Why you should use a light meter . . . . or not.

Digital photography has taken over the world.

Over the past decade, we've witnessed an explosion of technology and the birth of a new era for photography. The digital realm has come to rival the old school techniques and time honored skills photographers have honed for the better part of two hundred years. Tools are being replaced by gadgets and gizmos with the promise of turning the unskilled shutterbug into the next Annie Leibovitz. Now any one can compete with the power players in the marketplace. 

Are traditional skills necessary in the digital era? Real estate in a photographer's camera bag carries a steep price. Do tools like light meters deserve a seat at the table?  Why should a weekend warrior sacrifice $600 for a light meter and then waste time and sweat equity learning how to use it? 

In this modern age learning and using a light meter isn't entirely necessary. LCD screens give us instant feedback. Learning by trial and error no longer will give you nosebleeds. Our cameras now think for us. They are shipping with more complex metering matrixes and algorithms that decide proper exposures and taking out the guess work of complex scenes. While not perfect, the technology is advancing at such a rapid pace the photographer will soon be left with fewer decisions to make.  

There are certainly a number of photographers who do not believe in light meters and have gone on to attain prestige and admiration. Some of them are self-taught and never learned proper technique to begin with; others come from old school institutions and have rejected tradition all together in favor of the bells and whistles.

Since before I graduated from photography school people have approached me and timidly asked the standard question: "Is [insert camera brand] a good camera? Should I buy it?", or "Should I buy a [insert gadget]? Will it help me?", and "Which [insert accessory] should I buy?"  Normally I would reply with something along the lines of, "Oh yes, absolutely. You should get that/ You need that." 

Now that I have a few years of seasoning under my belt I find my answers are more seasoned as well. The newest question I've been getting is: "Should I get/use a light meter?" My old self would say, "Are you kidding me? Absolutely!" 

One lesson I've learned over the years is that photography is a deeply personal art. And as artists we are not all the same. We think differently, we see the world differently, and we all have different goals. These days my answer has become, "Well, that depends. What do you want to achieve?" Buying a $3000 camera just to photograph your kid's silly antics isn't exactly justified. But photographing a wedding or doing a local politician's headshot is. 

The same with light meters. If you just want to around with a camera and be the busiest shutterbug there is, a light meter isn't going to do you any good. But, if you want to paint with light, be more efficient in your workflow, and, especially, learn more about your craft, a light meter deserves that spot of top honors in your camera bag.

There's a lot of information out there on the web for photographers to absorb. I inwardly wince when I read titles that say, "Why you should do X", or, "Why you shouldn't do Y".  I'm not going to do this to you. Instead, I'm going to tell you why I use a light meter. It's your decision entirely and depends solely on what you want to achieve. 

Light Meters as an efficiency officer

Let me start with an experience I had that solidified my belief in meters.

Once upon a time, I assisted a portrait photographer (let's call him, Bob). He had a V.I.P. client who wanted a natural light styled headshot. I met Bob outside the client's office and he informed me we would only have about fifteen minutes to shoot. Not a huge deal for a headshot, but it left us with almost no time for setup. 

Bob wanted to use a flash to decrease the natural light's contrast. The client was already in position, so Bob began to shoot. My job was to hold the flash off camera and adjust it's power and position per Bob's instructions. All the while Bob had his eyes glued on his LCD screen, checking the different effects and exposures the light was producing. The client kept up his part by dazzling us with his smile.

About ten minutes into the shoot Bob was finally happy with the exposure and announced, "Ok, we're ready to start."

The client looked shocked. "You mean, you haven't been ready? Well . . .  I have been!" He glanced at his Rolex. "You now have two minutes, my friend. Make it count." He clearly wasn't pleased. 

A light meter would have been advantageous in this scenario. It would have had Bob shooting at the correct exposure within the first couple of shots. Bob would have had not two minutes of good shots to work with in post-production, but fifteen minutes worth. In fact, he could have moved on and did more shooting in other locations giving his client more options. 

Silly Bob. Chimping is for kids. 

Light Metering vs. Chimping

At the end of the shoot, our professional photographer friend, Bob, only had a handful of useable exposures to work with. He did shoot in RAW, fortunately, so he was able to tweak enough of the "not ready" shots to give the client more to choose from. However, the downside to the fix-it-later mentality is the potential for quality loss. I don't know about you, but I like my images to be as high quality as possible and so do the clients.

[click to enlarge]

To the right is an example of a shoot done with the "chimping" method. (Chimping is the act of taking a photo and immediately looking at the LCD screen and exclaiming, 'Ooo Ooo Ooo, AH AH AH!'. It originally was coined by photojournalists but has since come to be used through out the whole industry.) 

Notice how inconsistent the exposures are? I did not use a light meter, but instead made adjustments to my light and chimped until I was happy with the results. The whole process took about five minutes to get the desired effect. I did, however, miss a few good shots during this period. I was able to - of sorts - save them in photoshop, but not without a measure of quality degradation. 

Luckily for me, the model I used above was in his late 20's and had the patience of a saint. But, if you've ever photographed a baby, you know full well their attention span is incredibly limited. Chimping your way thru a shoot is not the best option available unless you have a baby with the patience of a saint. 

[click to enlarge]

Notice the image on the left. This set was from a shoot I did with a nine month old baby. Kids that age can go from happy to full-on meltdown mode in a split second. So every exposure counts. 

Using a light meter saved time, gave me a nice spread of consistent exposures and allowed my attention to be focused solely on the subject, not my LCD screen. 

No more monkey behavior.

Light Meters quantify light

Being able to put a number on a beam of light is essential.

Going back to the shoot above with the male model, I wanted my strobe to be 70% of the total exposure. It's a look I favor because it yields natural results, but pulls the subject away from the background just enough. As you can see, I didn't achieve it although I thought I did while I was on location, meter-less. Only when I got home and popped the card into the machine did I realize my LCD screen took me for a fool. The images came out too contrasty. In fact, I had achieved the right ratio I wanted on the third shot, but I didn't even realize it.

I'm not going to blame the tiny screen on the back of my camera that pops up a rushed JPEG approximation of what I just shot. No. I'm going to blame myself because I didn't have a tool necessary to quantify my light. 

The baby shoot was shot with my strobe at 70% of my total exposure. How do I know this? Because numbers do not lie. LCD screens in bright summer light do.

Being able to put a number on light is the best way to understand what you're shooting.


These are just a few reasons why I shoot with a meter. But, it's up to you to decide if this is the type of technique you want to learn. Like I said before, photography is an intensly personal art. You are the only one who can make this decision.

My advice is: If you're satisfied with what you're doing now. Don't bother with the expense and time needed to learn metering technique.

However, do you have ambition to know your craft better? Do you want to work more efficiently and more consistently? Do you love the joy of discovery and growing? If this sounds like you, then using and learning how to use a light meter will only help you achieve these ends. You will form a better understanding of light and how it behaves. 

And that is exactly why you're a photographer.

Update: I've written a sequel to this riveting blog post. Click here