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14 Jul 2024

Light Meter

ɪkspóʒər mítər
Term: Light Meter
Description: A Light Meter is a device in photography that measures the intensity or brightness of light, providing readings to determine the optimal exposure settings for capturing a scene. It is utilized to gauge the amount of light reflected from a subject or the incident light falling on it. Integral to achieving accurate and consistent exposures, a light meter aids photographers in mastering diverse and challenging lighting conditions.

Exposure Meter vs Light Meter

These are two terms that are usually used interchangeably by photographers. Both are devices for measuring light, however, technically a “light meter” only reports the light’s intensity, whereas an exposure meter measures the intensity of light and translates that data into camera settings needed to make a correct exposure in the given lighting situation. There are two types of exposure meters – incident and reflective. The exposure meter built into your camera is a reflective light meter, meaning that it measures light reflected from a subject. The other type of exposure meter, incident, measures light that falls directly onto the meter. This is the type of meter that is used to measure flash’s intensity.

Basics On Light Meters

A light meter objectively measures the light and breaks it down into measurements that photographers can use, (Shutter speed, ISO, F-Stop). There are two kinds of light that they meter: reflected light and incident light.

Reflective meters are the one that reside in digital cameras. The light is measured from the camera’s position and is what is reflected into the lens. In-camera metering has become quite great over time, but a reflective meter only tells half the story.

Incident light meters measure the light falling on a subject. Incident meters can accomplish their job with more accuracy, and finesse, in situations that would fool a reflective meter, such as strong back-lighting.

Using the data provided by a light meter can help a photographer better understand light and how it behaves. Knowing the quality of the light and where it falls will help you control the look and feel of your image and has the added benefit of better consistency between shots.

Why Use a Light Meter?

A lot of people who are newer to shooting film like to say that it’s fun because it’s unpredictable. You take some photos, send the film to a lab, and like magic, you get your photos back. Some turn out great, some might have some ‘happy accidents’, and others are a bit too dark and muddy. I would like to argue here that film can be very predictable and very precise. The way you get those results is through the use of a light meter and manually exposing your photos.

What Does a Light Meter Do?

If you have heard of aperture priority or shutter priority settings for your camera, you start with a light meter in a similar fashion. For instance, my main concern in my photos is my depth of field vs my shutter speed. So I set the meter in a similar way to aperture priority and adjust my aperture to the setting I desire. Then when I take my reading, it lets me know where to set my exposure. As a note: the reading the light meter gives is your middle grey reading, meaning that exposure setting is in the middle of the brightest parts of your photo to the darkest parts of your photo.

How to use a lightmeter
Photo by Braedon Flynn

Best Tips While Using a Lightmeter While Shooting Backlit:

When shooting film, especially color film, the shadows in the film need a lot of light. I have found it is better to over-expose your film, most especially when you’re shooting backlit. Like in the photo above, backlit refers to when the sun is behind your subject, lighting them from behind. When this happens, typically the sky and background are brighter than your subject, who’s face is technically shaded.

What I recommend is holding the lightmeter towards where your camera will be, in the most shaded area of your subject or photo. This way, you are giving extra light to your subject making he or she properly exposed. One of the magic aspects of film is that it retains highlights really well. So you expose for your subject, and then the sky and background usually still retain their detail. The opposite is true with digital. For your digital images, you expose for your highlights.

Here are a few examples:

using a lightmeter portraits 1
Photo by Braedon Flynn
using a lightmeter portraits 2
Photo by Braedon Flynn

Shooting Front-Lit with a Meter

Shooting front-lit refers to the sun directly shining and lighting your subject or landscape that you’re photographing. In this situation, because of the direction of the light, you don’t have to be as concerned with your overexposures. To refresh why we were doing that in the back-lit situation, the shadows need a lot of light to expose properly, and with the sun behind the subject, the area you are most concerned about – your subject – is in the shade.

If your camera has an in-camera meter, it will probably be fairly accurate in the front-lit scenario. While when shooting back-lit, the camera is reading more of the bright background, which will then set the exposure to compensate for the background light, thus underexposing your subject.

To take a reading in a front-lit scenario, hold your meter in the direct sun, facing the camera. I still recommend taking a reading of your shadows so you can see how much contrast there is and what that might do to your subject.

Below are some examples of front-lit photographs:

using a lightmeter portraits 4
Photo by Braedon Flynn
using a lightmeter portraits 42
Photo by Braedon Flynn

Lightmeter Conclusions

A light meter is the best way to have control of your exposures, in turn giving you the results you are looking for. The lightmeter used in the video above is the Sekonic L-358, which you can find at Film Supply Club along with film and cameras to shoot it with.

Related Articles to Light Meter Definition

Tips & Tricks

Four Tips on How to Properly Meter Exposure in Snow

One of the great things about winter when it comes to photography is that the snowy landscape can provide some terrific photo opportunity. But there is one problem when it comes to shooting snow: Snow is white. Your camera’s metering system wants to meter everything as middle gray. As a result, that pristine white snow becomes dull and dirty snow. SLR Lounge has 4 easy-to-use tips that can help you expose your images correctly when shooting in the snow.