The light meter: useful tool, or photographer’s crutch?

The light meter: useful tool, or photographer’s crutch?

Some photographers argue that the light meter is an obsolete tool in this age of digital photography. After all, the histogram gives you more accurate and useful information on exposure, information you can use to adjust lighting intensity when shooting with strobes.

Others argue that the light meter is an essential tool, especially when you're shooting with multiple lights and need to achieve the correct lighting balance.

I'd like to think that the truth lies somewhere in between.

The light meter is a tool. Much like the exposure meter in your camera. And with most tools, they're best used as guide, a means of establishing a starting point from which you then develop the rest of your image-making creatively.

The light meter gives you an exposure reading. Rely too much on it and you get into a "lock and leave" mentality - you think you've measured the light correctly and then you shoot. You forget that your sitters or models are mobile - they'll move closer to the key light, or away from it, and their distance from the light source will affect the way they're exposed in your photographs.

As with all forms of photography, you need to keep an eye on the light as it falls on your subject. Studio strobes have modeling lights - take note of this, and if it looks like your model's position has changed, obtain a new exposure reading and adjust lighting or exposure settings accordingly. Even if you're dealing with multiple lights, be observant and remember where your model is positioned in relation to these lights.

Tools make work easier for us, but they should never replace our ability to think creatively and to problem solve. I like my light meter and use it at the start of every studio shoot to check exposure. I shoot dynamically - changing the model's position, lighting angles, height, distance and so on. I estimate changes in exposure and make changes accordingly. At the end of the day, I like having the light meter there to confirm that the estimates are on the right track.

If you're just starting out in studio photography or using strobes, having a light meter is invaluable. As you become more and more familiar with the way light works in the studio, you'll find that you'll rely on it less and less, and that you'll eventually use it as a means to check and confirm. It's a bit like having a spirit level - good to have in your pocket, but there are times when you know that you have set something straight and you don't need to pull it out and use it.

I've attended lighting demonstrations, where the professional commercial photographer, sans light meter, has taken nearly 5 minutes to obtain correct exposure as he fiddled around with adjusting strobe power on the lights. With a light meter, he could have set things up and confirmed them within 30 seconds.

For an alternative point of view, consider Charles Lucima's take on the light meter on the Model Mayhem blog.

Do you use a light meter? What are your thoughts on its use?

(Light meter image in banner by Chad Miller)

1 Comment
  • Sandra Chung

    29/08/2012 at 12:52 pm

    A light meter, like an external flash, filters, are all tools, when used correctly, improve photography. Only silly nudges boast “Oh I *never* use -insert subject here-.” as a mark of superiority. It’s hubris.

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