Ask Noel:Do I Need To Buy A Light Meter?

Mike P asks:

“Are hand-held light meters still useful? Should I invest in one?”

When photography first began, camera’s didn’t have built in meters. You had to buy a hand held device, called a light meter, which would give you the correct settings. As technology improved, companies began to install meters in-camera.

The emergence of the use of flash over traditional hot lights in studio based photography resulted in creation of light meters to measure the flash output, as the in-camera meter could not. This would allow photographers to ensure their exposures were correct, as there was no way to see the results until the film was processed.

Once digital cameras became popular, the ability to to see the image immediately after shooting in many ways made the light meter obsolete. You could see right away if the light output was correct. If it wasn’t you could adjust the power, shoot again. Still not correct? Adjust a bit more, shoot again. Repeat until you got the correct result.

That being said…I’ve continued to use my hand held meter for working with my studio lights.
1)It saves me time. The shoot and adjust method frankly takes so much longer than setting up the lights, meter the light, and adjust.

2)I can ensure the correct light ratio for certain situations. For example, a white background should be no more than 2 stop brighter than the subject light. If it’s too bright, you will start to get halo/fringing/flare around the edges. With my light meter, and can get the exact aperture for the subject light, then meter the background to ensure it is no more than two stops. For example, if the subject light meters at F8, the background should be no brighter than F16.

If you want to purchase one, the Sekonic L-308 is a good option for both ambient and studio. If you just need an ambient light meter, there is the Sekonic L-398. Those would be my recommendations, but there are cheaper models out there.

You can also buy a light meter attachment for your iPhone/iPod, the Lumu, but it only does ambient. There are also a variety of light meter apps available of iOS, including the Pocket Light Meter (which I have used and found to be pretty accurate, but again, only for ambient)

So should you buy a light meter? Really depends on what kind of shooting you do. If you do a lot of studio work with film, it’s a must have. With digital? I think it’s a useful tool especially when you are doing complex light setups. For everyday shooting with a digital SLR? Not really, your in-camera meter does the job perfectly. Shooting with an old film camera? Ambient only meter would be useful for sure.


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