Two Reasons Not to Use a Light Meter

Light meters have been around for decades, and they have been an essential tool for photographers. Back in the film days, using a light meter was a part of the professional workflow, but things might have changed since the digital cameras.

In a nutshell, light meters measure the amount of light. These handheld devices can read the exact values of light reflected from the surfaces, and the ambient light in the scene. Therefore, you can adjust your shutter speed and aperture value to expose your image correctly. Light meters have improved quite well, and nowadays you can find digital models with touch screens and even separate modules that can be attached to your smartphone. However, digital cameras have already built-in light meters, so this brings up the question: Do you really need a light meter for your workflow?

In this video, photographer and tutor Karl Taylor explains the basics of a light meter and its effect on creativity. Taylor is known for his superb still-life techniques and he shares the two main reasons why he stopped using a light meter in his set, even when working with complex settings. Instead of using a light meter, he utilizes his digital workflow for measuring the light, and achieves quicker results with better accuracy.

What do you think about Taylor's statements? Do you still find light meters useful? Let us know in the comments section below.  

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33 Comments

Don Fadel's picture

Ah, a topic of endless debate. I've seen Karl work (he is very good), but I would not make the claim that using a meter slows you down. I have a Sekonic that can control my Elinchrom lights and the ability to not only measure but control light output is important to me. Plus, it makes repeatability much easier. To each his own I suppose ...

Michael Comeau's picture

I like some of Karl's videos but there are some really dopey points made in this video.

Nobody NEEDS to use a light meter but I find them to be a major time saver.

I can pop my flash, read my meter, and adjust my flash power in seconds. This is way faster than repeatedly chimping and adjusting my settings.

And the idea that a meter hurts creativity is just plain dumb.

It's a measuring tool and anyone with half a brain understands that they don't take orders from the meter.

Jose Gerardo Palma Duran's picture

Karl is super talented and an incredible photographer, but many of us don't have a full Broncolor setup that can be wireless contolled and check the results in an instant, for him, obviously is not needed, but for many of us, after the initial composition, having a light meter is a fast way to check nothing is blown.

I agree with a lot of his points but for me, the light meter is an essential tool on situations where there are a lot changes.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I like Karl, but whereas he asks us to watch with an open mind, he is coming at this from a blinkered point of view.

And whilst I enjoyed the subliminal need to profess his credibility with tales of expensive kit and years of experience, a bad idea is still a bad idea, and his suggestion that chimping is better than measuring isn't really the new digital way, because the rules really haven't changed, we just have more options to get things better before trundling off into post and trying to fix it all... :)

Whereas a meter used to be the sole deciding factor of our exposures, it is now a complimentary tool along with other options such as checking our screen, checking histograms and studying pixel levels. We're blessed with options but it doesn't mean the older ones are superseded.

Relying on one method handcuffs us, and in reality there is a valid need for using everything we have to judge.

I can set my lighting on test shots before the client(model for headshots in many cases), even enters the room. I can do easy test shots on myself but importantly I can set my lighting without having to fire off shots and needing to evaluate with a face in the picture.

So there is no fine tuning powers with a patient model sitting in whilst I hone my exposures down to the nearest 1/10 stop, and no need to get them to look in the right direction or pose - whilst wondering why I seem to be guessing so much (because that's what I'm doing).

And I don't need to rely on a monitor screen entirely for exposure evaluation, which is good because although my screen is very carefully calibrated, I don't have the ambient control that I have in my post suite, so a screen on set needs a pinch of salt with any viewing.

I know what my ratios need to be and it is easy to do with a meter, and I know how to get the right backlight levels with experience of angles and using my meter. Don't have to keep firing all those test shots and my meter will tell me exactly how far off the mark I am with the first test firing - so often just one adjustment and I'm there. And I can usually set each light with a single correction this way - that's less then honing it down looking at a monitor and asking my model to be patient, (oh and could they keep looking the right way because the light needs to hit them correctly if I'm setting by screen).

And if I'm shooting against white backgrounds I can be very precise on my backdrop levels. Again, a single correction is all I need because strobes (mine are Profoto but others are accurate too), tend to just predictably so if my meter says 0.5 stop under I can just dial it up 0.5 stop and I'm there. No guessing, no chimping.

And if we're shooting on location with ambient to deal with, then hand me my Sekonic L758DR and I'll have a lighting ratio with ambient, strobe and backlight balanced faster than you can say Jack Spratt, and the model hasn't even turned up yet...!

After that of course I'm free to fine tune with an eye to the monitor. No need to dampen creativity as I'm not a slave to the meter. I use it ALONGSIDE my monitor and this is where Karl seems to be a bit sidetracked. Almost as if he feels a meter will take too much charge over his shoot.

I'll use all sorts of measurements on a shoot, particularly if I'm shooting tethered like Karl. I have my meter, I have the screen, I have a histogram and I have pixel information. And NONE of these are king.

If Karl wants to title his video "Why I don't Use a Meter" then that's just fine. But reasons NOT to use a meter... come on... there's never a reason not to use extra info which is often quicker. (Unless "up a bit, down a bit" is truly the faster way?)

Jan Holler's picture

"and I'll have a lighting ratio with ambient, strobe and backlight balanced faster than you can say Jack Spratt"
That is exactly the point. And not to forget the balance between the different strobes. Karl must be a genius with a built-in light meter and calibrated eyes that he can guess the light of three or more different strobes mixed with ambient light. (Just imagine to solve a mathematical equation with three or more variables and you get what this is about).
Of course it can be done by guessing and I am sure there are occasions where one would do that (I did). But once settled with a metered light environment the fine tuning is quicker done than without any metering.
So I think it is exactly the opposite of Karl's claim: Metering helps your creativity a lot. And just because "some famous photographers" do not use a light meter you would not? That is no argument and shows the lack of proper reasoning.

Tony Clark's picture

I have used my Minolta Flashmeter IV very little over the past ten years but continue to keep it in my strobe kit. There comes a point when you simply have enough experience and you know within a stop or less where to start. Most of my shoots are done with tethering to CaptureOne and adjustments can be made quickly, the display is calibrated and reliable. If not, one can always chimp.

Mike Ditz's picture

I have at least two Minolta flash meters #1(?) and #3, they are in a strobe case and I use them once or twice a year. Maybe I know my gear in and out and if I set up a scene with strobe, I know the output I am using and the distance to the subject and the ambient light I sometimes "play guess the exposure" with my assistant and I usually win.
I don't really see that using a meter is slower or faster for me. Maybe slower because I would need to find it first.
When I used to shoot a lot of E6 (35mm, 120, 4x5, 8x10) I'd use the meter first then polaroids, both to confirm exposure and to have a record of the shots. BUT I would also do snip or clip tests in case things needed to be pushed or pulled (but not 1/10 of a stop:). I admit that I metered the crap out the shot when doing 8x10 it cost like $10 per shot.

But what is better than seeing the actual exposure on a screen along with a histogram?

Lee Christiansen's picture

But can you guess the exposure to 1/10 stop accuracy. I'm guessing not because our eyes adapt to lighting quite a bit and although we like to think we can tell how bright things are, our eyes are often lying to us.

After that it is up a bit, down a bit... Or just dial it straight in with a meter reading.

Tony Clark's picture

I did the same when I started back in the early '90's and shot E-6 75% of the time and TRI-X the other 25%. I only shot 35mm and 120mm and never delved into LF. Yes, those clip tests were expensive but provided a lot of information.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I like to meter strobes. That gives me a exposure I can live with. A tad dark is fine, I will adjust in Lightroom after anyway.

Deleted Account's picture

Mr Karl (if you use light meters you are not a real photographer and need to buy my course) Taylor.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I understand your meaning and in this digital age it may be more useable, especially when tethering, but most of the work is done with film and has been since the 1960's. So, understandably, I use a meter. Even when I shoot digital I want the use of a good meter or at least to have it near me for an option. When I shoot portraits outdoors I want options in case I want to create something surreal or of fantasy. The meter allows me to get the "proper" exposure reading and from there I can choose where I want to go for whatever creation I am looking for. If I am shooting portraits in studio I trust the meter to give accurate measurements. Yes, I can go tethered and chimp wherever, but (for me) looking at a computer screen to decide light values doesn't go. I remember using my computer screen and my friends both being tethered. The looks we got from our individual computers were different. So, which is accurate? Which one should I trust? After everything is said and done, I am keeping my meters with me.

Christian Monnet's picture

It sounds to me like many other videos/articles that we see nowadays : people making "provocative" assertions to get clicks. "What you should no use a lightmeter" and if I tell you, as a photographer specialised in painting photography, that using a lightmeter is really relevant in my field? What about your general assertion now? What about the fact that, by saying "you", this assertion is not considering who's the photographer? This assertion sounds stupid to me and sounds nothing less than a real clickbait.

John Stone's picture

This is all very well, but a camera light meter uses reflective light! The light meter he used in the video (4.19) was using incident light! There is a difference. The beauty of using handheld light meters - you can choose the type of light you want to measure! His usage is based on using reflective light is it not!
It may not be a big thing, but...
You can't really compare the two things. It's horses for courses!

Agnieszka Jakubowicz's picture

I have high respect for Karl, but I strongly disagree with his opinion on this subject. His main argument is for creativity and I believe that tool only hinders someone's creativity if that person is not creative. Light meter is just that - a tool.
And in few instances it is an important tool. I never use it for my interiors shots but, when I have to shoot a product for client in a studio - say a rug - I would have NEVER know what the colors of rug really were without tools like light meter first (and then gray card/color checker). Believe me! I have done it "by the eye" trying to be "creative" and my client was not happy! I bought a light meter immediately!

Marc Perino's picture

I like Karl's videos in general.
But when I light a setup with 6-10 strobes I use my Sekonic 758 with my custom built Hensel or Profoto transceiver and I can make a rough light of the first setup without unpacking a camera or a computer. I am faster this way.
Afterwards I look on the screen anyway.

I guess he is mostly in his studio with a calibrated monitor and a perfect environment where he knows each and every detail of his equipment - and that is a good thing, of course.
But I am sometimes out in the wild with an iPad or a (calibrated) laptop - which is still different from my calibrated Eizo at home - and with rented equipment in a rented studio.
But even though I use the meter I still use the monitor. So it is not "either or". In one of the last shoots I underexposed everything by accident 1 stop because I did trust the laptop monitor more than my lightmeter. No big deal in post but it was a lesson learned. I don't always have a perfectly calibrated monitor on the set.

The second part with the creativity is in my point of view pure nonsense. I never felt "more creative" without a light meter or "less creative" with using one. 🤷‍♂️

In my opinion this is one of the clickbaity videos to sell courses. But still great he makes free videos. So no bad blood. ;)

Michael Franks's picture

This guy is a moron. Nobody should trust their camera...I use a lightmeter then a Rogue Expodisc as well as Spydercheckr so I don't waste time fumbling with camera settings.

Bill Wells's picture

I saw this post in a news feed on my phone this morning. When I got on my computer the remarks are exactly what I expected.

Here are a couple of things I took away from the clip.

1 - He says "Don't use a meter" then turns right around and uses a meter. That's right did anybody else catch that. His meter was his computer & software. He explained how he could take the image, then look at on computer, then make light adjustments. He even explained how a meter worked in 1/10's of stop, but my software lets me control 1/32 of a stop. That's the same as a meter. In both cases the camera is not making the final adjustments.

2 - You can not be creative, image the light or see the image until you have captured the image. So there is no way you will know what the final image will/should look like until you have taken the image and reviewed. Now I have to throw away most of my library about; seeing the light, planning the shot or preparing for the shoot.

Now I have to figure out how to hire another assistant to carry my laptop when I'm shooting a wedding.

Jan Holler's picture

That is not the same!
1. Still it is a difference if you measure reflected-light or incident-light. A light meter (normally) measures incident-light, a camera meter measures reflected-light. Measuring reflected-light assumes 18% reflectance of the subject which of course is rarely the case except if one uses a calibrated grey card.
2. Of course you can. Maybe not you or me, but there are/were some great photographers who spent weeks to gather the perfect light (conditions) and then only take one (perfect) shot.

Bill Wells's picture

Hi Jan, If I understand correctly it appears you are agreeing with me.

1 - It's not reflective either. His way is adjusting via a laptop, so he is reading/viewing the actual captured light.

2 - His recommendations (not mine) were you can't pre-plan. We do that all the time in our Wedding work.

Jan Holler's picture

Bill. It is reflective light. It is not measuring the light coming in but the light reflected of the subject.. Either incident or reflective, no third way possible. If you measure the light falling on the subject, you'll need a light meter with a dome. Just imagine you photograph a person fully clothed in black or in white. You'll never get a proper exposure of the face of your cameras meter (you could spot meter the face though). It will be either much over- or underexposed. (18% rule).

With 2. I guess this is debatable. You can always measure the environmental light if you want so to have a quick start. I remember that back in the eighties that we used to set the flash's auto function to one f-stop more open than the camera's aperture for decent fill ins.

I do not share Karl's opinion. I think it is nonsense, frankly said.

Bill Wells's picture

Hi Jan, I understand reflective and incident metering. The point I was making was he was using, not camera meter and not light meter, but the computer software to determine correct exposure.

Remember how he showed how the software could evaluate each section of the image. He then took those values and adjusted his camera accordingly. Which makes perfect sense.

i.e. If we adjust the exposure of an image in post production, which method are we using reflective or incident? Of course the answer would be neither. So I guess we could call it visual metering. I don't know.

I do know that a meter reflective or incident, tells us the correct exposure setting for the image. In this case, the computer (acting as meter) told us the correct exposure settings, so wouldn't that make the computer a meter?

Hey, I can totally and utterly wrong. This is just how I see it. Truth is I use both a handheld meter and camera meter. Don't say anything, but sometimes, when nobody is looking, I have used TTL on my flashes.

Jan Holler's picture

Hi Bill, I see your point, and it is somehow valid. But! The image on the screen is coming of the RAW-data (at least I hope so) and has to be heavily processed before it is visible. It travels through a lens (T-stop, vignetting should come to mind here). It has a relatively narrow dynamic range once recorded. It is based on measuring the reflected light (center weighted, multi-segment?). The sensor has it's characteristic which has to be corrected (non-linear) and even worse it is calculated out "of Bayer-filter (2 green, one blue, one red) layered upon lightness measuring sensor segments". There are so many variables. I wouldn't even dare call it metering. It's probably better than the human eye/brain, but it is still just a rough guess. So why should anyone bother when he can use a light meter and get very correct results quickly?
Only a meter which measures incident light delivers very correct results, a meter measuring reflected light measures correctly only when the subject has an 18% grey level.
There is nothing wrong about using TTL with flashes. In fact, it is TTL which made it possible to easily use flashes on subjects which move towards or away from the camera or the other way round if the camera with flash moves. I'd prefer it any time over a flash's own sensor auto mode.
It is very simple: Use a light meter and spare a lot of time figuring out what the best exposure would be. That said, using a light meter also reduces post processing time as well. I'd say the same is valid for a grey/colour card.

Bill Wells's picture

Great points.

On the TTL I use Godox which lets me lock power level of last flash, via remote on camera. So I use TTL to get me close then switch to manual at last TTL power. As far as I know only Godox and Profoto can do that.

Now my quick thoughts on a meter. A meter measures something and gives us the correct settings for our camera. Regardless of the method or the location of the meter.

If we say the definition of a meter is: a device that is used to determine camera setting for a correct exposure. Since he was using a computer to determine camera exposure settings, then we must also consider it as being used as meter.

Jan Holler's picture

TTL: Elinchrom ELB 500 comes to mind.
I wouldn't call it a meter but rather a meter reviewing device. There is a reason why DSLRs (and today mirrorless cameras) got multi segment metering (Nikon FA of 1983 was the first one) or spot metering, Last but not least: the main reason for using a light meter (incident light on the subject) is exactly to avoid the shortcomings of metering reflective light (of a whole scenerey) with a camera.
Have a very nice day, cheers! -jan

Bill Wells's picture

Hi Jan,

From quick review the Elinchrom ELB 500 does not switch from TTL to manual at the power of the last TTL flash, from the remote location.

As you are aware, there is no way to determine if the TTL flash fired at 1/64, 1/8 -3 or 1/4 power on most flashes.

This is important because if a perfect exposure is 1/64 power, TTL does not keep that same power setting. An example would be a bride in white dress and then a groom in a black suit. TTL will also recalculate with a small change in the camera position.

With the 2 systems that I mentioned, a button on the remote can be pressed and it changes the flash to manual at the level of the last TTL flash. I can't find where the Elinchrom does that. I may be incorrect I just can't verify it on their website.

I wish you had read the exchange between John and myself. Anyway, here is a question.

What if I used a camera to capture the image, without any regard to the meter and exposure was way off? Then I used software to determine the correct exposure for the image. I then adjusted my camera accordingly and captured another image. What was our meter in this example?

I think we are just getting into semantics that can go in circles. So we can disagree on what a meter is. I don't see any reason to keep beating this horse.

Hope You Have Great Day - Bill

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks, I did not know about that special TTL-to-manual function. I did read the exchange between you an John.

To answer your question: The image you measure or part of it is not what the camera did store in the RAW file. If you'd measure the pure RAW data it would be somehow like a limited (in dynamic range) incident meter.

Your computer does not measure the light, it measures the converted (see below) level of electric current stored in the RAW file resulting of the conversion of photons to current by each (very small) cell of the sensor. And there we already have two main problems: photon noise, especially visible in dark parts or blown out high lights where the data is completely missing. The best camera sensors have a dynamic range of about 15EV which is nothing compared to a scene in bright daylight. Moreover, the data distributed over the whole dynamic range is not evenly distributed but heavily condensed on the right side of the histogram.

But you would not even want measure the flat RAW data. You would hardly see anything on the screen if at all to choose the location you want to measure. So you would apply a non-linear function before and convert the data to a colour space like sRGB, AdobeRGB, etc.
(All of this steps are per definition subject to (minor but accumulating) conversion errors.) You would measure this. It is maybe close, but maybe not at all, if heavily off exposed.

This is not just semantics! In short words: If the exposure is off, e.g -2EV you do not get enough data and the error margin is quite high. If it is +2EV you lost much of your data, because it is simply clipped away. There is nothing to measure. Of course you could measure over the complete image, but what sense would this make if you want to know how to expose e.g. the face of a person.

This is why I do not call it a meter. A meter should instantly be accurate in a wide range of light. That is why I kept my Gossen Profisix (Lunasix in the U.S.) with an silicon blue cell. It has a range from EV -8 to 24. Modern light meters just do as low as -3EV.

Cheers! -jan

Bill Wells's picture

Again, he looked at the computer as a meter (device to determine correct exposure) to change the camera settings for his final exposure.

What would you call it?

Either way, it is semantics or word play.

But you can be right if you want.

-Bill

Jan Holler's picture

It is not about being right, never was to me. I took the time and elaborated in more details what I initially said. You are free to follow my thoughts, did you even do it?
Of course he can use the computer to get to a good result with an iterative approach. But this is still not direct measuring.
Have fun!
(edited: typo)

Bill Wells's picture

61 words to say "yes" You're right. Good Day

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