Canon metering icons are confusing

Canon Metering Mode Icons Don’t Make Sense

Canon metering-mode icons simply don’t make sense. I’m not a designer -I admit it openly- but it seems clear to me that icons for camera functions should, at the very least, give a strong hint about what the function does, either by representation (the icon looks like the function) or convention. Canon’s metering icons do neither. If that’s not immediately clear, it will be if you consider each metering mode individually.

Canon metering modes
These are the four Canon metering mode icons. Can you tell which one matches the correct mode, just by looking at it?

Spot metering is the easiest place to start, and the only instance where Canon gets it right. What is spot metering? It takes a reading from a small area (ie, a roughly 2-3% spot, usually) in the frame. Looking at the four icons above, which one makes sense for spot metering? C is clearly the best choice; it represents a small spot in the center of the frame.

What about Parial Area metering? Partial metering is just like spot metering, but it includes a slightly larger area, generally the central 5-8%. Which of the icons represents that? It would be reasonable to think that it would look just like the spot metering icon, but with a slightly larger area tacked on, like icon A. But that would be completely wrong. Another option could be icon B, which surrounds a larger area than the spot metering icon, it’s just not filled in. And that’s the correct answer, although two different conventions are used to attempt to convey the same idea (a filled area versus an empty, enclosed area).

Center-weighted metering should be simple to represent: at the very least, the central area of the image should be marked in some way. And since B was already chosen, the answer here must be A, right? Ha! Wrong. Instead, Canon chose D, the icon that shows a completely empty frame. How does this represent that the metering system is most heavily weighting the area in the center of the frame, but also includes the rest of it? It does not.

Finally, we must consider evaluative metering. Evaluative metering does not give preference to tonal values in the center of the frame. Instead, it looks at zones across the entire image area and calculates an exposure value based on their average (or some more complex algorithm). For this metering mode Canon has inexplicably chosen icon A: a big dark area in the center of the frame. That’s right: for the only metering mode that has nothing to do with the center of the image, they chose the icon that has the most going on in the center of the image.

That’s right: for the only metering mode that has nothing to do with the center of the image, they chose the icon that has the most going on in the center of the image.

The most obvious way to correct the situation would be simply to re-arrange the icons as follows: C for spot metering, A for partial metering, B for center weighted, and D for evaluative. There, we’d have consistency about what’s being metered with the spot and partial area modes (dark areas are metered) and consistency when the whole frame is being metered (no area is filled in). It also avoids the insanity of having an empty icon when the center is important and a center-heavy icon where the whole frame is given equal weight.

However, there would still be some potential confusion between the icons A and B, for reasons that should be obvious at this point. And if Canon were to make a change and use the same icons, there’d be no visual way to tell that the same icons had new meanings1.

So what would be better? Nikon and Sony’s systems are better, but only use three metering modes each. For Canon’s four modes, I’d suggest switching to a new set of icons, like these:

My proposed Canon metering icons.
My proposed Canon metering icons. Clockwise from top-left: spot metering, center-weighted metering, evaluative metering, and partial area metering.

Don’t like them? Well, I drew them in 15 minutes in Photoshop. Canon can probably afford to hire a real designer. Let’s hope they do.

  1. Canon has used these icons ever since I purchased my first Canon EOS cameras back in 1992-3: a Canon EOS 10s and EOS A2.
Editor-in-Chief
  1. I’m not sure if evaluative metering is properly explained here. Apparently, yes, it does use the entire frame, but it places more emphasis on the area around your chosen focus point. Some charts show this as being nearly the same as center-weighted metering, but with the center moved to your focus point. So it becomes: empty frame for center-weighted (full frame, more heavily weighted towards center), single spot for spot-metering (small area at focus point), empty circle for partial (area around middle of frame, bigger than spot) and circle with spot for evaluative (entire frame but more heavily weighted towards focus point).

    And with that it starts making sense! Notice how the modes with the black dot use the chosen focus point, while the others don’t and are geared towards the middle of the frame. Just remember “dot = use focus point” and suddenly it’s not so hard to remember. I still agree that the choice is kinda confusing, however. It doesn’t help that the icon for evaluative on Canon looks nearly identical to that for center-weighted metering on Nikon. At this point I’d wish they would just have gone for acronyms.

    1. I think that’s a good attempt to make some sense of it, but I think you may be too charitable with your interpretation. With some cameras, that can be true of evaluative metering, but not all or most… remember that this is available on entry level SLRs and also point and shoots (and certainly not historically… and they were using this metering mode/icon combo back in the 1990s). For some cameras, it may work that way IF you have metering linked to an AF point, but if you don’t link, it won’t work that way. Here’s the description from Canon’s website:

      “Evaluative metering is the most used automatic metering mode in everyday photography and can be applied in most shooting scenarios. As its name suggests, it takes a series of readings in zones that cover the entire frame, and then calculates the overall average exposure value. Since Evaluative metering takes into account the entire frame when determining the exposure, it is useful for low-contrast subjects such as when shooting with front lighting or low-contrast landscape.”

      Still, if you’re having trouble figuring out which one to use, then yes… that’s certainly a good way to remember them. I just think they could have done a better job choosing icons :-)

      1. To be honest, I’m using Canon EOS film cameras so for all I know things could be quite different on the DSLRs. In fact, the best one I have is the 50E (Elan II in the US) and that one doesn’t even have spot metering. The manuals aren’t much help either in giving exact information on how the metering works. For evaluative the 50E manual states: “The subject’s position, brightness, background, front lighting, backlighting, and other conditions are detected at the focusing point”. Pretty much black magic, then. But it does center around the focusing point. I suppose the details are “secret sauce” much like some program lines.

        1. I checked again and noticed that the partial metering can also be linked to the focal point, although it requires activating a custom function. You were right about the linking. Whelp, so much for my mnemonic. Just more confusion.

  2. So, let me this straight….I had it wrong for nine years? All that time, I was under the impression that it was how you had corrected it! That explains a lot. :-)

    Well, now I just use spot metering for everything, though I sometimes see the advantage of using evaluative (when I’m lazy and don’t want to fix things too much in post). If your camera has a nice dynamic range, spot is the way to go IMO.

    1. I use spot metering the most when I’m shooting people and don’t mind if I blow out highlights in the background, but center-weighted or evaluative when I’m shooting landscapes.

      But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally switched my camera over to evaluative, thinking that I’m switching to something center-weighted. Especially when I’ve been shooting with Nikon cameras for a while and then switch over to Canon… that’s usually when I get into trouble.

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