by William Lulow
Many people taking pictures today with their DSLRs and point-and-shoots might say, “What’s a light meter?” And, for most average shooters, a light meter is probably not a necessity to keep in their camera bags. But, for photographers who have become serious students of the image-making process, it is an invaluable tool.
Modern digital cameras try to take the guesswork out of normal everyday photography. They have built in computer chips that measure light, set the aperture and shutter speed for you and even snap the shutter (if you set the self-timer). What they cannot do is think for you! They can’t decide what kind of shot you might want to make. They can’t determine the lighting conditions and certainly cannot read your mind for you.
Camera manufacturers have taken great pains, therefore, to print thorough manuals that do try to anticipate most lighting conditions and they lay all this out in thick, small books that most people do not read carefully. Even if they did read it carefully, they might not understand, without the benefit of some instruction as to photography’s basics, what each chapter was saying.
That’s why a light meter is a handy tool to have even if you have a fully automatic DSLR. A good INCIDENT light meter is the best kind to have. An incident meter measures the amount of light actually falling on your subject and can give you suggestions as to possible aperture and shutter speed combinations that will yield a correctly exposed image. The interesting thing about the meter in your camera is that it is a REFLECTIVE one. That is, it measures the light reflected by the subject. Problem with this type of meter is that it can often be fooled by bright objects in the background. There are also SPOT METERS which measure the light reflected by a small portion of the subject. These are better than regular, in-camera meters, because you have to decide what portion of the scene is most important. The point is that it’s up to you, the photographer, to learn how to use your meter properly to achieve your intended results.
This is a Sekonic Studio series L-398 meter. It was the industry standard because it was used by most photographers prior to the digital revolution. Funny thing is, it’s still a really great meter. It works without a battery so it’s always 100% dependable. It’s got a large light-collecting dome which is part of the reason for its accuracy. It’s easy to hold, small enough to put in your pocket, but most of all, it helps you think about your lighting.