The Scoop on Light Meters

March 17, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Hey Everyone! Hope you had a great week. This is a continuation on basic topics of Photography that I have been doing the last month or so. This is the first time that I have reposted a Blog of mine. This was originally written two years ago and posted and got a fairly good viewing with over 400 views. I recently went on a Natural Light Portrait workshop and one of the participants asked me why the instructor was  talking about hand held meter instead of using the meter in his camera. I gave her an explanation but then thought about writing a Blog on it but researched and found that I already had but thought it was worth rehashing.  So here it is.  This week I want to talk about light meters. There are basically two camps on this: those who are for light meters and those who are against them. I am for light meters in certain situations. Let's talk about light and how your camera works. First, light is the basis of all we do in photography. Without light, it's just a black square. Being able to measure light accurately is important when taking photographs. 

All modern cameras have built-in light meters that measure the light coming off of your subject. Your _MSP9577_MSP9577 camera sees this and makes corrections via a computer for the shot, and you have a great photo. But the reflective light can be misleading, causing your camera not to get the best exposure. When you're shooting a dark subject, the light that comes off of it will be darker than everything around it and cause your camera to lighten your photo incorrectly, creating an over-exposed shot. And if your subject is white, just the opposite will happen. Your camera can get fooled. This usually only happens in very extremes of the light spectrum, and you will have to override your camera by some sort of compensation. Your camera is set to expose all of your photos to 18% gray. So technically, if you are over or under 18% gray tones in your shot, your camera will try to get you to that 18%.  Most of the time you won't notice this except on the extremes, and you can usually fix it in post-production software. The type of metering in your camera is reflective metering, meaning it measures what is reflecting off of your subject.

A handheld light meter works in a different way. It measures what it sees. For example, if you're taking a photograph of a dark subject, you measure the light at the subject. If you measure the light before it hits and reflects off of the subject, you will get a truer reading. So if you're taking a photo of a dark subject and you set your camera manually to the readings your meter got and take the shot, you will get a perfectly metered shot. If the light stays the same, you can move a white subject into the same spot, take the shot, and the same settings will apply because the light didn't change. Take the shot and you will have a perfectly metered shot. If you're doing a landscape, measure the sun and set your camera to the meter's readings, and you will have a perfectly metered shot. Using a handheld meter is incident metering. You are measuring what hits the meter not what bounces off of the subject.

So when should you use a handheld meter? Should you use it all the time? Okay, now let's get practical.  You could use a handheld meter all the time and get great photos, but it's not practical to do so. The meter in your camera will work great for 90 percent of the photography that is done. Landscapes, sport, Portrait Workshop-6Portrait Workshop-6 wildlife, and street photography are things that can happen fairly quickly, and using a handheld meter would get in the way. The one type of photography that I always use a handheld meter for is when doing off-camera flash and/or portrait photography with or without strobes. I find this to be the best way to set your lights and get the metering perfect each and every time. If you have a model, go to the model's face, point the meter at the light and pop the flash, and you can set your camera to what the meter says and have a perfect exposure. If your lights and subject stay in the same place, you don't have to meter again. With your Head Shot 2Head Shot 2 camera in manual, you just shoot and everything will be properly exposed. Others will say, "Well, I only have to take a couple of test shots and adjust my camera or lights until I get it right in camera." And that is true. But to me it's sloppy, and I can meter once and have it perfect. Then I only have to think about my subject, posing, and composition. So in my humble opinion, when doing off-camera flash/strobes, it's much easier to use a meter, put everything in manual, and shoot that way. So I am in the for meters camp of thinking. There are many ways to get a light meter. And of course, the old saying "buy nice or buy twice" applies here. I have an older meter that I have had for years and it works great but you can get apps on your phone that may also work. But I cannot recommend them because I haven't tested or used them.  Sekonic is a very popular and reliable brand name that is the industry standard for photography light meters.  

So if the weathers bad and  you're stuck inside, do some Portraits and use a handheld meter and see how easy it is to use. Until next week, pull out that meter and shoot!


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