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Incident- versus Reflected-Light Metering


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BY Sekonic December 01, 2009 · Published by Sekonic

Learn about the benefits of using a light meter and the differences between incident- and reflected-light metering.

Incident-Light Metering     

Because incident-light metering reads the intensity of light falling on the subject, it provides readings that will create accurate and consistent rendition of the subject’s tonality, color, and contrasts, regardless of reflectance, background color or brightness, or subject textures. Subjects that appear lighter than middle gray to your eye will appear lighter in the finished image. Subjects that are darker than middle gray will appear darker. Colors will be rendered accurately, and highlight and shadow areas will fall naturally into place. Neat trick, eh?

Meter reading:  

White plate.

Gray plate.

Black plate.

Reflected-Light Metering     

Because reflected-light metering reads the intensity of light reflecting off of the subject, it is easily fooled by variances in tonality, color, contrast, background brightness, surface textures, and shape. What you see is often not at all what you get. Reflected-light meters do a good job of reading the amount of light bouncing off of a subject—the trouble is they don’t take into account any other factors in the scene. They are merciless in recording all things as a medium tone.

Reflected-light measurements of any single tone area, for instance, will result in a neutral gray rendition of that object. Subjects (such as a white cat) that appear lighter than gray will reflect excess light, which causes them to be rendered as darker than they appear. Subjects (such as a black cat) that are darker than gray will reflect less light and result in an exposure that renders them lighter—in other words, a gray cat instead of a black one.

Meter reading:  

White plate.

Gray plate.

Black plate.

Want to learn more about how to interpret the data an incident-light meter provides to hone your exposures?  Read our article on the Benefits of Incident-Light Metering.


Exposure and Metering

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