Shooting Backlit // Metering Modes

Photo by Daily Life Photography

Today I’m talking about camera settings for shooting backlit. I asked my friend Brooke Snow for her favorite tips for backlighting and on the topic of camera settings, she said, “If there was only one reason to learn to shoot manually, it would be for backlighting. Auto is not going to want to grant you the lovely pleasure of exposing for your subjects and not the bright background, but once you take control of the settings you can suddenly use the backlighting trick for beautifully lit photos during even the harshest times of day.”

What does Brooke mean when she says “exposing for your subjects”? When you set your camera on auto, it has the job of deciphering the scene you’re showing it through the lens. It sees colours, light temperatures, light intensity, etc. In a split second, it has to decide the exact settings to take a perfectly exposed shot. However, your camera can’t read your mind. It doesn’t know if you’re trying to perfectly expose the background or the subject and it can’t perfectly expose both. The majority of the time, your camera is going to choose to expose for the background because it’s the majority of the photo unless you’re taking a super tight headshot or something.

The way you can combat this issue is to learn to shoot in manual or at least semi-manual. By manual, I mean fully manual where you set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance – the whole shebang. I know how to do this, but I hate doing it so I shoot in what I call semi-manual. My favourite setting is AV which means I tailor my aperture for the setting I want and the camera sets everything else accordingly. But I can still end up with a poorly exposed subject when the background is super bright. Some backlighting scenarios where your camera will have trouble setting exposure are:

  • Where the sun is behind your subject
  • Where the sky is cloudy yet still bright
  • When you’re shooting a subject from below with a background of only sky
  • When you’re shooting a subject infront of a window
  • When you’re shooting a subject in front of any brighter background, basically. Like a white/light building.

There are a couple camera settings you can employ to combat the problem of a poorly exposed backlit photo. One of them is the metering mode.

Metering Modes

When you point your camera at a scene, it has to decide what part of the scene is the most important to you. Since the camera can’t read your mind, you have to tell it what you’re thinking by telling it how you want it to meter {or measure} the light in the scene. When looking at the top or back screen on your camera, you’ll see an icon that looks like this –> This is the setting known as the metering mode.There are 4 different modes. They are:

Evaluative {or ‘matrix’ on a Nikon} :: This is the most state of the art of the metering modes. This setting separates the frame into multiple zones and utilizes the camera’s processor by comparing the results with over 30,000 scenarios stored in the camera’s internal memory to conclude the best exposure setting. This is the perfect default setting.

Spot Metering :: This mode uses 1-5% of your frame to decide the exposure. You normally use this setting when you want ensure a precise area to have proper exposure. Also, situations when you’re subject is surrounded by extremely bright surfaces, like snow or the beach, spot mode is the preferred setting. Some cameras allow you to change the location of the spot in accordance with the focal point; but generally it’s fixed in the center.

Partial Metering :: This is the !bingo! setting for shooting backlit. It’s similar to spot mode except for this takes a reading from around 10-15% of the frame. You can use this mode when your subject is surrounded by very bright light that will throw off your exposure (backlit). But it also works in the opposite case, say an object is in front of a black wall and your main subject will be overexposed due to the camera trying to expose for the black. Note: some cameras don’t have partial. In that case, use spot.

Center-weighted average :: The reading is mostly taken from the center but it feathers out from the area surrounding the center. It uses around 60% of the image and manufacturers made this setting presuming that most users place their subject in the middle. This is great for portraits too because it disregards the bright and dark zones that sometimes show up in the corners.

So that’s it for today! The next post in this series will be about employing exposure compensation in your backlit shots, but for now, get out there with your camera and see how the different metering modes explained here today will affect your photography.

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  • Thank you for this! I shoot in Manual all the time, but I get so confused when reading about metering modes. You explained it perfectly!

  •  I’m only just beginning my adventures in photography and this a great explanation of metering modes for someone getting to know her camera! This is getting pinned to by Photo Tips and Tricks Board!

  • Thank you for this great article!!!

  • Sara Desjardins

    These are great tips! I generally shoot with a mounted flash to get that ‘sparkle’ in the eye, but I always struggled with making it look natural and not flash-y though. A few months ago I found an E-book by Ed Verosky (who also writes for DPS) called 100% Reliable Flash Photography ( and it changed my shooting! Backlit shots are easy-peasy now. The best part is that the E-book is less than $20. I will, however, start trying some of these tips without using my flash b/c, well, sometimes the batteries die ;)

  • Barbara

    Metering has always been my biggest    “ugh”  in understanding photography. I think what throws me off is this: If I’m shooting in fully manual mode, how do the different metering modes affect me? I’m still determining exactly how things are exposed, not the camera. Are these different modes only important if I’m using a non-manual mode? Please help me get this through my thick skull!


  • allison

    I have to admit, I always wish for cloudy days for my photo shoots.  I’m excited to really try this out and hope the sun is out on my next shoot.  Thanks for such a wonderful article.  Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Kim Jansen van Rensburg


  • Debbie

    Elizabeth hi, I have the Nikon D700 and it only has 3 metering modes, Evaluated, center-weighted, and spot. So what do I do in this case???? Thanks!!!

  • Anonymous

    Hello! Use spot :)

  • emudge

    good read!! thanks for sharing! :)

  • Amber Fox

    This is a great post on backlighting! Thanks for the great explanation of all the metering modes. :)

  • Dailyblessingsphotography

    Love this explanation, however I don’t have partial metering on my camera.  Which mode should I use in this case?  I love shooting backlit, but I definitely struggle with balancing it right.

  • Anonymous

    Hi there someone else asked this question just above yours. Use ‘spot’ metering. I think I’ll add that to the post.

  • Jagparrish

    Hi Elizabeth.  Can you give a little bit more detail on **how** to use the partial metering mode?   Does your subject have to be in that 10-15% of the frame?  I use BBF and select my focus points that way.  I don’t focus and recompose so would my subject have to be in the center each time I used partial?  Thx so much!

  • Tashana Hayes

    I am BEYOND greatful that you are sharing this, I have learned more about lighting here then I have through any class or paid workshop! most people charge for this knowledge, and I can’ thank you enough!

  • I just read this and loved your explanation. I do shoot in full manual, but have a hard time in backlit situations and this is why! Is there ever really a situation that you would NOT want to shoot in spot, or is it safe to leave it on spot metering all/most of the time?

  • Ah ha! Thanks, this was a big help!

  • J Rodgers

    Really enjoyed this. I’ve always been a bit perplexed by metering modes. Thank you very much

  • Kelly

    Hi there,
    I know you posted this a long time ago but it was very helpful for me to read this today. I’ve been shooting in manual mode the past year but still didn’t understand the meter modes. An experiment I’ve been wanting to see/try is side by side examples of the same scene shot with different metering modes. I will have to try this! Thanks for the info.

  • Melody

    Hi, thank you so much for your help!!! I am a bit confused though. I just had my son stand in front of the door having the light coming from behind him. I tried Partial Metering with exposure compensation and it was still very dark, yet when I used spot metering it came out close to perfect. I always thought spot metering was the best for backlit photos. Your backlit photos are beautiful, yet I don’t understand how they come from the partial metering mode. Thanks for any imput!

  • Stephen Soukup

    You can also use exposure compensation to add about +1 our +2 stops of exposure over what the camera thinks is the proper exposure since the camera always tries to meter the entire or selected scene for middle 18% grey. This will add light to brighten up the scene. This works for snow or beach backgrounds. Do negative exposure compensation if you have a dark background to lessen the light over what your camera suggests.

  • Stephen Soukup

    Use spot and Meter on their face.

  • Stephen Soukup

    You can use your exposure lock button (check your manual) to lock the exposure and then recompose.

  • Stephen Soukup

    Only use spot on those rare cases. Most of the time you want it in evaluative/matrix metering mode.

  • Stephen Soukup

    Partial metering is not that great as it’s too big of an area. Depending on how much % of the frame is filled by the background and how much is your subject is what should determine which to use. Best two ate matrix/evaluative for all scenes and then spot when you have a strong backlit or dark background. Use exposure v compensation to them tweak it until it’s perfect. Even with spot metering it may not always be perfect. If their face is dark or light it will throw it off. Use a grey card to help.our a handheld light meter under their chin facing the camera with the dome extended.

  • kate

    For shooting family portraits with ten people, whether backlit or in the shade, would I use center-weighted or partial?