Rhyme and Reasons for Using a Hand-held Light Meter
Images and Content Contributed by: Richard Newman
Upon first consideration, an external or hand-held light meter appears almost useless, or redundant with today’s digital cameras. You point, you click, you look at the back of the camera and view your results. You look at the histogram and you make some more adjustments in your camera, and you move on to the next shot.
But what have you learned about light? Not much! Mostly what you’ve learned is how to adjust your camera. But have you really gotten the shot you want, or even considered other exposure options to get something truly creative?
Most of us know the story behind how Ansel Adams made his most famous photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico, 1941,” but I’ll summarize the high points as it relates to the light meters. While driving down the road after an unsuccessful day of photographing, he saw the light reflecting off of the crosses in a graveyard by a church in the distance. He quickly pulled his station wagon off the road, into a ditch, and set up his 8×10″ camera. The one thing he couldn’t find was his light meter, but, from years of experience, Ansel knew and understood light. He knew the level of luminosity of a full moon, he knew the speed of the film that he had in the camera and, in his mind, he knew what he wanted. So he made an educated calculation of what he thought the exposure should be, he snapped the picture and, before there was time to make a second exposure, the light left the crosses and the magical scene he had seen in front of him disappeared.
But those just starting out in photography don’t have a backlog of experiences to draw from, and they can only rely on what their camera is telling them. When the light turns green, you go! The most important reason to own a hand-held light meter is so that you understand the relationships that are inherent to good photographs.
There are three building blocks of exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. A hand-held meter forces you to address all three of these cornerstones and, in doing so, you begin to see, and understand, the relationships between them.
You start by setting the ISO that you’d like to use in the meter, and you take a reading. It’s that simple. The meter will give you a suggested f/stop and shutter speed setting. At this point you can begin to make the creative decisions that you need in order to convert an average picture/exposure into something magical and special.
By activating your meter, you can see the wide variety of exposure options, or shutter speed/aperture combinations that you have with the light that you’ve been given. You can decide for yourself if you want to prioritize shutter speed (stop or show motion) or aperture (short or long depth of field) for your subject at hand. These options are not always apparent when you rely on your camera’s meter.
Let’s look at some other reasons to use a handheld exposure meter.
If you’re interested in night photography, a good meter will eliminate the trial-and-error method —which could take hours — of making an exposure and seeing if you’ve captured anything, much less what you wanted. Simply see what the light meter says and take the picture, which should produce a great basic exposure. You can then consider adding other creative elements to your image.
If you are working with a strobe flash system, using the flash mode on a meter gives you great first exposures without trial-and-error. This can help you gain trust with your clients, or your teacher, if they happen to be on set with you, as opposed to watching you “hunt around” trying to get the exposure right.
Having an external light meter is an essential tool for most serious photographers, a great learning tool for students, and another key ingredient to your creative toolbox. Like everything else in this highly specialized, techno-world of ours, light meters come in a variety of types, sizes and prices, so let’s examine some options.
- Ambient Light Meters: For those looking for a good, basic meter to measure available light, an ambient light meter is a great choice. We like this one by Gossen DigiSix. Most models available allow you to take both reflected and incident light readings. While a separate discussion would be required to explain the pros and cons of both, it is nice to have a choice in one meter.
- Flash Meters: It requires a special meter to measure the extremely short duration of an electronic flash. Flash meters used to be quite expensive, and not very useful for ambient readings, but many of today’s meters serve this dual purpose quite well and are relatively inexpensive. More sophisticated flash meters are still available which can store numerous exposures and calculate lighting ratios. We’re fans of these three: Calumet DFM 3, Sekonic L-308S Flashmate, and Sekonic L-478D Litemaster Pro.
- Spot Meters: These special-purpose meters read a very select portion of a scene (1°) and can be helpful for a very precise reflectance level of a particular object, or can be used to determine the dynamic range of a scene. These were very popular with photographers who were using the zone system in their photography and still provide invaluable information for some photographers. However, there are fewer models available and they can be pretty pricey. Spot attachments are available for some Sekonic and Gossen meters like the Sekonic L-758DR.
- Cine Meters: As the name implies, these meters are designed for film makers and videographers. They give you light readings and their relationships to frames per second, cine shutter speeds and shutter angle settings. Try out the Sekonic L-758Cine DIGITALMASTER.