What is a light meter? Do you need one?

Imagine a powerful column of sunlight shining through your bedroom window. You can probably see little specks of dust floating through it, but apart from that, you should notice one very important thing: you can’t see the light itself. Between the sun and the time and place it touches your hand, the light is actually kind of invisible.

Light does not fill a room like smoke. Instead, the light takes a position. When shooting professionally, it is helpful to know what is happening in a measurable way that the camera can relate to. Light meters act as our “eyes” in the field. They show us what we cannot see on our own.

What is a light meter?

Sekonic . light meter

Frankly, the photometer reads the strength of the light. All digital cameras come with their own built-in spot scales, which you’ll recognize as the small, underlined scale at the bottom of the viewfinder.

Spot metering is one way to read light. Whereas tangential light reading, or ambient light reading, is used to “catch” the light in a particular place and ascertain how it falls on the subject while standing on its mark. With this reading, you will be able to make any necessary adjustments to find the value you need for your shoot.

If your camera already has a spot scale, you may be wondering why you need to worry about an external photometer. The difference is simple: transverse readings measure light in transit between the light source and the subject. Spot readings measure the light that ends up reaching the camera.

The light meters pictured here are all capable of taking occasional readings; Cameras on their own are usually only capable of taking spot readings. Both are useful in their own way, and your preference will depend on your personal style of shooting.

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Benefits of using a light meter

vintage light meter

For many of us, when it comes to our problems in life, the less we know, the better. However, in the world of photography, you may find the opposite is true. There is a sense of empowerment that comes with knowing exactly what you have on your plate.

The biggest advantage of using a good tangential light meter is that your readings won’t be affected by the characteristics of your subject – tangential metering is concerned with cast light, not reflected light.

Suppose you have two models, one with dark skin and one with light skin. The spot meter in the camera will give two different values, depending on the skin from which you asked the camera to take the spot sample. But what if you just want to know how much light falls on them at first? This is where the light meter comes in.

The more you know about the light you’re working with, the more accurately you’ll be able to adjust it to meet your needs. Taking several occasional readings as you work through each setting will show how much each source dial is strengthened or weakened.

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While some of us have an understanding of things like the inverse square law at our disposal, machine reading eliminates guesswork entirely. We can identify the problem we see and address it at the source, rather than looking for a solution.

One thing worth mentioning about photometry, in general, is that it takes time. This is really the only drawback of using a light meter, apart from the price. If accuracy is something you value, the knowledge each reading provides you is well worth the wait.

If you shoot candy just for fun, there is no need to make the upgrade. However, if you take photos professionally, the light meter is the ultimate in safety. You’ll never be in the dark again, so to speak.

Is the light meter worth it?

Light meters are probably one of the coolest photography tools out there. This one, and it looks really cool hanging around your neck like a huge gold medal. What do we say? We love attention.

If this game has been on your wishlist for a while, it might be time to invest. You don’t necessarily need a Sekonic in order to make your work shine—in fact, if you can master the art of turning lumens into breakpoints, you may be able to find a great DIY light meter from Home Depot. But you didn’t hear it from us.


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