Do I Need a Light Meter?

digital light meter
A light meter like this Shepherd/Polaris SPD100 are incredibly useful and relatively inexpensive

A fair question these days is whether or not you still need a hand-held light meter? In the old days light meters in the camera were pretty simple. There was a needle over on the side and a center mark on the scale. The closer the needle was to the center mark, the better off you were. Cameras were “center weighted” which meant whatever you had in the center of the field of view was what the needle was registering.

That arrangement seems hopelessly primitive compared to today’s cameras that use sophisticated multi-point metering systems that sample many points inside a photograph and use that sample set to compute the optimum average exposure value.

Despite the difference in applied technology, the meters are still doing basically the same thing: Reading the light reflected off a subject and calculating an exposure value based on 18 percent gray. Why 18 percent gray? Because it turns out if you average all the values across a scene it all boils down to that figure.

When considering the decision of whether to get a light meter, it also helps to understand the difference between reflected light and incident light. Reflected light is what allows you to see anything. When you look at an object, your eyes are seeing the light reflected off the object to your eye. Incident light is measuring the light falling on the object, irrespective of what’s being reflected.

Light meters work by filtering the light through a dome that approximates an 18 percent gray card.

When incident light meters are most useful is when you’re working with strobes. You can remotely pop your flash setup and get an exact light reading at your subject. You can also take readings from multiple sides if you’re trying to set up a particular light ratio.

Having a decent light meter can be a great way to add consistency to your photography, by helping you dial in your starting settings. That saves a lot of time when working with expensive models. As often as you’re changing the light setup and moving around, a good light meter will be invaluable for working fast and changing setups.

A good light meter does not have to cost a lot of money. Here are a few good models for under $300.

Sekonic L-308S

Gossen DigiPro F

Shepherd/Polaris SPD100

Striving For Perfect Exposure

Polaris Digital Light Meter
A good quality light meter is still worth carrying in the world of digital photography

I’ve been taking pictures for decades. For at least the first 10 years of that time, I was a pretty much a full auto shooter and got results that were consistent but unimaginative.

In the old days of film cameras, the light meters could be off as much as a full stop. Occasionally the discrepancy would work in my favor and I’d produce some fantastic shots, proof that even a blind sow gets an acorn once in a while. Nikon shooters had an advantage in those days, as their internal light meters were far more consistent.

Then I started to get suspicious that my camera’s light meter wasn’t always giving me the whole story and got an incident light meter. That was quite an education. Then I went the opposite direction. I turned into the manual exposure hall monitor from hell. Internal light meters in cameras were crap and anyone who didn’t think so was hopelessly amateur. The worst part was that I was shooting really amazing pictures in those days, which only reinforced my bad attitude. I was an exposure snob.

Today I’m back to shooting on auto. Well, not exactly and not completely, I shoot mainly on my Canon 7D’s CA, or Creative Auto setting. With the menus on the back I can quickly bump the exposure up or down, change picture styles, and control the depth of field without manually setting the aperture. I do a lot of what’s derisively called “chimping”, checking the LCD screen every few shots to see if I like the results. If not, I change the exposure and try again.

I still go back to manual exposure in certain situations when the lighting is tricky and I know that even the marvelously accurate computers inside the camera are not going to meter the scene properly. I still use a light meter sometimes, more in the studio these days than outside, but lately there are fewer situations when the camera and light meter disagree.

A properly exposed photo is still a thing of beauty, but now we’re so used to near exposure perfection from even average digital cameras that the manual tweak of imperfection is becoming a statement in its own right.

The main thing is find your own style for dialing in the perfect exposure. Don’t let anyone tell you chimping is not okay. The LCD screen on your camera is a fantastic tool, use it.

But do invest in a good quality light meter, they really are quite handy. Even doctors need a second opinion once in a wile.