Why Every Photographer Should Own a Light Meter

Why Every Photographer Should Own a Light Meter

While it certainly wasn't my first time using one, a recent shoot I did for TEDx at the Ohio State University made me realize how much easier life is with a light meter. For almost all the time I've spent behind cameras, I've been creating portraits. And for most of that time, I've been using flash. Starting out, I would just shoot and tweak power settings and my aperture and the light placement until I got what I wanted. As an amateur, it worked. But once I decided that photography was a career for me and as I began picking up client work, this method became quite ineffective, forcing me to get the one tool I never realized I needed.

Here's the scenario: TEDx asked that we create a series of portraits for their marketing material that fit into their moody yet vividly colored theme. Essentially, their color scheme was black, blue, purple, and white. We came up with a solid idea that involved throwing a blue gel on a light and shooting our subjects on a black backdrop for a dark, contrasty portrait. After we decided on the idea, I went into the studio to test it with a model. It's not an overly complicated lighting scheme, but it would need to be repeated multiple times as not every speaker for the conference would be in the same place at the same time. This is where metering the light came to be crucial. In the studio for the initial test, I set my model in front of a black backdrop and added my key light, which is a Westcott 7' umbrella with the diffusion cover through an Alien Bee 800. I metered for f/4 as I wanted a shallow depth of field, but not so shallow that we were down to just eyelashes being in focus. The blue light came next. For this, I added a Nikon SB-800 speedlight behind, above, and to camera right angled down about 45 degrees. I taped a MagMod gel (yes, I know, but I couldn't find my gel holder as I don't often use this speedlight anymore) to the light with some black gaff tape. I again metered for f/4 on the side of her head that the light would be hitting. All set? No.

The lights didn't mix well, but it was a simple matter of turning the Alien Bee down to a metered f/2.8. This let the blue shine through much more dominantly without sacrificing detail in the face of each speaker. I then added a white foamcore fill to camera left to bounce some blue into their face and lighten shadows. I didn't meter this, but noted the distance of the foamcore to be around a foot and a half from their faces. With that, our test image was complete.

TEDx liked it and gave the green light for the actual shoot. Like my work with them last year, I'm also hanging prints at the conference itself. TEDx allowed me to set up a second setup during the shoot with which to shoot these images. This meant more time with each speaker and more time setting up. Minimizing that time came down to metering and preparing. I knew that I wanted a pure white backdrop for these images, and one light on the speaker. So I brought a second backdrop to the shoot, which ended up being a very light beige because I didn't have white seamless handy. After setting it up, I placed a Profoto Pro-8a power pack by it with two heads on either side. I placed my light meter against the backdrop and metered for f/8. Once I had a reading of f/8 consistently across the portion of the seamless that would be in the frame, I set black foamcore pieces in front of each Profoto head to stop any light from spilling onto the subject as I didn't want any edge lighting. For the key light, I used a Profoto B1 with a large octabox. I set this up roughly six feet from the backdrop, knowing my subject would be about four feet in front of the backdrop. I metered the light for f/5.6 following the simple rule that for a pure white backdrop, you want to meter your backdrop roughly one stop above your working aperture. Any lower and you get grey, any higher and you begin to lose contrast due to flaring. I had an assistant hold a white reflector off camera left and metered that for around f/2.8-3.5 to bring some detail into that side of their head. That whole setup took substantially less time using the light meter because I didn't have to shoot, review, and tweak every part of the setup. Meters don't lie if you're using them properly. Setting the backdrop power took less than a minute, as did the key light.

After that setup was done, I set up the black backdrop for their marketing images and again, metered and had the setup ready in just a few minutes. All I had to do during the shoot was open my aperture from f/5.6 to f/4 as I switched from the white backdrop to the black one. Because I had metered the light, I not only had an incredibly quick setup, but a quick and smooth shoot. These people weren't used to being photographed and some of them were clearly not enjoying it. But because I was never fiddling with settings or really looking at the camera other than double checking sharp focus here or there, I was able to direct them and converse with them and have each subject photographed on both setups in less than five minutes each.

The moral of the story is to use your meter. Setting up two shots on one shoot can be stressful and quite daunting for the inexperienced photographer. I was able to confidently show up to and execute the shoot because I knew exactly how each setup needed to be metered and arranged. Postproduction is also easier as I don't have to spend as much time matching the exposure of each image. Since they’re being displayed as a series, continuity is crucial.

In closing, I will say two things. First, read my write-up from my last series of 2016’s TEDx speakers. Two big things to note, the style wasn’t as concise, and the lighting varies substantially. I have certainly grown as a photographer in the last year, and it goes to show how much metering can do for you when consistency is key. I didn’t meter any of those shots, just good old chimping the screen. Secondly, light meters aren’t that expensive. They can be found on KEH for under $100, and you can get the fantastic Sekonic L-308S-U for only $200. Make the investment, take your time setting up your shots, and you’ll see some improvement pretty quickly.

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40 Comments

Chris K.'s picture

I always use a light meter. Sometimes for my photography I'd use over 10 strobes (even double that depending on the budget). And instead of literally taking hundreds of test photos to judge each light-with a light meter I know exactly what my light ratios are. No guessing-It saves so much time.

Would you link us one of your 10 strobe examples by any chance?

Chris K.'s picture

Here's one NSFW though: https://500px.com/photo/154141051/heather-by-christopher-kennedy?ctx_pag... it's also posted on my fstoppers photos where I detail how I lit it.

Haven't had large enough budgets for the last few years to have large enough locations and that many lights to illuminate it since I'm primarily shooting video now. Not to mention the "classic" Playboy/glamour look isn't in demand anymore where you'd need tons of strobes. Most of what I post here on fstoppers is 5-7 lights though.

Love my meters. Only way to "see" light.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I love mine. Probably because I'm dumb when it comes to believing a histogram over an LCD.

Someone would have to pry my Minolta IV out of my hands. Didn't believe my photo memtor for the longest time about the Minolta Auto Meter. Swapped my sekonic for it without a qualm. I have no idea why or even exactly how it is different. But it seems like I never have issues when setting up 2 or more flashes. But it will never be left home on a gig.

Hans Rosemond's picture

And nice portraits, by the way!

I use mine all the time and I'm not a pro. One of the best investments I made when it comes to lighting, especially after I learned to trust it over what the LCD display was purporting to show. Would hesitate to do a portrait without it now.

I first made serious use of a light meter when I was learning studio lighting techniques a little while ago. They are invaluable under such circumstances. They are also very useful when shooting film with old cameras without built-in light meters as I like to do these days; the 'Sunny 16' rule isn't right for every circumstance. I spent a decade of digital shooting without ever seeing the need for a meter. Now I would feel naked without one.

In the blue series couldn't that have been edited in after the fact?

Spencer Lookabaugh's picture

No, I tried but it looks very obviously fake. It's always better to add effects in camera.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I would say, everything is possible to achieve in post-process. The question is how many hours do you need to spend practicing editing, and if you would prefer spend this time with camera, lights and your subjects...

Anonymous's picture

They're great for portraiture but "every photographer"??

You can use it very effectively for astrophotography: If it shows something useful, it might be daytime.

Tony Reitz's picture

I help shoot sports events with a friend (think triathlons, bike races, etc). Last race we did, he showed how easy it was to set up flash at the finish line using his meter. Convinced me that this will be my next purchase.

Jay Jay's picture

On location, i use a Hoodman Loupe knock off to dial in the light, since i usually just work with 2 strobes, if that. I have a Sekonic that i'll sometimes use for my film cameras, and i have a Sekonic specially designed for my Elinchrom's that calculates exposure using HSS. (I still end up using my Loupe to quickly dial in the light anyways, which is as fast as )

Of note, Sekonic just released a new meter that can be used for high speed sync applications, though it looks pretty pricey.

John Teague's picture

Just curious: what lens where you using for those portraits? Was it, perhaps, a wide-angle lens?

Spencer Lookabaugh's picture

Hey John, it was an 80mm on a digital medium format back. That roughly equates to a standard focal length equivalent.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I tend to agree with the Joel Grimes school of thought that the light meter is a tool that shifts some of the creative decision making from the photographer to a device which keeps me well away from devices like light meters.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I think most people who are strongly against the light meters, simply don't understand how to use one correctly.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thats not an argument. Instead craft an counter point that explains why the Joel Grimes position is incorrect.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Ryan, why would I care to argue that? I don't create "absolute trues" like some "educators". I know how to use light meter and I find it to be invaluable tool. I would never say that one must or must not use one tool or another.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I am not strongly against but just don;t have a use them these days, Flash or continuous - reflected or incident. I have one in the case with the strobes ...don;t know if the batteries work anymore LoL

Hans Rosemond's picture

Hmm...interesting, but by that logic isnt the in- camera meter the same? Wouldn't we only be using cameras that are completely manual, lest the device steer us toward its own interpretation of "correct?"

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

You shall never in-camera meter use. M for masters only you will use, and feeeeeel the light you will. This is how great creative will you become. ;)

Ryan, the creative part of his shoot was designated by the client. Thus Spencer must produce consistency from shot to shot based on the clients wishes. That is why he practiced in his studio, consistency cannot be produced with random creative license. Using his light meter consistency is achievable, while not wasting those speakers time.

Joel Grimes images are truly outstanding. In this setting Spencer’s workflow, for this client’s requirement is much different than Joel Grimes usually is.

Do you truly believe light meters “...remove some of the creative decisions from the photographer...”? If yes, have you stopped using your camera’s light meter as well; I would think not. Creative decisions is a mental process, thus it is impossible for a light meter to remove it.

The light meter can help you more quickly get to the exposure you desire. Shoot-chimp-adjust, shoot-chimp-adjust, Ad nauseam, will frustrate the client thinking the photographer does not know what they are doing. The client’s feeling and attitude will be projected to the photographer making them more nervous and anxious than the client.

More could be stated, I will leave that to more eloquent folks.

Cordially,

Jason Lorette's picture

See I have heard so "many" mixed thoughts on this and from some pretty big names like Joel Grimes, Sue Bryce, etc...that they literally 'never' use a light meter. I was thinking about getting one for a while until I repeatedly heard from names like these that they don't even bother, don't even own one. So I'm still really on the fence but I tend to lean towards not using one.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Big names? :D They are not big in photography. They are just known educators...

Jason Lorette's picture

Big enough for me and many others, when you are being hired by major marketing campaigns, professional athletes, sponsored by major retailer in and out of the photography industry, that's big enough for me.

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