Dear Light Meter: You’re Dead To Me

In a recent post, reader Clay posed the following question in the comment section:

Do you ever use a light meter? If so, what are the situations?

It’s a good, fair and simple question, so I’ll begin by answering it: Clay, not only don’t I use a light meter, but it’s been so long since I used one that–until you reminded me–I had nearly forgotten that they ever existed. Seriously.

Here’s why they’re less relevant than ever before: when you combine that LCD on the back of your digital camera with your brain you’ve got a better tool than you’d ever get from a hand held Star-Trek-looking thingie that spits out some strange, relational, numeric code. Am I right? Just take 5 pictures in as many seconds with a few adjustments here and there, and you’ve figured out where you need to be. Skip reading the ambient light (what a meter does), and just snap off a few pictures. Look at the back of your camera. Tweak your exposure to see what you want to see, and how you want to see it, right there on the back of your camera. Bingo.

Okay, okay. Before the haters mount their attack, I’m just getting your goat. Read more after the jump – click the ‘continue reading’ link below …

Clay’s question is a fine one, (and the above accurately characterizes how I nail down my exposure) but I’m really just using it as a springboard to get back at a larger point I’ve been hammering a lot lately: Sure, it’s incredibly valuable to know the ins and outs of the technical side of photography. I’m a huge advocate of that and I’ve paid my dues. You should too. But understanding the fundamentals of light and the mechanics of a camera and all the techno babble that’s all the rage online these days can only get you so far.

DO use the back of your camera, and don’t feel bad about it. Hell, go ahead and use a light meter and a 4×5 if you must – see if I care. Read reviews. Nerd out on gear. Whatever floats your boat.

But one thing is for sure: don’t ever confuse all the silly little gadgets and the silly little numbers with what it means to simply and eloquently capture a moment, a scene, or the essence of a human emotion – whatever it is that truly inspires you. You’ll be much better off for it, I promise.

39 Responses to Dear Light Meter: You’re Dead To Me

  1. Eric April 24, 2008 at 8:48 pm #

    Ask that question to a film shooter….

  2. Duane April 24, 2008 at 10:26 pm #

    Hmm – good point “but”. I think a light meter is a great learning tool especially for new shooters. Until you understand the light and actually see it you really don’t know what you are doing. A light meter (like a tripod) make you slow down and really look at your scene and see what is going on. Granted you can loose something in the image making process by being too focused on gear but until you master the gear you are not really sure what you are doing.

    Chase I imagine you and your amazing group of guys can walk out and nail and exposure just by looking at the light. I remember being younger and working as an intern with a local pro and he would amazing me with his ability to look at his hand and tell me what the exposure was… Now when I was young and naive I didn’t think about the fact that at the same time of day, under the same lighting conditions the exposure would be the same. And if you shot at the same venue over and over again there really was a pretty good chance that you would probably have a pretty darn good idea what the exposure was going to be. This was also back in the Nikon F3 days and manual focus lenses.

    One the things I really enjoy doing is helping folks that are learning to shoot. I am no master or anything like that but I love photography, have a passion for it and want to share that with other people. I recommend light meters to folks because it forces you to stop, look at the light and think about the exposure.

    Anyway I really enjoy your work, your blog and the passion you are putting into the community! Thank you for that!

  3. mahonyWeb April 24, 2008 at 11:26 pm #

    I somewhat agree with Chase’s sentiments, but a light meter does still have its uses.

    If you’re looking for the absolute optimum exposure, and are exposing to the right (to capture as much data as possible), the LCD reading on the back of the camera can be somewhat misleading.

    The picture shown on the LCD, and the data displayed on it, is based on a JPEG version of the RAW file you’re shooting. Even if you shoot RAW-only (like I do), the picture you see is still a JPEG and is not truly 100% accurate.

    With my Canon 5D I found there was still a good third of a stop to play with even though the histogram was indicating that I was overexposing. My 1Ds mk3 is a little more accurate, but if you want 100% accurate results then a calibrated light meter (specific to your cameras sensor) is the only way to go IMO.

    Here endeth the geek speak :)

  4. Snorri Gunnarsson April 25, 2008 at 1:33 am #

    whats a lightmeter? is it related to a lightyear?

  5. Wojtek April 25, 2008 at 4:09 am #

    I completely agree with you on that, Chase. I don’t remember when I’ve used lightmeter myself; histogram does it perfectly and it’s already there, in the camera… So you don’t need to jump around like a monkey with a people-freaking device :D

  6. Wounded Healer April 25, 2008 at 4:41 am #

    Thanks allot Chase…
    I just ordered a new light meter earlier this week and now I read this! Should I return it???
    I still believe it will be a valuable tool for myself as I continue to learn this passion of ours.


  7. Gordon McKinney April 25, 2008 at 5:09 am #

    Candid and PJ photography I use the LCD/Histogram and ETTL flash.

    When I configure one or more monoblocks then I use a Sekonic L-358, any more than this is overkill. But I still use the LCD after the rig is running to fine tune the look.

    One exception to this is wedding formal portraits in natural light. I will take a reading and run manual mode (M) to reduce work in post production.

  8. Edward Maurer April 25, 2008 at 5:36 am #

    I think I learned more from the back of my camera than I ever did with a film camera. I learn best with visuals, and the lcd on the back of my camera is a great way to give immediate visual feedback. Gone are the days of writing down my aperture and shutter speed only to forget where my paper was and what I was doing when the film is finally developed a week later.

  9. Jon April 25, 2008 at 5:39 am #

    I rarely use a light meter, but there is one situation where I use it a lot: when I’m shooting by myself without an assistant. As a corporate shooter, I’m often in a conference room trying to set up my lights by myself, and the CEO is going to be there in five minutes and will probably stay still for half that. One method to test my lights is to set the timer, run in front of the camera, then run back and check the back of the camera – basically be my own assistant. But that takes some time, and I don’t always have it. So I have a light meter in my bag – it’s got a Pocket Wizard radio trigger. I set the lights to a level that I think is about where it needs to be, then step into my frame and pop off a few test flashes with the meter – test key, test fill, test areas that aren’t the focus. In a few seconds I get a good idea of where my lights are and for the most part I’m good to go when the executive rolls in. Other than that? never use it.

  10. David April 25, 2008 at 6:21 am #

    What Chase said.

  11. Jus Cowland, Photographer April 25, 2008 at 6:28 am #

    light meter schmight meter.
    just another toy.
    I want to take pictures on the fly, not determine my exposure with another tool hanging off my belt.
    thanks chase.

  12. Tony April 25, 2008 at 8:28 am #

    I use my DSLR with my 4×5 shots

  13. GeoWulf April 25, 2008 at 8:44 am #

    May I have your light meter Chase?

    Just send me an email and I will include my address and paypal you the shipping costs. ;)

    (I promise I will pass it on to the next person after I figure things out and don’t need it anymore.)

  14. dez April 25, 2008 at 8:47 am #

    Light sabers are the coolest!! I’ve always wanted one …. wait … this is about light meters. Ok, yes I love mine. Sure you can chimp the screen, and I often do when I shoot digital. For as long as I’ve been shooting, it still surprises me how well I can nail exposure just by surveying the scene (plus, I don’t trust the built in meters). But, when it comes down to film, or any commissioned shoot, it helps to have the reassurance of the meter. I can just read the light and start shooting – focusing on composition rather than exposure.

    just my .02

  15. Ryan Allan Photography April 25, 2008 at 10:18 am #

    I think so many people get caught up in the techno side of things cause it keeps them on their computer and the strobist site and not going out and making mistakes and failing. The problem is we learn best from our mistakes.

    Photography is more about feeling and emotion than tech info.
    The best photographers out there just go with their gut.

  16. Rockhopper April 25, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    I use a light meter on hired flash equipment, so I know how far out they are due to age and wear. That is about it for me. If there is a model,forehead nose and chin are the areas that i quickly check.

    however on my own equipment I dont bother. One of the best training aid is to gaffer tape the screen use a lightmeter make a measurement, use on camera lightmeter write down the measure ment compare the two take the shot. After about twenty shots and writing down figures. Download the images. You can see the how exposure works. This will prevent you from chimping (holding the camera like a chimp and prodding the lcd screen with an index finger making strange facial expressions).

    Just another expensive gadget if you ask me. However I know some phots that use a lightmeter without really using it as a gimmick to make them look more professional in front of a client.

  17. verosky April 25, 2008 at 12:00 pm #

    Well, if you’re actually talking “flash” meters:

    1) The LCD isn’t always that accurate and isn’t always easy to see (like in daylight). Bummer when you load that stuff and realize you need to make rookie type adjustments in post.

    2) Lighting ratios. Some people don’t care, some people do, some clients require to spec, some photographers can just see them. Some art directors might demand the numbers, yuck.

    3) Reference. So, you wanna diagram out a lighting setup. Do you just makeup the numbers? How do you quantitatively show what you did?

    4) It’s just a meter for Pete’s sake. A tool for quickly and accurately measuring a burst of light. Using the camera is just a less accurate, potentially slower, way of doing the same thing.

    It would suck to find out later your right side kicker was just noticeably hotter than the left and you wish it wasn’t. Chimping is for little screens, and laptops and extra time aren’t always available for more detailed previews.

    Hmm… I think Chase knows all of this. Gosh, I fell for the bait.

  18. daryl brewton.dbimages.photoblog April 25, 2008 at 5:41 pm #

    AMEN Chase!

  19. Clay April 25, 2008 at 9:05 pm #

    Wow. I had no idea that my question would get a whole post! Thank you Chase for taking the time to answer my question!

  20. blaine April 26, 2008 at 2:45 am #

    well said chase!

  21. Gabe April 27, 2008 at 10:55 am #

    I take my ‘meter’ with me everywhere:

  22. Mike McGregor April 27, 2008 at 6:37 pm #

    Is my Mark II display the only one that sucks? Obviously I have worked it out but…

  23. Sarah Rhoads Photo April 28, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    wise words dear lighting sensai :)

  24. Jerry Balloch April 29, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    Hey Chase, completely off topic but just got home from the course today in Dubai and wanted to say thanks. Learned a lot, great to meet you and the team. Maybe next time you’ll rock those Maiden kicks though?


  25. Loren Callahan April 29, 2008 at 7:42 pm #

    You guys are funny. Love it Chase. Ha!

  26. OG May 2, 2008 at 2:35 pm #

    “…don’t ever confuse all the silly little gadgets and the silly little numbers with what it means to simply and eloquently capture a moment, a scene, or the essence of a human emotion – whatever it is that truly inspires you. You’ll be much better off for it, I promise.”

    Well put.

  27. monkeytumble May 2, 2008 at 5:00 pm #

    I still shoot film for serious work. I use my digital camera all the time as a light meter when shooting film. I feel that I get the best of all worlds, instant digital feed back, perfect film exposures, and a 100 megapixel digital capture system (the effective capture of my film and scanner combo).

    Think outside the rhetoric…

  28. Josh May 7, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    I still carry around my lightmeter and I gotta say, I’m not about to stop.

    Remember, the back of the camera lies, the screen is calibrated that well and is only meant for a basic preview – the only good thing about it is the fact that you can get a histogram. Looking at an image on the back of a small screen on the back of a camera can mean incorrect estimations by even some of the best of us by about a stop.

    Secondly – what about studio photography? Your in-camera meter just ain’t gonna cut it there when you got flash units going off left right and center.

    And what if you’re using film? A light meter is very much required there.

    So don’t throw out that light meter just yet.

  29. Chris May 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm #

    That’s the same thing I tell people. Learn it, then you wont have to use it as much. BUT, a word to new people… Apparently some DSLR’s use “Picture Styles” to visually adjust the displayed image on the LCD. What you see in RAW may or may not be quite like you get on the LCD. These Pictures Styles are designed for shooting JPG, but even when shooting raw, the camera uses it for the lcd display.

  30. Sandi May 22, 2008 at 11:40 pm #

    wow… that goes against damn near everything I’ve been taught so far in college on how to handle light. I’m so happy to hear it though. I thought I was the odd one out in a class of like…100 because I wouldn’t buy a light meter. I figured that if I knew my equipment enough then I should know how my camera records an image and what sort of adjustments I usually make in RAW. I think and have always thought from the start that a photography should first and foremost (well, be there to take the image, but also…) be able to feel light. It saves time, it saves money spent on gadgets, and it saves you hopping around the studio or setting taking reading after rediculous reading. If you know your stuff, you know your stuff. If you don’t, then go back to the learning books, kiddo! In the end everyone has their set techniques and I’ll probably have to give in and buy a light meter for the sake of passing my course, but come graduation next April, if anyone of you film shooters out there wants a lightmeter, I’ll surely have one for sale :)

    Thanks so much Chase for the reassuring words!

    -Sandi, Fanshawe College, Canada

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  32. obakesan September 11, 2008 at 10:02 pm #

    Dear Chase

    I do indeed shoot film and 4×5, but my lightmeter is now firmly my digital camera. My coolpix takes 5 million spot meter readings in a single click.

    Not only is that an advantage, but unlike a spot meter reading I get to take the colour of the item into consideration too, so that a red item will show as being as bright as it really is.

    So my digital spot meter is now my camera. I think the only failing there is for flash metering. Still.

  33. m* October 26, 2009 at 11:50 pm #

    nice blog…

  34. Mobile phone tracker December 7, 2009 at 12:10 am #

    Anyway what is a light meter? I am just confused.

  35. Dentist Orange December 8, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    I also like the idea in the old days, where you manually and carefully take a good shot with a camera with film. You will learn so much about exposures, shutter speed and other technicalities with that kind of camera.

  36. Digital Meters July 10, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    I find light meter helpful at times, I used it yesterday shooting ambient light for portraits, but I could used the histogram instead. It’s mainly useful with strobes.

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  38. Aaron May 12, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    A fair assessment. I seldom rely on a light meter, especially in my own studio. However, there are some things I still use a light meter for. My LCD doesn’t tell me how much something is over/under exposed. The LCD doesn’t tell me the value of each small area of the scene I’m interested in. Also, the LCD is not going to tell me when my edge lights are 1/4 stop brighter than I intended. The LCD get’s me close, but in loading the RAW file, I still end up with scenes I wished I had metered more carefully. So I’m still waiting for the total phase-out of the light meter, especially the spot meter. Is the “spot-histogram” around the corner?

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