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

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

using a lightmeter portraits 2

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

using a lightmeter portraits 42

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.

Let us know if you have any more questions about light meters or shooting film.