Light meters – use a hand held incident meter for best exposure

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Many photographers let their hand held meters collect dust in their camera bag. Others don’t even own one. Can you get by without one? Sure – but ALL built-in camera meters, even the fanciest ones in the most expensive pro gear, only measure reflected light. Reflected light readings target 18% gray, no matter if you are taking a photo of a dark wooded area or a snowy day in January, the meter reading represents a reading relative to 18% gray reflectance.

Trust, but verify

Do any of you reading this recall this phrase from former President Ronald Reagan? Back in the 1980’s when he was negotiating a nuclear arms treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev he used this phrase about trusting the former USSR to reduce their stockpile of nuclear weapons, but still insisted on verifying that they actually carried it out.

Though much less serious than a nuclear threat (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) we really should not trust our camera metering system blindly either. For any serious photographer it just makes sense to get a measurement of the actual light falling upon the subject of your photograph. In some circumstances, it is the only way to get the proper exposure without “chimping” – and it saves time.

In-camera meters measure reflected light

For example, using a reflected light meter (in your camera or hand held) you cannot get an exposure reading when using flash as your light source. Reflectance meters just don’t work in that scenario. But with an incident light meter it is a piece of cake. I will demonstrate with my handheld meter: a Gossen Luna Pro F (pictured below).

My Gossen Luna Pro F

I’ve owned this meter for more than 25 years now and it still works perfectly. Its a simple device to use. With the press of a button the meter turns on and is ready for a reading. With ambient (natural) light indoors or outdoors, you just point the meter toward your camera position from the position of your subject and press the on button. This meter is a “null reading” meter where you turn the face dial until the meter needle aligns with a zero, or null, reading on the analog meter. In this example (of these very photographs I took for this blog) my camera and the Gossen meter were set for ISO 200.

Take incident readings of flash output

Firing the flash for an incident reading is a slightly different process, but the null reading is exactly the same. For flash photography there is a second, smaller button on the side of this meter that selects “flash” versus “ambient” readings. It is a toggle switch: one press leaves the button depressed (for ambient readings) and a second press moves the toggle button to an extended position for flash readings.

Large red button (left) activates the meter,
smaller red button (right) toggles between
ambient and flash readings.

To take a flash reading, press the smaller red toggle button to extend it to the “flash” position, then press the larger red button to activate the meter. Position the meter at the subject pointing toward the camera position and then fire the flash. Whatever light falls upon the translucent incident dome on the meter renders the required 18% gray exposure, but based on light falling upon the subject as opposed to being reflected from the subject’s surface (like the skin tone of a person you are photographing).

Handheld meters take reflected readings too

This very same meter can take reflected readings too. The translucent dome that accepts incident light onto the sensor is easily re-positioned when taking reflected light meter readings. In the reflected light metering configuration (photo below, right) the meter is use and behaves like the internal meter in your camera. One extra feature is that this meter can take a reflected light reading of a flash setup. A possible use in this situation may be to check for blown out highlights versus shadow areas in the frame you are shooting. This could be useful in determining the dynamic range of lighting in a particular setup (more useful with film, less so with digital cameras).

Dome positioned over sensor at center for incident
readings
Dome positioned to the side for reflected light readings

Choices and brands of meters

There are dozens of brands of light meters to choose from. The two big names in light meters though are Gossen and Sekonic. In a more distant third place is Kenko, and I will mention a few of those in this section below.

Gossen

While the company and its founder started in 1919 producing electronic instruments, the first light meter wasn’t produced until 1933. Now sold by Manfrotto, the brand still exists and maintains a line of light exposure meters, now all digital meters. The meters on the market today offer additional features, such as integrated contrast measurements, to help determine if a film or digital sensor can manage the existing scene. This is available even on the lower price point end of the product line, starting at about $200

Sekonic

This brand has a full line of products suited to both photographic and cinematic applications. In the same starting price range (about $200) Sekonic meters offer:

  • Incident Metering for Ambient & Flash
  • 40° Reflected Light Metering
  • Photo, Cine, and HD Cine Metering Modes
  • Customizable LCD with Auto Backlight

Sekonic also offers a low-end analog meter, having both reflected and incident reading capabilities for just over $100. A simple analog meter like this may be just fine for some advanced amateur photographers.

Kenko

A japanese company, Kenko Tokina Co., Ltd. , has an optical manufacturing tradition that dates back to 1957. Though they offer a smaller line of products they have generally good end-user reviews. Some comments state that the modern Kenko is “… a clone of the now defunct Minolta Flashmeter.” Yet a full 35 out of 50 reviews on B&H photo’s website rate the Kenko KFM-1100 at 5 stars.

Choosing a meter will involve a healthy dose of personal preference for any brand. They all seem to satisfy customers who use them, and so depending upon your photographic needs and budget the one for you could be any of these fine instruments.

New or Used?

If you are on a budget then buying a used meter may be a very good option. There are a large number of decent quality used meters available. Depending upon your personal experience with sellers/vendors on eBay, you may or may not wish to search there for a used meter. I have found that KEH and Robert’s Camera used gear site, Used Photo Pro (no current affiliation with these vendors) have abundant inventory and rate the equipment condition and price very fairly.

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Happy Shooting!

2 thoughts on “Light meters – use a hand held incident meter for best exposure”

  1. Wow! I haven’t seen one of these meters in years. It is a real testament to the quality of these meters that you’ve had yours for over 25 years! I really like these older style cameras and accessories like this. Thanks for the information. You really have me thinking about digging out some of my equipment and getting back in to taking high quality photographs of certain things my phone cam just can’t handle.

    Reply
    • Go for it Robin! I hope you rediscover the joy in using a real camera again!! Incident light metering is the most reliable way to go.

      Reply

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