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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

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You have to know how to use a light meter. This is going to give you an edge when it comes to correctly exposing your photography.

Image of a camera screen interface showing a white flower. How to Use a Light Meter

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What Is a Light Meter?

Some scenarios have complex levels and amounts of light. This is where metering modes come into play.

These are:

  1. Matrix metering – The camera looks at the light in the entire scene and averages it.
  2. Center-weighted metering –  Same as above, with an emphasis on the centre.
  3. Spot metering – The camera measures the light only in a small area around the central autofocus point.
  4. Partial metering – The camera measures the light only in a small area of the centre of the frame. A bit bigger than the spot meter.

Each metering mode looks at the scene in different ways. And the camera makes its evaluation based on them.

Figuring out which metering mode is essential for your scene is a must. You will find it complicated to get the exposure you want otherwise.

Light meters started out as handheld stand-alone devices, for film photography. Studio photographers still use them today. It ensures their capture has the correct exposure.

It’s also a great way to find out where the ‘hottest’ point of the subject is. Especially in very complex studio lighting situations.

For advice on which light meters are available, read this article here.

Photo of a handheld light meter on a book. Tips for Light Meter Photography

Types of Light Metering

Most cameras today use TTL Metering. This stands for through-the-lens. Here, our camera examines the light coming in via the lens and evaluates the brightness of the scene. Your DSLR only uses one of the two options available.

A light meter is different as you can move it around, and its only purpose is measuring the light.

There are two different types of light metering that a hand-held light meter will detect. One is looking at the incident light, and the other is the reflective light.

Incident Light Meter

An incident meter reads the amount of light falling on the subject. This can be natural light, coming from the sun, or an artificial light, such as a flash or strobe.

You hold the light meter between the subject and the light source, as close to the subject as possible. The white dome on the device is what picks up the light reading.

By metering this way, you will disregard how light or dark your subject is. This helps get rid of errors caused by lighting a subject from behind. This type of metering is not capable from an in-camera light meter.

A photo of a backpacker sitting on the edge of a cliff looking toward the sunset. Tips for Light Meter Photography

Reflective Light Meter

A reflective light meter records the light levels reflected by the subject. The natural or artificial light will leave its source and bounce off the subject.

A DSLR’s light meter looks at the reflective light. That is the light that travels through the lens, hitting the sensor.

Different types of reflective meters exist:

  • Matrix or Evaluative Metering breaks a frame into zones. It uses an average to judge exposure.
  • Center-Weighted gives the centre of the frame the most importance when measuring.
  • Spot Metering looks only at a small area of a frame (where you place the focal point) to measure exposure.

Diagram showing different metering modes

Your hand-held light meter can switch between these modes well. On some models, such as the Sekonic L-308S-U, it is a simple matter of sliding the dome from covering the sensor.

Handheld light meters can read a much smaller image area than that of an in-camera light meter.

Photo of a sekonic L-308S-U Flashmate Light Meter. HOw to use a light meter

How To Meter Landscapes

Incident Metering

An incident reading is all you need for a well exposed landscape photograph. The typical way is to hold the light meter out in front of you and the camera.

Press the meter button. Read the results given to you, and set your camera’s settings to match. Now you are ready to expose your scene.

You want to capture the same light hitting the scenery in front of you. As long as the light is the same, you don’t need to go traipsing to all the points in your frame.

Try not to get direct sunlight on the dome, as that would create an underexposed image.  If you are capturing direct sunlight, try to cover the dome with some shade for the best reading.

A landscape photograph of a cow grazing in green fields with mountainous background on a bright day. How to use a light meter.

Reflective Metering

For this, you need a light meter that has the capacity to spot meter. The Sekonic L-758DR-U is a perfect choice if you can find it or afford it. 

When looking at the scene, you want to take at least three different readings. The darkest shadow area, the brightest highlight area, and the mid-tone areas.

You need to commit these to the light meters’ memory bank. Press the memory button after each exposure.

The average button will then create an average out of the three pieces of data. That will give you the settings for your camera. Hello, perfect exposure!

This technique allows you to take in a lot of light information from different areas. Your camera can process it without boring, manual calculations.
Complete the reading for the darkest, lightest areas and the mid-tones. Commit each to memory. Create the average to get the settings for your camera.

After some time, you’ll get the hang of the differences in the light intensity. These readings will happen faster and faster.

A landscape image of a cow grazing in green fields with mountainous background on a bright day. Using a light meter to check dark and light areas.

How To Meter Portraiture

Incident Metering

In portrait photography, a light meter is an invaluable tool. Hold it in front of the subject’s face, pointed towards the light source.

And you’re done. You now have the settings for your camera. Make sure the lumisphere is covering the light meters’ sensor.

This reads for middle grey. If you would prefer a lighter image, expose one stop higher than the reading.

Black and white portrait photography of a man using a light meter for perfect tone.

Reflective Metering

Here you are again trying to figure out an average exposure. This is for a standard image where you want an average exposure of the scene.

Complete the reading for the darkest, lightest areas and the mid-tones. Commit each to memory. Create the average to get the settings for your camera.

Black and white portrait photography of a man using a light meter for perfect tone.

For something a little more high-key, read the lightest areas of the subject. This will force the rest of the image to become darker, as the settings are not averaged out over the entire scene.

Before you go, check this video out.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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