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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Previous comments
Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I mean, there are thousands of photographers like them. Big name for me is Testino or Avedon for example.

Gustavo Arzich da Gama's picture

Testino, Sorrenti, Sebastião Salgado.....those are real sharks!

J Cortes's picture

Lightmeters can make life easier . Especially if you're changing you light set regurlarly. If used correctly it can save you some time. Of course if you don't change you light set up then you may not need it , but if you do it will make the shoot go faster. Guess the best thing to do is find out for yourself.

Adam Padgett's picture

Sue Bryce didn't even use flash until recently though. So would you not buy a flash either since she was never using one? They are all tools, but you have to learn to use them correctly before you will see benefits.

Indy Thomas's picture

While I use one in the studio I never use them in the field. I shoot interiors and architecture and I use a CamRanger which lets me see my exposure and lighting issues.
Plus I can see if I need to move my bags out of the frame. ;)

Jose Juarez's picture

I'm puzzled when I see pros giving tutorials online telling you to just look at the back of your camera until you find the settings that look right. For the most part I am using natural light but even with that just using a light meter is so much easier plus it saves me time in post having to adjust over/under exposed images.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

You should not have over and under exposure problems when you look at the image on the LCD. Is it set correctly? With some cameras you can adjust the brightness of the playback but that won;t correctly show what the camera recorded.
Do you use the histogram?
Are you metering incident or reflected?
I own at least 4 meters. I uses them once or twice a year when i shoot film. I don;t need them with digital..
Today's in camera meters are a bazillion times better than they were in the film cameras.

Andy Foster's picture

Used to use one all the time, now I shoot tethered, both in studio and on location. Light metre gathering dust, my capture one screen gives me all the information I need. Being able to change the power of the profotos with the air-remote means I have more time to direct my subject, and get the expressions I want.

Eru Avila's picture

I use the same meter for my photo booth setup.

Gustavo Arzich da Gama's picture

Never had one and still don't know why I need it..... I always set my camera by what I see in live view. Saying I put 4F stops so I can get this effect whatever,
Yesterday on a shoes photoshoot, it was the first time I used or messed with the colors temperature K and the colors presets.... I don't know. When I see that the image in LCD is what I want, that's the pic I want, how I got there, I never know...
Has been working for me for 5 years.
I wish there were a manual to teach these things about getting effects .." I metered for f/4 as I wanted a shallow depth of field..." isnt this obtained with the 2.8F bokeh?
Enlight me please about all the settings talked in this article