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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Light Meters c. 2007

"My DSLR is the best light meter I've ever used."

My radar screen has lots and lots of low-level blips on it, and I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out which ones are planes and which seagulls. One such faint blip that I've been "sort of" aware of and "sort of" tracking is the rejuvenation of the old Minolta light meter line by Kenko, imported by THK in the U.S.

I'm a little worried about my screen-reading skills on this one. Try as I might, I can't really interpret who's going to buy these things, or who's going to care, or who should.

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that if any species of photographic kit has been rendered 100% redundant—and hence, obsolete—by digital, it's light meters.

I mean, light meters were never any fun to use. They added nothing to the experience of photography. They just existed to help you see in the dark. You didn't know how the exposure was going to look until you had the film developed, so you set the camera based on the light meter. I suppose there were studio pros who used light meters to calculate lighting ratios, but the studio pros I knew—and their ranks included some serious high-dollar shooters—didn't. One pro I worked for briefly, who had two separate stages at his studio and more than $100,000 invested in C-stands and other Matthews gear, to give you an idea of the level he was at—never touched a light meter. "Polaroids are my light meter," he proclaimed. He did everything from the Polaroids. The light meter stayed in the cart drawer.

Digital, of course, is the apotheosis of the Polaroid. Its feedback is instant. Mine shows me a "proof" of the scene with the overexposed highlights or underexposed shadows (or both!) blinking. I can get a color histogram at the touch of a button. It works equally well for ambient and flash. Frankly, if these features had been available in a handheld light meter back in, say, the '80s, the manufacturer could have charged $1k for them and they would have sold like cold beers on Bay Bridge.

My DSLR is the best light meter I've ever used. The picture above was taken with an off-camera monoblock on a stand, through a white umbrella. Setting the exposure was laughably simple—with the shutter set to the sync speed and exposure on manual, I just fired off a few test shots, adjusting the aperture until the exposure was perfect. It might have taken a whole minute if I wasn't hurrying.

I know that many photographers are still shooting film in medium- and large-format cameras. Maybe some of them prefer light meters (and don't already own one). In any event, if I've missed something here, and you're eager to buy a handheld light meter, Kenko's got the goods.

Me? I'd buy a DLSR and just use that. (It has other uses, too.)



Blogger Tim said...

I've yet to see a dSLR with an incident invercone, and I'm not so gullible as to trust anything more than spot-metering in mine, either.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Vincent Benoit said...

A hand-held light meter can be useful for candid photography in that it allows the photographer to take exposure readings without attracting attention to the camera.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Ed Taylor said...

Mike -

You are entirely right. Light meters are completely useless, and were only marginally helpful even with film. All of us pros always leaned heavily on polaroids. Contrary to what one may think, the more lights and the more complicated the lighting set up, the more useless a light meter is.

I can't believe anyone buys them, but even more curious to me is that on any forum on any given day, someone will vehemently defend their use. It is almost like saying digital is as good as film. It drives some people crazy.

The facts are the facts, though. I don't know any pros who bother with light meters.

I know some amateurs who say it is important to use a light meter to impress the models.

2:15 PM  
Blogger xtoph said...

i don't currently have a really good light meter, though i used to have a couple. for the most part i shoot my 5d on manual exp mode because i have found that the camera metering is next to useless. it will reliably blow skin highlights, eg, unless everything in the background is lighter than the skin--which isn't very often. reliably, but not consistently enough so that i could dial in some compensation and leave it at that.) moreover, i have found that 'exposing to the right' doesn't really work, or at most is misleading on this camera--it prefers to be exposed correctly, which looks very dark overall for any sunlit scene with shadows.

the problem is that the histograms DO NOT represent small portions of blown highlights. the histogram/s can be 1/5 or more off the right side and when i get the image into the computer it is unusable because the cheek or nose is completely blown. sometimes this is visible on blinking highlights, sometimes not. i have become very good at predicting how the histogram is going to misrepresent a given scene, and what i need to do about it (which most of the time is darn close to the sunny 16 rule).

so i guess _some_ dslr histograms may be the best lightmeters ever. and through the workarounds i have developed, i still don't use a separate light meter. but if i were doing tripod landscapes and stuff, i can see getting a light meter to examine a scene and plan things through, in tandem with the camera lcd.

but then, i don't do a lot of landscapes. as for 'impressing the models'... why build them up for a big disappointment? ;)

3:16 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

This is interesting. I bought a strobe and light meter a couple of years ago. After going through the motions the first couple of shoots I started using only the feedback from my DSLR. Felt like I was cheating but my results were as good as they were with the Sekonic. The workflow was much smoother and I sold the light meter soon thereafter. I just chalked it up to having a simpler setup than the studio pros use. Now I know otherwise.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

Right on, Mike. I'm a long-time commercial photographer who used his Flashmeter III and Autometer IV-F diligently and religiously. (I think Ed is overstating the case when he says "all" us pros leaned heavily on Polaroids.)

Now, I just guestimate and exposure, check the histogram, adjust as necessary, and fire away. Quick, easy, and totally accurate.

Digital is far, far better than film ever dreamed of being, but that's a thought for another discussion!

Dave Jenkins

3:34 PM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Nowadays I use the light meter to set te initial exposure and than tweak it on my dsl.
I never figured it out completely. In the film days I set the exposure with the light meter and hoped that the pictures contrast came out good,...

4:31 PM  
Blogger Tim Parkin said...

I use a light meter in the field when taking landscape photographs. I'm often setting up before sunrise and I'll get my framing right etc well before the sun comes up. At this point I really need to take spot meter readings from places other than the centre of the frame. If I start playing with trial and error, I'll miss the moment. I'd love a camera that had a movable spot meter and that would exposure compensate +/- 4 but until that day I'll be using a spot meter.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

If anything a hand-held meter engenders a more methodical and purposeful approach, something that is rarely a bad thing and tends to produce better photography. Let's face it, there's been an explosion of DSLRs sold with unprecedented numbers of people getting into "serious" photography. Where's the explosion in amazing photographs?

6:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is not a gear forum so feel free to ignore me but while we're talking about incidnet light meters v digital previews...

I just bought myself a Roliflex, my first film camera in years. It has no light meter at all and I was thinking of using my DSLR as a meter. If the correct exposure is 125 f/4.5 on the Canon 5D, a 35mm camera would the same exposure apply to my 6x6 120 rollfilm Roliflex? i.e. are the light readings the same for any size film in the same lighting conditions? Or do I need to buy an incident light meter?

6:13 PM  
Blogger Michael Canyes said...

I used to have a light meter - a 1 degree spotmeter. This was back in the Zone VI days and I got pretty good with it. However, it was slow to use, and a lot of my personal stuff is shot running behind my wife daughter so this really cut into my keepers.

Something, I forget what now, got me to investigate Nikon's matrix metering. I compared the camera to the spotmeter for a few weeks. It turned out that the matrix metering worked at least as well as my spotmeter. So I quit using the spotmeter. After all, Nikon has spent a ton of money developing matrix metering, it should be worth something.

Now with Dightal and "expose to the right" I just let the camera figure it out and then check the blinking hilights. Lately I have been using a D200 and a 24 - 120 VR. no meter, no tripod - its great!

I do have a flash meter to get me in the ballpark with studio stuff, but I use a laptop to check the lighting.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yes, but you have to match the ISO setting on the DSLR to the speed of the film you've got loaded in the camera.


6:20 PM  
Blogger michael said...

I still use an incident flash meter with my dSLR.

But, I borrow it from someone else.

Michael Gottlieb
Philadelphia 19107

6:21 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Two points I forgot to make in the original post: a) since light meters are so much less needed now, if you want to buy one for whatever reason you might want to check eBay for bargains. A lot of people have been selling them lately. And 2) there's nothing WRONG with using a light meter. If you like light meters or feel they work well for you or just enjoy the working method you've developed for yourself, for pete's sake don't let me stop you. I'm nothing if not tolerant about stuff like that. Everybody should do what works best for them, and no ratty old "expert" should talk you out of doing what you like doing, whatever it is.

Er, photographically, that would be.


6:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Nikon SLRs spot meter off of the selected focus point, and have exposure compensation of +/- 5 stops. So, from the D80 up, you have eleven spot metering points across the frame.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Robert Meier said...

My Sekonic incident meter gives me unerringly accurate exposures and slips into my shirt pocket. Replacing it with a big heavy DSLR and lens is a brilliant idea!

8:37 PM  
Blogger Tim Parkin said...


I think Nikon is starting on the right path by offering the adjustments and positioning but I really need to position the spot metering myself to get accurate readings (sometimes 1 deg is quite wide) Kudos to Nikon.. (I'm a 5D user btw and +- 2 stops sucks)

2:17 AM  
Blogger doonster said...

I did buy a light meter recently for a number of reasosn - to get an idea of different light without having a camera with me, to help with the LF photopgraphy (especially filter choice), to check my DSLR meter.

I bought a Gossen Digisix (or whatever it's called) - the smallest, cheapest lightmeter I could find.

Ifind my DSLR meter is a bit inconsistent in mixed lighting (bright skies, dark shadows) which is probably more user eror than anything. i find it's meter sufficient sophisticated that I'm too dumb to use it properly. time will come, however.

3:11 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I'm using a light meter with medium format film, an old but very reliable Gossen Lunasix 3, and I'd love to have in-camera metering. But shooting landscapes and time not being an especially demanding variable, I like those old meters with the big wheel were you could see at a glance all the speed/aperture combinations. These are very accurate even in very low light levels, cost next to nothing, and are beautifully engineered too. I agree especially that, if you do need one, there's no point in spending on a new one, at all.
One thing about the old Gossen meters is the ones that use mercury batteries are very cheap for the lacking of long life battery replacements. Zinc Air batteries give you the right voltage but don't last much. There's a very weird but simple, long lasting and effective solution to that wich I can post if there's any interest in using those.
But again, sometimes if you have a big camera in the bag, just a lightmeter hanging around your neck is a lot easier for checking the light conditions while you're hiking instead of picking up the camera. I think it's a style one can get used to. I even use a camera that needs an extra viewfinder for the lens I most frequently use, so I sometimes have at hand only the lightmeter and the finder. I also use a point and shoot digital, but I've never been able to match the light measuring on it to the handheld meter.

5:51 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

Alan Briot has a whole section of his last book where he describes, using photoshop mockups, his perfect light meter -- a program that ran on a pocket PC mated to a small camera that would display all the information about a scene, show the highlights, etc, and save the information in between shots.

I've written some software for pocket pcs, actually, and thought about building his app until I realized he was basically describing the functionality of my old Canon A series.

1:48 PM  
Blogger ageorge said...

Mike, I understand your point coming from a film perspective. But I use a light meter with a dSLR. I create large multirow stitches from a 1DsII and to do so I use a lens that does not cover the image FOV so I can't meter TTL easily. It is much easier to take readings with a hand held meter of the highlight and darkest shadow and the average them. This also will indicate the DR range needed to cover the scene which lets me know if HDR should be applied. Light meters will continue to have their uses all be it in a limited capacity.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The correct answer is: whatever floats your boat. If you can calculate the correct exposure based on your astrological sign and the time of day and you get consistent results, more power to you. If you can master your DLSR to get consistent results, then go for it. If you're a purist and believe the light meter is the most accurate way to record incident light readings, no matter how good a DLSR's reflective/spot meter is, then go with your beliefs. All of these are valid points, but in the end if the end result is it doesn't improve your workflow, then don't use it.

For me I don't know how much the computer algorithms have improved in the camera body's metering, but I know the computerized camera metering still can't replace your brain. We haven't technologically improved that much. First thing's first. The camera's reflective meter will never equal an incident meter. They are two separate things, no matter how good the computer program is. The computer inside the camera can compensate based on environmental conditions, but it's not perfect. We know this and we can trick the camera anytime into false exposures. The camera is not perfect, but we as humans, can expect false exposures and adapt accordingly. If you know your camera well enough and recognize these faults, then you can quickly compute in your head the exposure compensation you have to make to correct it (by reading the histogram, etc.). If your environment is pretty controlled (like in a studio) then you can anticipate the compensation pretty good because you deal with it day in and day out. I can see the studio photographer ditching the light meter in favor of a DLSR for metering more so than a photographer in the field, since the lighting in the field is constantly changing.

And yes, you can correct bad exposure in Photoshop, but to a degree. It's the same in film - there's only so much you can do with very little density in the exposed film. In the end, I still trust my Minolta III meter because it gives me the correct incident exposure as a reference point, then I can optionally make adjustments in my head because I want to deviate from my reference point to cause a certain effect, for example. With reflective metering I would have to make an additional delta adjustment because it is reflective metering - and that's a guess at best. So logically, the incident metering has less computations.

Having said that, I don't think I can convince a wildlife photographer to stick a light meter in front of an Zodiac bear's nose to get a reading, no matter how accurate it is. Here the workflow is mandated by using a reflective meter and compensate by whatever works for you (histogram+delta, bracketing, etc.).

Ok, I can hear the flaming coming...

10:53 PM  
Blogger ctyankee said...

Rich said: I started using only the feedback from my DSLR. Felt like I was cheating but my results were as good as they were with the Sekonic. The workflow was much smoother and I sold the light meter soon thereafter.

Re: cheating ... it's funny ... out on the various forums, you don't get judged on your pictures; you get judged on (your gear, of course, but also) your technique ... using a light meter makes you serious; shooting in P mode makes you a hack. As much as I'm not a fan of Ken Rockwell (more for how he says stuff than the stuff he says) he brought up an interesting point about DOF preview ... he uses instant review on his LCD to judge DOF rather than relying on a darkened image in a crummy VF with a bright screen that gives misleading results. Of course, he was pounced upon, because, well, how can any serious photographer rely on the LCD instead of DOF preview ??? So, Mike, congratulations for risking your reputation at the hands of the masses. But seriously, you really should be using a tripod instead of relying on that anti-shake gimmick.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to necessarily enter the fray over the utility of meters, but I do think if you are looking in the price range of the Kenko, I'd recommend the Sekonic as well:

11:39 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

I will appreciate if you can post alternative solutions to the problem of mercury batteries used in the Gossen meters. There are the adaptors that are suppose to provide a constant 1.35 volts supply using zinc oxide batteries?

12:18 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

You wrote - One thing about the old Gossen meters is the ones that use mercury batteries are very cheap for the lacking of long life battery replacements. Zinc Air batteries give you the right voltage but don't last much. There's a very weird but simple, long lasting and effective solution to that wich I can post if there's any interest in using those.

I am interested! Thanks

12:53 AM  
Blogger Cheryl Nicolai said...

My light meter was the most important piece of equipment I've ever invested in.

I teach photographic workshops, and have taught many digital shooters how to use a hand-held meter. Almost all of them have been wowed by how easy and reliable it is to use. The bottom line is the average digital shooter does not really understand how their in-camera meter works, and so they don't use it properly. It's all well and good when shooting in easy lighting conditions, but backlighting, for example, is a different story.

It's been fun for me to watch the number of photographers I've taught who have switched to handheld metering -- their work almost always improves tremendously.

The bottom line, as has already been mentioned, is that you should work however you personally like to work. Don't discount the value of this tool for everyone, though; for some of it, it's enormously valuable.

10:42 AM  

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