Light meters can be an invaluable tool for photographers; especially those who use off-camera flash.
Mention a light meter in photography circles and you’re certain to get some fierce responses. Sure, some photographers will be indifferent and fewer will be in favor, but most will be adamant that you don’t need one. I used to be somewhere in the middle.
I could definitely see their utility, but I just never thought I needed one. Before a few months ago, I had picked up a light meter once in 14 years. It turns out that I was just making excuses to not spend the money on something that may be one of the most powerful tools you can buy if you use off-camera flash lighting.
There are a lot of motives and reasons that you might avoid using a light meter in the digital era. For example:
- You can just chimp the LCD screen.
- It’s easy to fix it in raw processing.
- They’re too expensive for what they do.
- The histogram is enough for testing exposure.
I get it. All of these sentiments came out of my mouth over and over again.
Chimping and the Histogram
While you can chimp your exposures to get them right, this can take both time and guesswork. A light meter takes away both of those things.
Sure, you can look at the back of your camera after each test shot (chimping) while you’re setting up your lights. This works fine for one or two lights, but what happens when you need to create a precise lighting ratio?
How do you ensure that your fill light is exactly three stops below your key light? How do you ensure the rim lights are an even exposure with your fill? It’s possible, but all of that takes time and guesswork.
I remember doing a basic four light setup a few years back and it took the better part of an hour to get the ratios exactly how I had planned them.
Since starting to use a light meter, I set up an even more complicated five light setups, mixing really hard light with very soft light. It took me only 10 minutes to get right. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a lot more instances of saving nearly an hour of shooting time.
These images use five lights at a very precise contrast ratio. Using a light meter meant that the setup time was only 10 minutes.
Fix it in Raw Processing
Fixing your exposures at the raw stage is a viable option, but it can take some time that might be better spent elsewhere.
Yes, you can fix the image later in raw processing. As long as your highlights and shadows aren’t clipped, raw processing is a viable tool here. However, wouldn’t it be much nicer to get it right in camera?
Think about it this way: with a light meter, you press the test button on your strobe, check the reading and dial it into your camera. The whole process takes about 20 seconds. Unless you move the light or your subject moves, every subsequent photo is now properly exposed.
Presume it takes about two minutes of fiddling to adjust the exposure of an image in Lightroom or ACR. If you’re working on 20 photos from a set, you’ve just lost 40 minutes of time to a task that could have been negated in twenty seconds.
I get it, I really do. This was the main reason I avoided getting a light meter for so long. A couple hundred dollars for a decent light meter is a hard pill to swallow when there are so many things that you can buy for your photography at a much lower price. Why spend that kind of money on something you use so briefly when you can spend that money on lights, modifiers, trips, studio time, props, etc, etc.
It’s all a matter of how much you value your time and convenience. A light meter will save you time and it will make a good chunk of the set-up process easier. In the end, I’ve found that the price tag has been worth it.
Changing My Mind
I had a shoot where I only had 10 minutes to set up. I borrowed a light meter from another photographer just to make my life easier. That one time completely changed how I felt about using light meters. In minutes, all of the potential benefits and values of having a light meter in my bag became apparent.
As you may have guessed from my previous points, it comes down mostly to time. Faster set-ups mean you get more time actually shooting, which makes it more likely that you’ll get the shot that you’re after. Less time processing means you have more time to work on other things, like planning and arranging your next shoot.
Also, in terms of portraits, a light meter will help you minimize the time that your subjects are waiting on you between sets. Nobody, absolutely nobody (especially paying clients), wants to wait around for huge chunks of time while their photographer is messing with the lights.
In this image, I wanted to experiment with a gridded stripbox as the key light and a giant octabox as fill. Using a light meter made getting the exact ratio between the key and fill lights that I wanted a breeze.
On top of time, the multiple light techniques that a light meter opens up makes it more than worth the value. With a light meter, you can dream up any number of lighting configurations, plan them down to the exact contrast ratio and set it up with no fuss.
You want a hard light source as a key at f/8, with two giant modifiers providing exactly two stops of fill at f/4 and two background lights at f/22? That’s a set-up that popped into my head one night shortly after buying my light meter. I went into the studio the next day and set it up.
I wouldn’t have bothered before, as trying to get the ratios right between those light sources would have been a major headache.
Metering for each light individually and adjusting their exposure took about a minute or two. This only has to be done once.
If the exposure from the octabox was off, it would have destroyed the effect of the lighting from the much smaller striplight.
Imagine that you’ve just had a week where you’ve saved several hours at both setting up and post-processing. If you used just a bit of that time to start drawing out and planning new light set-ups, how many do you think you could come up with?
Getting it right in-camera
When dealing with difficult subjects, like white shirts on dark backgrounds, a light meter can be an absolute blessing in terms of getting it right in the camera.
As I already mentioned, the ability to get your exposure perfect every single time is a huge benefit. In fact, when working with flash, I would posit that using a light meter might be the single most valuable step you can take to ensure perfect exposures and making your workload that much easier.
I’m a Total Convert
Over the time I’ve had it, my light meter has become indispensable. As it fits in my pocket, it now comes everywhere with me.
In the end, I regret that I put off and continually excused myself from buying a light meter for as long as I did. In the few months since I bought it, I have saved a ton of time in the studio not messing about with lights while people were waiting on me. My post-processing workload has lightened quite a bit as fixing contrast ratios in post-production is all too time to consume.
Both of these factors together mean that I now have more time for planning shoots and lighting set-ups than I had before. Those set-ups are also getting more and more complex as time goes on and most of them would have been next to impossible for me to put into use without a light meter to ensure the precise exposure ratios.
If you’re like me, and you’ve convinced yourself that a light meter is a superfluous bit of kit, I can only encourage you to challenge your own assertions. Could a light meter save you time as it has for me? Could it open new possibilities?
It’s possible that the answer is no. I can’t presume to know or understand your situation. All I can suggest is to at least ask yourself the question. It may very well be that light meter could be as valuable a tool to your photography as it is becoming to mine.