With today’s cameras and the amazing technology crammed into them, is it still necessary for a handheld light meter? Or are we just a bit too “Old School” for modern day technology? Well, anybody that has spent any time with me will know that I am a stickler for the back of the camera histogram when judging your lighting. But ever since my first digital camera, I have never been able to fully let go of my trusty old Minolta spotmeter and later my Sekonic LS308s incidence light meter.
Almost every workshop I present that has to do with any kind of artificial light, students will see me do my initial setups with the Sekonic. And on every workshop I will get asked if they should get a light meter or just trust the camera?
The truth of the matter is: I believe you should use every tool in the box of tricks to simplify your life. That’s all.
Here are the facts:
If you are shooting straight forward shots, then the histogram is gonna be perfect and you can really do 90% of all your lighting adjustments on that, but when you start shaping light a bit more and starting to do some tricky things with it, then nothing beats a light meter!
Also, initial setup is just so much simpler if you have a hand held light meter to get your baseline settings right. After that, break and build as much as you want, but with a strong and solid baseline, you know how far off the “correct” settings you have gone, and because you know your equipment extremely well, you can now safely push right up to the practical limits of your cameras and lights.
To Illustrate, I will just quickly show you two shots. The first one is pretty easy to read on a histogram. The only white is her eyes (and not true white) and the rest is a very soft light on skin tone.
If you check the histograms, you can distinguish the larger skin tone areas, and can adjust accordingly to ensure no burnout or under exposure (which would cause the skin to lose “life” and go grey because of lack of luminosity).
The second shot is much harder to judge (not impossible, just harder) the shot is overall very dark, and leans heavily to the left in your histogram. The “correctly” exposed highlight areas in the skin are much less prominent in your histogram, BUT the skin is lit with a soft light, not specular light (like from a silver reflector or umbrella) which means if you push it too far, you will start losing details in large areas of the skin. In this case, starting with a light meter reading, and then pushing up and down a bit as the mood of the shot takes you, is just much simpler and safer, especially if you are not shooting tethered.
But where is a light meter critical? Honestly, Nowhere! But as mentioned earlier, it just makes shooting a lot faster and safer in many cases.
My next example is for a stock standard even tone, group of four type setup.
Typically you have a small family coming to your studio. chances are the teenage daughter and the dad doesn’t want to be there or was led there under false pretenses. You want your lights perfect from the get go!
If you use two lights from the front, you will know that you can use the physics of light to your advantage to give you greater even coverage of your set. In the lighting diagram you can see my family, and two umbrellas.
The positioning means the kids on the edges receive the perfect amount of light, but because of light falloff (light gets weaker, the further it travels) the people in the middle of the set, should in actual fact, be slightly under exposed (red block) Here is where the magic happens. Light is additive! That means, that where the two beams of light meet, they combine and the middle section now has “more” light.
Using a light meter here makes it extremely easy to to move or angle the lights on my left and right so that the middle has exactly the same EV value as the sides, giving you a nice and beautiful even light, right across the shot!
Can it be done without a light meter? Yes, absolutely! Just like you can unlock your front door with a paperclip if you spend enough time on it.
My last example is a super simple shot of a healthy piece of broccoli:
Very straight forward shot. I have two Profoto D1 lights left and right, one with a standard reflector, the other with a white Profoto Beauty Dish. In front I have a silver 105cm reflector to just slightly lift the shadows. I want specular highlights and deep shadows on the broccoli, but I DON’T want to burn it out. Here it becomes a bit critical to get the light just right.
The light meter made the setup simple. When I placed my lights I got:
Light in front where the two beams meet: f/13
Light in front, top, where the two beams meet: f/9
Light on the left f/16
Light on the right f/16
This left me with a too dark top, not enough detail. But because I know the exact values, I could now do a very simple adjustment. I kept the camera on f/16, dropped the power for the light on the left and added the silver reflector front left, which left me with f/14 for front and left and f/11 on top.
End result: Nice sculpted light that took me all of 9 minutes to achieve (first test shot fired on flash, to last shot before taking “hero” shot with and without mist) 16 minutes from start to finish, lights on to lights off.
Again, can you do this without a light meter? Yes, absolutely. But the light meter just gives me a numerical value, a quantity of light. Making it super simple for your brain to quickly adjust the problem spots.
Work smarter, not harder! Learn to use your light meter!