Lighting Ratios Explained Simply

Lighting can be as simple or as complex as you make it. As someone who uses light meters myself, I struggle to articulate why using this handy tool can be a far more efficient way to light a scene. In this informative video, the simplicity of lighting a portrait using ratios is explained far better than I ever could!

Ratios of light have been used to describe the way light hits a subject far before photography was invented, but photographers have used the idea of ratios to predictably and consistently create certain looks in their creations. Using a light meter, the photographer measures the amount of light falling on each side of the subject, adjusting the power of the light or settings on the camera until the desired look is attained. So, why not just chimp at a shot and light to taste? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that! However, to really dial in the light for consistency and speed, using a meter can be far quicker and more efficient. You can light a scene before your subject even steps on a set if you're using a light meter. If you're chimping, you need to wait for your subject or stand-in to begin. For simple incident lighting, I use a Sekonic 308 Flashmate, but used meters can be found cheaply as well!

I would equate lighting a scene by meter to using a recipe to cook as opposed to taking a "add a pinch of this, a dash of that" type of approach. Both are completely valid and can produce fantastic results. The recipe, however, is far more consistent and predictable. Check out the video and see some simple ratios in use, then maybe try to incorporate some metering in your next shoot!

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Rod Kestel's picture

Never used a light meter. I gather that, like most other photogs, people figure out their light levels using the in-camera meter with trial & error & experience.
Anybody tried a smartphone app eg these ?

romain VERNEDE's picture

I do use a lightmeter, and as soon as you are confortable with it, it's just a perfect tool. You don't have to go on the trial and error route, exposure is perfect (as light is our material, it's pretty important).
As i work without an assistant , it allows me to place my lights and set up everything before the talent or client arrives on set,
You save time (on location and at home when you don't have to fight exposure mistakes), exposure is accurate, you don't chimp around.
If you like some light schemes, it's easy to replicate on the fly...

I first tried apps for my iphone, but results were pretty unrelyable.
lighmeter was the tool I most missed when my camera bag was stolen a fear years ago and the first tool I replaced (in // of a body and prime lense of course).

I use one with digital and LF analog systems.
You need time and a little to learn as a user but IMHO, it's a very important tool to have with you.

Kirk Darling's picture

I always use a meter to set up a multiple light situation. Doing a bunch of trial and error shots adjusting this light and then that light on a paying client just makes them edgy and loses the vibe. A meter reduces the time and flashes.

OTOH, I've been shooting for 50 years and have never needed to actually use ratios. I think ratios are a perfect tool for directing assistants in setting up a particular light pattern, or recording a pattern for someone else to follow. Hans makes the perfect analogy to cooking: Ratios are like a recipe written for someone else to follow.

Steve Rogers's picture

This content was so useful. How to use magmod magsphere for better lighting

Jeremy Center's picture

Basic math explained in detail.

Pierre Boudoir's picture

If... U are using silver photography.... For all the rest - about 99% - that's for nothing. More - it complicates all the process. In digital era U use shooting to see. Simple.

mido yehia's picture

Good Article :) .... Keep up the great work