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How to Use a Photography Light Meter

written by: Carl Weaver•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/24/2011

A photography light meter can be complicated and intimidating to understand but is a vital tool for anyone's camera bag. Learn the basics of how to use a photography light meter to get better results.

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    Photography Light Meter Overview

    A photography light meter is a device that measures the amount of light. It can be used to measure the power of your strobes, as in studio photography, or to measure the intensity of ambient light. Either way, this is an indispensible tool in your photography arsenal. The reason this tool is so useful is because your eyes and brain can trick you into thinking everything is right when in fact it needs adjustment in order to be right when you take the picture. The photography light meter can help you sort all this out easily.

    Sekonic Light Meter The light meter I use is a Sekonic 308S but many options are out there for you to try and experiment with. They range in price from a little more than $120 to well over $1000, depending on what you find easy to use, understand and how sophisticated an instrument you need. Mine cost about $300 when I bought it four years ago and it is still the workhorse in my studio and travel kits.

    Whatever type of light meter you get, the basic function is the same – to measure light intensity and give you some usable information about how to set up your camera for accurate shooting, or else to give you a clue on how to modify your lights so you get the intensity you want. In my studio I use the light meter to ensure I have either a flat wash of light across the subject from multiple lights or else that my lighting ratio is set up properly.

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    Using the Photography Light Meter

    The first thing I do is set my variables to how I want them. I tend to shoot at 1/125 of a second and ISO 100. If I get all my light settings right, I should be able to shoot at f/16 or f/11, which will give me significant depth of field to create a very sharp portrait. This is just my style. You can set your lights up however works best for you. I want one of my lights to be one stop brighter than the other, creating the ratio effect mentioned above.

    light meter Next I get everything physically set up the way I want for the lighting. Then I will test each light individually. The way I do this is stand where the subject will be and measure the flash from there. I want the reading on one light to be around f/11 and the other to be around f/8. I could also make it a bit brighter, say f/16 and f/11. As a last step I will measure the two lights together, ensuring that the combined amount of light is not overwhelming. Then I will do some test shots with my camera and use the digital target to fine-tune the exposure and white balance.

    To use the meter for ambient or reflected light readings, I can hold it next to the subject in a few different spots to see how the light falls on her face. It is important to take many readings at different spots to ensure a good wash of light for the effect you want. Your brain can trick you into thinking the shadows aren’t there but you really need the light meter to test it for sure.

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    Tips for Buying a Photography Light Meter

    • Go to a photography store, handle them and ask the clerk to show you the basics of how they work.

    • Note how they feel in your hand and make sure you can hold and operate it comfortably. This may seem a bit silly, thinking of the ergonomics when buying an expensive, complicated piece of equipment, but realistically, if it is not comfortable and easy to use, you will likely not use it.

    • Look at the display and make sure it is easy to read. Mine has big numbers, making it easy for people like me, who want one thing out of it: a meaningful reading.

    • Get one that can fire your flash (if you work in a studio) and can take ambient light measurements.

    • Don’t break the bank by buying a photography light meter with every feature. In the end you want an instrument that can measure light intensity. You shouldn’t need to spend a lot of money to get a good one.