpful – people don’t come on here to be berated – they come here to learn – and sometimes that includes having to reveal our own “failings”

  7. says

    Hi Booray Perry, thankyou so much for this article. I have a wedding tomorow and im doing some last minute refresher studying and you article came up and its cleared something up for me. Thanks again! Brett

  8. Gabe says

    This is a great article! quick question though, which camera (or cameras) have the same settings you described? (does the spot metering stay the same for all Canon? what about Nikon?) :) thanks!

  9. says

    Great article Booray – And good use of examples to illustrate your points.

    In my own experience, eval/matrix mode also seems to produce unexpected results when composing images in portrait orientation. Has anyone else experienced this?

  10. Andreas Darknae Elvelin says

    When I started out I always shot in Evaluative metering as it was said it was the newest and most intelligent mode. But then I started using Center weighted and got more consistent shot without really knowing why. This article explained it for me :) thanks.

    Am actually going to shoot at a wedding in June when a couple of friends are getting married and they learned that I just bought the 5DMkIII and was wondering if I could take as much pictures as possible on people there so I assume and hope they do not count on me to shoot the actual ceremony as I have no experience in that area.

    Anyway I love these kind of articles that explains why something is suited better then something else instead of “use this, it’s best” kind of advices. So thanks again

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