Guide to using a hand-held light meter
Guide to using a hand-held light meter - A hand held light meter will help you get better exposures, even if you are using a digital camera.
Your camera may be the latest all-singing, all-dancing model with multi-whatsit metering and flashy exposure modes, but the fact is nothing beats the use of a hand held meter if you know how to use one.
The main issue with metering, no matter how sophisticated it is, is that it's computed to ensure the subject comes out as an average of the scene it's measuring. In simplified terms, the scene's tones are scrambled up inside the camera's metering cell to calculate a single brightness value, which is then used as the basis for the shutter speed and aperture selected. The camera will ensure this single brightness level is equivalent to a mid grey, which is fine when the subject has a wide variety of tones, or is predominately of a brightness similar to mid grey. But things go wrong if the subject is all white, such as snow or a white car, or all dark, such as a black suited person or black car. In these situations the camera will adjust the exposure to compensate and ensure the snow comes out grey and the black suit comes out grey. If you use a hand held exposure meter and point its meter sensor at the subject the same thing happens. This type of meter reading is known as a reflected reading, as it measures the light reflected from the subject, but a hand held meter can be used differently and that's why they are still very popular, despite the availability of advanced camera metering systems.
By turning the meter around you can use the sensor to measure the light falling onto the subject, so it doesn't become fooled by the subject's reflective qualities. This type of metering is called an incident reading and can produce very accurate exposures.
Many meter's like this Sekonic have a dome that slides over the sensor to provide incident reading. Here the dome is out of the way in the main picture and over the sensor in the inset picture.
To use it you have to slide a dome over the metering cell, which is usually a 180 degree translucent plastic diffuser. The meter then reads the light falling on the subject from all angles. It still scrambles the reading and adjusts the exposure to produce a mid grey, but this reading hasn't been affected by reflective or absorbent subject matter and will ensure that the dark subject stays dark and a light one stays light. If you've ever seen wedding photographers walking up to the bride and holding a gadget up to her face, now you know what they were doing.
Even very basic meters have this type of measuring, but the more you pay the more other modes you get. Basic meters have a very simple full stop exposure adjustment, while more advanced ones can measure to an accuracy of 1/10th of a stop. With this type of meter you can make perfect exposures on even the most inflexible slide film.
Some meters can measure flash too, making them versatile in the home studio and some have a spot attachment that narrows the measuring angle down to between 5 and 1 degree.
Using a meter in ambient light
The first thing to do is set the film speed on the meter. On basic models this is a dial that you rotate, placing the film speed you are using against a marker. On the more expensive LED and LCD models you key in the number using up and down buttons, like you would on an electronic camera.
You then press a button on the meter to activate it. Holding the button in on some locks the exposure on others it allows a continuous reading so you can move around checking the exposure levels around the subject. More advanced models allow multiple selection, where you can take a reading from, say, the highlight and one from the shadow and the meter then computes the average.
Taking advanced reflected readings
As reflected readings are more prone to errors one way to help you meter correctly is if you start to visualise pictures in black & white. By splitting the subject into grades from 0 (black) to 10 (white), with mid grey at 5, it's easier to evaluate the exposure required to ensure the subject appears the correct tone. This method of metering was developed by legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams and is known as the Zone System where each brightness value is given a zone rating. If you struggle to see colours as greyscale, a filter called the Mono View is available to help you see in black & white.
You would then take a reading knowing that it would create a mid grey, whatever your subject matter, then you would adjust the reading to over or under expose, making the subject go whiter or blacker.
The easier approach
An incident reading saves you trying to understand how the Zone System works and is the quick and accurate approach to photograph difficult lighting situations.
When using a meter in incident mode on subjects that are front lit, just point the meter, with the diffuser cone in place over the sensor, towards the camera, making sure that the meter is positioned in the same light as that falling onto the subject. The reading will not be correct if you hold the meter in an area of shade, while the subject is basking in sunlight.
Sunsets are fairly easy to shoot, but getting the right balance is the trick. If you want a rich orange sky point at the sky and if you want detail in the landscape point downwards first and lock the exposure. If you prefer a mid point, take a reading from both places and average the two - a spot or partial meter helps here.
Whenever you attach a filter in front of the lens the amount of light reaching the film is reduced and the exposure needs to be increased to compensate. It's easy to use filters on an SLR when you're using the camera's built-in meter because the through the lens (TTL) meter sees what's in front of the lens and adjusts accordingly. This obviously can't happen when you use a separate meter, but to help filter manufacturers print the filter's exposure details on the box, around the filter's rim or in the instructions. You simply take a reading and then knock off the number of stops suggested for the filter manufacturer. A red filter, for example, reduces the exposure by three stops. So if the hand held meter suggested 1/250sec at f/8 you could open up the aperture to f/2.8 or increase the shutter speed to 1/30sec.
The problem comes when a filter increases the exposure by a third of a stop, and that's when the more advanced meter, with it's 1/10th stop accuracy is again worth its weight in gold.
What about EV numbers?
EV is an abbreviation of exposure value and is something that's used mostly by professional photographers. It's a combination of the shutter speed and aperture and some meters give the reading as an EV number which is then set on a dial to give the shutter speed and aperture combinations. If you know the EV number you can select any aperture and the shutter speed is adjusted accordingly. It's almost like having program exposure on a meter.
Using a flash meter
A flash meter measure light in much the same way as an ambient meter so can often be used as incident or reflected with the same issues being raised. Most basic flash-only meters will only work in incident light mode because the dome is fixed in place. More expensive combination meters offer both options.
Taking a reading depends on the flash meter you use. More advanced ones allow the flash sync cable to be plugged in and you press a button on the meter to trigger the flash. This gives you the benefit of being able to move close to the subject. With a basic meter you don't have this option and would need someone at the flashgun to trigger it while you hold the meter in front of the subject. This could be the model you are photographing, but on still life sets you may have a problem.
Using a Grey Card
If you can't justify the cost of a meter and want better pictures using your camera's exposure meter, buy a grey card. This is an 18% grey card, which is the same as the tone that the camera's meter scrambles to. Taking a meter reading from a grey card placed in front of the subject will give a similar exposure to an incident meter reading.
Position the card in the same light as the subject and take a reading, set this and the exposures will 99 times out of a 100 be spot on.
Getting to know your meter is vital for better pictures the more you understand it the more success you will have.
Here are some more examples of potentially difficult metering situations and what you can do to overcome them.
The baby was standing near to a window, which would have caused a normal reflected meter to underexpose, leaving the face in shadow and a normally exposed highlight. By taking an incident reading pointing at the camera the dome pics up light from the window but more from the direct light falling on the rest of the face and results in a better balanced exposure.
Shoot anything white using reflected metering and it will come out dull with either a neutral or colour cast. This Mediterranean wall has picked up a blue cast from the strong midday sun and is underexposed an incident reading produces amore natural exposure.
This shot was taken of a broken branch in a stream, situated in deep woodland. The camera meter would have overexposed to ensure the water came out mid grey but I wanted a darker image to lift the light branch and create a strong moody result. In these situations the incident meter provides a more faithful exposure of the scene.
The flowers placed in front of the window blind are strongly backlit, and the meter would be fooled into underexposure. A reflector was placed in front of the flowers to kick back some light and an incident reading was taken with the meter pointing at the flowers to scramble the result of the light coming through the blind and that being reflected back into the flowers.