The quickest way to take your photography to a new level is to invest in a hand-held light meter.
No doubt many will disagree and point out that, with the arrival of matrix metering -- I believe first seen in Nikon’s FA in 1984 -- and now digital cameras complete with built-in histograms, separate light meters are completely obsolete.
Today’s camera metering systems, with intricate algorithms and databases containing thousands of lighting permutations are incredible, no arguing that.
Most of the time, stick your camera on “program” or “auto” modes you’ll end up with a well-exposed picture.
If you used negative film and the camera’s meter, it was a rare case that exposure wasn’t acceptable. But that is not so with digital cameras and their tendency to blow out highlights. In far too many instances do-it-all matrix metering does not cope with intense highlights.
The problem with built-in camera meters is they measure REFLECTED light. Brighter objects reflect more light and, unless you take that into account and adjust accordingly by using your camera’s exposure lock facility, you could end up with an image not as you saw it.
Reflective meters see everything as being 18% grey and adjust exposure accordingly. Photograph a pure white object using a reflective light meter and it will reproduce as grey. Do the same to a pitch black subject and it too will reproduce as grey.
The fact is, if you want you whites to be white (sounds like a washing powder advert!) you need to give MORE exposure than indicated by your meter. The opposite applies if you want your blacks to be black.
So what’s the solution? Learn to use your camera on its “manual” setting and adjust accordingly or, keep you camera on “manual” and get yourself a good hand-held incident light meter.
An incident meter has a white dome or disc that covers the light-receiving cell. Often it looks like a cut-in-half ping-pong ball.
The main advantage of an incident meter is it measures the light that is falling ON the subject and that reflected by it. It does not matter whether the subject is black, white or anything in between.
It is the most accurate way to measure light and set exposure. Period! End of story. If you doubt that statement ask why it’s the method used by Hollywood when shooting million dollar movies.
How do you use an incident meter?
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how dramatically your images improve.
1. Remember you need to measure the light falling ONTO the subject.
2. Set the ISO speed your camera is set at on your meter.
3. Position yourself in such a way that the light-gathering dome FACES THE CAMERA IN THE SAME LIGHT STRIKING THE SUBJECT.
4. Read off the aperture/shutter speed setting that is appropriate to the effect you wish to achieve.
5. Set your camera to “manual” and transfer the light-meter reading to your camera.
6. Take the picture.
Why not simply “chimp” until you get it right or just try to fix it in Photoshop? You can do that but I personally hate sitting behind a computer and fiddling with images -- much better to get it right in-camera first time, with a minimum of fuss.
A separate light-meter also allows you to use the wonderful old cameras manufactured without built-in exposure meters or whose meters have died or for which batteries are no longer available.
In my case it also allows me to use the phenomenal old prime lenses I’ve gathered over the years that work perfectly except for the fact they will not meter on my digital camera.
Each image posted here was shot in difficult lighting circumstances, with a manual prime lens and metered with my hand-held Polaris digital light-meter.
No Photoshopping other than slight sharpening and re sizing was done.
Using an incident meter meant the detail in the bright concrete trough was still maintained. The bright reflectance would have fooled the camera's built-in meter.