I am a flash photographer, or strobist if you will. I’m very rarely taking natural light photos anymore these days. So most of my work comes from light, that isn’t present until I hit that shutter button. Now that makes it very hard to compensate for. Well… harder than usual anyway. So a light meter is an excellent tool to be able to measure that instant burst of light so we can cater for it with our camera settings. But do we really need one? Here’s my personal reasons why I don’t need one. All reasons below relate to each other as well.
These days, with our LCD screens and histograms we have the tools to get by without a light meter. We can effectively take test shots and chimp on the back of the camera. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have bothered with photography if they didn’t have that LCD screen. Sure histograms are impossible to read accurately & they are only a guide, plus that LCD screen can’t give you an accurate rendition of your image… BUT they can guide you. They can give you a good indication and this is what I use a lot instead of a light meter. However, the trick is to know your camera’s LCD screen. I have a lot of experience with my camera and I know what results I will get on the computer based on what I’m looking at on the camera. An overexposed image on the camera might be a perfect exposure on the computer. An important tip to be able to do this, is to make sure you turn OFF the ability for the LCD screen to change its brightness automatically. This is a feature of most newer cameras. This can throw you off a lot and its very dangerous if you’re trying to rely on the LCD screen for your photos.
I do actually own a light meter; a Sekonic L-358 which I’m holding up in the photo above. I have used it a lot before, and I often put it in my bag on shoots, but more so just because I have it. I’ve very rarely ever put it in my bag thinking, “I’m going to need that today”. If I ever have the situation where I need more room in my bag, the light meter is usually the first thing to go.
I have been shooting with flash for years without a light meter, and it wasn’t until early 2010 that I opened up my mind to the idea of having a flash meter. As a photographer I thought it was an important tool to understand how to use and explore the possibility that it might improve my workflow and/or my pictures. Plus there’s the fact it can give me an accurate measurement of how much light is painting my scene.
I actually found a light meter wastes time rather than saving time. Keep in mind this is my own personal scenario. Light meters could save plenty of time for others, especially those learning about photography and more importantly learning about flash for the first time. However since I have become so used to shooting without one, and I also have a pretty good feel for settings in most environments to the point where I can almost guess within a stop, I just feel I don’t really need one. I started out just learning how to read my LCD screen, and having a lot of trial and error, so I probably learnt the hard way but I still got there. If I had a light meter at the very start, that may very well have been a good catalyst for my photography progress.
My light meter is calibrated to my camera, and it has given me accurate readings which proved useful at times, but I find there are other times where it gives me a number, and I disagree with it for the purpose of what I’m shooting. (This point continues in Reason Three below). One thing I do love about light meters though, is every flash reading you take gives you a percentage. This percentage tells you how much of the light from the flash is contributing to the whole scene. So if it is 100% then you know the only light in that scene is from flash. If it is 75% then you know that 25% of the light illuminating your scene, is from ambient light. It’s just a very cool thing to assist you, especially when you are trying to balance out the ambient light with your flash.
I’m a big fan of Joel Grimes, an L.A sports portrait photographer, and something he said a while back really caught me.
“CAN A PERFECT EXPOSURE BE MEASURED?”
I mean, what is a perfect exposure? Sure we can measure a value half way between black and white which is a “correct exposure” but as an artist is that really a perfect exposure to us? No light meter can tell us what exposure we want. I mentioned before that I sometimes disagree with my light meter, and thats because I have the creative vision, not my light meter. A light meter cant make a creative decision. Some photographers may need correctly exposed shots, and thats fine, a lot of us are more concerned about creating a mood and feel to our images.
Part of my post production process involves tweaking the exposure & levels anyway, whether it’s in Lightroom for a quick edit or in Photoshop for the whole nine yards. I found whether I use a light meter or not I still play with my exposure afterwards. Plus with RAW files I have a lot of flexbility to be able to do these adjustments easily with no loss in quality. I never usually have to adjust more than 1/3 or 2/3’s of a stop though. So a light meter doesn’t improve that part of my workflow at all either.
In The End…
It’s up to you. I think it’s a personal preference thing these days. Some jobs call for a light meter, perhaps a high-end studio gig shooting crucial things that have to be perfectly lit. Light meters could be valuable to you in these situations. Especially if you’re using lots of lights. I think they are excellent tools to have, and I do still use one. You actually learn a lot from them.
However, I do get by without them, so if you can’t really afford one, don’t stress about it just yet. You might be better off saving for that new glass or that location strobe kit. I hope I blurted out enough to properly portray my feeling towards light meters. I don’t hate them, and I don’t want there to be any argument over using them or not. Just another tool we can use to help us along our path, and it’s up to you to justify whether you want/need one or not.