Ever been confused about why you need a light meter and how to choose one? Learn the basics about light meters.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of thirteen books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his newsletter, read our interview with him and visit his website.
Photographs © Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Both amateurs and pros alike are insecure about exposure. It’s so easy to end up with over- or underexposed pictures in all kinds of situations that photography can be a stressful pursuit. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. With a little knowledge and the right equipment, the mystery of exposure is no longer mysterious. It’s something that becomes second nature to you and it’s no big deal. In fact, exposure becomes entirely predictable.
Handheld meters are the answer to taking the insecurity out of exposure. They're extremely accurate (they measure light in tenths of an f-stop), and in the 30 years I’ve been using them I have never once been disappointed with their reliability. If I took a bad exposure reading, it was "pilot error." I messed up, not the meter.
Unlike built-in camera meters, a handheld meter is not deceived by extreme contrast, backlighting, sidelighting, transillumination, snow, or flash. Photos 1 through 7 in the slideshow above are examples of images that will confuse the meter in your camera, resulting in poor exposures. With a handheld meter, the results will be perfect because of its precision, versatility, and ability to read ambient light falling on the scene, as opposed to light reflected from a scene. Handheld meters read reflected light, too, but in some situations (like with snow and extreme contrast) reading the ambient light is much more reliable.
Choosing a light meter, like choosing a camera, is based on the features you want. The meter should have three modes of exposure measurement: incident (which measures the light falling on a scene by using a lens covered with a white dome); reflected (which, like your camera’s meter, reads light bouncing off the subject; and flash (which gives you the correct exposure by reading the brief burst of light from either a portable flash like the Canon Speedlite 580EX II or studio strobes).
Another important feature that you want in a handheld meter is the ability to read light from a 1-degree angle. This gives you tremendous control over the exposure of any subject and from any distance to the subject. Sitting in the back of a theater, for example, you will be a considerable distance from a performer on stage (see image 8 above). With a 1-degree spot meter, you can read the light on the person’s face or clothing without being influenced by the dark background, and you can do so from the comfort of your seat in the audience.
When using flash, it’s important to have a meter that can fire a studio strobe. Some meters can only trigger the strobes when a cord is plugged into them, while others, like the Sekonic L-758DR Digital Master, can trigger flash units wirelessly. It’s also important for the meter to be able to record multiple pops from one or more strobe units and then calculate the correct exposure based on the accumulated light. This feature is especially valuable in studio work when shooting products, food, still life, and even stock.
Another important feature is to have the exposure reading displayed in the viewfinder of the meter as well as on the external LCD. This makes taking light readings fast and efficient.
Finally, some meters display how much flash is used in an exposure, compared to how much continuous light (ambient or tungsten). This is important when shooting interiors, for example, such as in image 9. If you are photographing a room interior that is illuminated with tungsten light and the meter shows, say, 65%, then you know that 35% of the exposure is coming from tungsten. This feature is available on several Sekonic meters, including the L-358 Flash Master.