Are Light Meters Necessary?

Discussion in 'Accessories' started by Lcrunyon, Mar 16, 2017.

  1. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    Hi all,

    One of the several learning projects I'm doing right now is trying to improve my flash photography. My goal is to become good enough to use a flash effectively without looking like I used one. I'm at the point where I am researching the best way to understand and manipulate the settings to balance the ambient light and the flash output. Some of the tutorials I've come across on this make use of hand-held light meter accessories to determine the exact settings for the area being illuminated. It looks handy, but it's yet another item to buy and carry, and it's not likely to be an item I'll need often. I'd rather not get one unless it makes a big difference.

    Are there any light meter users out there? What are the pros and cons of using a light meter versus the metering system in the camera? Any recommendations on how I should be thinking about this?
     
  2. MoonMind

    MoonMind Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    738
    Oct 25, 2014
    Switzerland
    Matt
    Are we talking on-camera flash here? You could use TTL flash, a small diffuser (mini-umbrella or softbox) and flash exposure compensation (there's a rule of thumb: -1.3 to soften the flash effect). It's possible to get quite evenly lit images this way. The first thing is to learn how to avoid direct flashing, though.

    What I'd do is to learn a) off-camera flash techniques (you'll need remote controls or cables for that) and b) manual flash control. With a digital camera, you can just experiment (you can throw away all images that don't work). A flash meter makes working with off-camera flash (or camera and flash on a tripod) much, much quicker, though. I use TTL only if I have to be fully mobile and don't have the time to use a flash meter (or do test shots). But even then, manual flash might work better if the room offers reflective surfaces.

    I own a small lightmeter that is totally unobstrusive (smaller than a smartphone) that I use for most of my metering needs. The older, but more sophisticated meter (with a spot attachment) doesn't see a lot of use. But it's well worth having at least one - at times, the read-out for incident light can be quite enlightening (pun intended).

    M.
     
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  3. Petrochemist

    Petrochemist Mu-43 Top Veteran

    717
    Mar 21, 2013
    N Essex, UK
    Mike
    Of course they're not NECESSARY. Photographs were successfully taken before light meters existed.

    I find the in camera meter generally works quite adequately & guessing suitable EC to be relatively simple where needed. With digital cameras & the instant feedback they provide it's simple to check the results from tricky situations & improve on them.

    IMO the biggest advantage of a normal lightmeter is the ability to take incident light readings, which a camera on it's own cant manage. A grey card or special lens cap can get round that limitation if required.

    As @MoonMind@MoonMind mentions there's also a Flash meter - If you're trying to combine multiple flash guns they can take out the guesswork. I certainly won't find one useful enough to spend even 10% of the money they seam to sell for!
     
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  4. ionian

    ionian Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    646
    May 20, 2016
    Kent, UK
    Simon
    This won't make a decision for you, but if you haven't done so already, check out a couple of different photographers for opposing views on light meters:

    Joe Brady is a fan of lightmeters, and shows how to use them well in his youtube series:


    However, one of Joel Grimes' favourite sayings is that "technology can't make an artistic decision" - he relies on his vision and the image he sees on the back of his camera:


    I think the true answer is that there are times when they are useful, but only to realise the vision that you already have without resorting to lengthy trial and error.
     
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  5. janneman

    janneman Mu-43 Veteran

    429
    Dec 6, 2012
    Netherlands
    Jan (John) Kusters
    I still have 2 rather good lightmeters (Gossen Polysix for spot and everything, Seconic Studio DeLuxe for incident light), but have not used them in years. The light metering in camera's is good and versatile enough to do everything. The only thing I still use the hand held meters for is when explaining how to measure light to students; a hand held meter shows what you are doing.

    An extra problem people tend to forget is that light metering and exposure is connected to the way film of films are processed; there is not one perfect value for exposure. Today, in-camera metering is pretty much set up to work best with the way a camera maker transfers raw to jpeg. With a hand held meter, all corrections for post processing need to be made by the photographer.
     
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  6. MoonMind

    MoonMind Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    738
    Oct 25, 2014
    Switzerland
    Matt
    @Petrochemist@Petrochemist I would agree with you as far as digital imaging and on-camera flash is concerned, and yes, most of the time, that's what you want - so stick with TTL, with or without compensation. Fine by me - and I do this often enough (sometimes it's the only way - run-and-gun and/or documentary stuff ...).

    But again, as soon as multiple flash heads or other forms of controlled lighting and light shaping are involved, trial and error, while quite informative and sometimes even fun, can take a considerable amount of time. If you know how you want to light a scene and then just check for solid midtones, shooting well-exposed images becomes completely straightforward, especially with today's increasingly forgiving sensors (as long as you watch your highlights, that is). Using the camera's internal metering system (let alone TTL) in such a case would only complicate matters, for shooting as well as post, because it'd cause unwanted variation.

    That said, if you feel a lightmeter is *worth it* is a totally different question. I certainly use mine a lot, but then, I also shoot film on older cameras, and in spite of trying to adhere to the Sunny 16 rule, I feel the need to check frequently enough when using those. What I actually hadn't expected was the usefulness of the lightmeter for determining flash exposure - it certainly saved some serious time since I discovered that. But if you don't use a complicated setup, TTL and onboard metering will most probably suffice.

    M.
     
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  7. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Andrew
    I've never used a light meter. WIthin 2-3 test pops, I can get the aperture / flash power settings spot on.

    I use the histogram to confirm that I'm not clipping anything on either end.

    Is it necessary? No. I think it all comes down to how you were taught. I was taught without light meters, so I don't feel the need to use them. That is only me though.
     
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  8. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    Thanks for the insight and the links, everyone.

    The (self inflicted) lesson plan I had in mind was to learn and practice the fundamentals, then incrementally add complexity from there. So, I'd start off manual everything, on-camera flash. By the end, if I'm able to progress, I'd be practicing shooting with multiple flash units off-camera. This plan was influenced by multiple video-bloggers suggesting that learning manual control over flash offers much better results than TTL or Auto. This resonated with me, since the principle is much the same when learning photography to get the camera off of the Auto mode to really master the underlying concepts.

    Currently, I'm using an E-M1 Mk II and an FL-600 (plus the small flash that comes with the camera, as an eventual trigger). I've ordered a softbox that hopefully will fit the FL-600, but it hasn't arrived yet.
     
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  9. ionian

    ionian Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    646
    May 20, 2016
    Kent, UK
    Simon
    The basic principals are simple enough in concept - there's just lots of different styles and situations that may come up. My suggestion is not to make it too structured and limit yourself, but watch vids that give you inspiration and put yourself in situations where you will need to add light.

    It could be fill flash in an outdoor portrait, bounce flash in an indoor space, or off camera flash for creating the shadows you like on your subject. I'd just suggest approaching each as a project to take a certain photo, rather than as a technical exercise because you will learn more and be able to apply it in different situations.
     
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  10. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Andrew
    I wouldn't necessarily say that TTL/Auto offer inferior results over manual. Just like needed to learn how/why a camera meters, you need to understand how/why the flash is going to meter/expose for the scene in front of it.

    You can start at either, the learning curve will be similar.

    I use manual most of the time, not because it is inherently better, more because the gear is cheaper and easier for me. The more intelligence they throw at something, the more you'll be asked to pay. Modern TTL capable flashes are by and large more expensive, if you need radio triggers that do TTL - those are more expensive than just a "dumb" trigger, etc. I think you get the point.

    The way that I break it down is this:

    If I will need to move the flashes around a lot, but need to keep the same ratios or power and don't have the time to test out during a shoot - TTL
    If I need to overpower the sun or have shutter speed requirements over 1/250(Nikon) - TTL

    For all other uses, which cover 95% of what I shoot - full manual
     
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  11. PakkyT

    PakkyT Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jun 20, 2015
    New England
    Which flash model(s) are you currently using?

    I'll simply point to a past post I made about a book (3rd paragraph down) on using a single flash thought I found very helpful...
    Lens advice for indoor photos
     
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  12. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound
    Ken
    I see two issues here. Your first one, learning to light with flash. And the second one, light meters. I believe that you can learn a lot about lighting with flash without a meter by controlled trial and error. If it does not completely frustrate you with all of the possible settings between flash power, exposure compensation, lighting ratios, ambient light, etc, then you should probably get a good feel for quick and dirty techniques that can help you refine your shooting and set-up.

    Regarding light meters, I have a few but rarely use them these days. But, there are a great teaching tool, and some of the more sophisticated models offer features that you cannot find on camera bodies today. But, you have to want to delve into the numbers to get a lot of value out of using a light meter. And flash meters are a sub-specialty in the family of meters.

    So, if you are curious and want to learn from/with a meter, you might enjoy it. But, you will still need to understand the techniques of setting up flashes first. A meter will only dial you in or tell you that you are off.

    Good luck,

    --Ken

    P.S. Seasoned photographers I know who can light a scene so it looks completely natural mostly do it by experience.
     
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  13. Tywais

    Tywais Mu-43 Veteran

    211
    Jan 23, 2014
    Chiang Mai, Thailand
    Mike
    There are android/iPhone apps that allow your phone to be a light meter. I have one (ambient only) but don't have a flash yet to see how it works. Some reviews show very good accuracy, some not so good. Just came across this product Lumu that is quite small and plugs into your smartphone.
    lumu.
     
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  14. Clint

    Clint Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Apr 22, 2013
    San Diego area, CA
    Clint
    For ambient light, reflective light that your camera evaluates - one must be aware of where the white and black tones will fall – and how to compensate if you want to move a white to a true white or vice versa. Many photographers also rely on highlight and shadow warnings. Measuring the ambient light from a calibrated hand held meter can eliminate these concerns.

    Yet the camera cannot measure a flash of light. And most flash meters also can’t measure TTL light. So one depends on what they see on their inaccurate LCD screens, histograms and highlight and shadow warnings. Also using these tools cannot tell one how much flash is contributing to your exposure.

    Flash meters strengths are in telling you how much flash is contributing to your exposure and precise measurements of one or more lights. If shooting a typical three light set up, where know what ratio you want the lights at, in a matter of three test shots, you can be ready to shoot. Often flash meters can save a lot of trial and error.

    And flash meters can fill a whole lot of other functions - that some find very worth while.

    So are flash meters a necessity – they are not. But the can be valuable and for someone beginning they can really help one understand what their flash units are doing.
     
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2017
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  15. pdk42

    pdk42 One of the "Eh?" team

    Jan 11, 2013
    Leamington Spa, UK
    I'm not a big flash user, but I've been to a couple of Damian McGillicuddy's tutorials and he absolutely swears by them for studio flash use:

    Damian McGillicuddy
     
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  16. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    I've been perusing this blog for the last hour or so... got totally sidetracked.
     
  17. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    Thanks! That's an interesting device. It certainly answers the price/footprint cost that was holding me back. My phone does have a 3.5mm jack, but I wonder if they will come out with another one with a FireWire connection, since Apple has done away with the old headphone jack. I'll keep it in mind.
     
  18. pdk42

    pdk42 One of the "Eh?" team

    Jan 11, 2013
    Leamington Spa, UK
    I've met him a few times - he's quite a character. His understanding of studio lighting is superb. I've seen him do 1 & 2 light beauty setups in about 5 mins flat, producing stunning results. An interesting trick was watching him use the penumbra area from a brolly reflector rather than the brighter central umbra - it gives a softer light. Nothing he does with flash setup is done without a flash meter. I asked him about this and he said that he considers a flash meter to be an essential piece of photography equipment.
     
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  19. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    That's is a good idea to practice in various conditions and utilize the techniques appropriate for the circumstances.

    I historically haven't had many opportunities to do portraits, so I rarely think about fill flash, but my attempts with flash in this circumstance usually didn't work well. The same is true if the subject was backlit. I either dialed in too much or not enough. As a result, there have been a number of portraits I've done since (whenever I get to see my niece, who is an excellent model) where a flash would have helped immensely, and I didn't have one because I stopped trying. That's my main drive for doing this.

    I have practiced flower photography with the camera in one hand and my flash in the other, but I never felt like I was in control of the flash, so I'd compensate by holding it out at different distances. It worked, but that's not how I should be doing it.

    I've tried direct (on camera) flash for bird photography (mostly to bring out the chromatic reflectiveness of the feathers) but I didn't like how harsh the lighting looked.
     
  20. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    952
    Jun 4, 2014
    Maryland
    Loren
    FL-600. I told myself if I learn flash photography well, maybe I'll reward myself with one of the new flashes... :laugh1:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll check it out. I suppose I'll be able to do some of the similar dialing in you mentioned in your post with the FL-600.