When the topic of light meters comes up, many photographers are surprised to learn that I used them. While TTL and trial and error can be an effective way to nail an exposure, nothing can be more effective than manually and precisely dialing in your lights before fine tuning them on screen.
The very first light meters were fully analog and relied on observations of the human eye, according to Wikipedia. I bought this one by Leudi on eBay for four dollars. When you look through it there is a numbered row of neutral density filters of increasing density left to right.
You hold the meter in front of your subject and note the filter with the greatest density that still allows light to pass through. And that number correspond to a correct exposure combination.
By the 50s they started to look like compasses on steroids.
When it came time for me to buy my first light meter in the 90’s, Sekonic was making the L-308, which had a digital LCD and a design to match. I took it in and out of my pocket so many times, that all of the paint was worn off by the time I replaced it with a Sekonic L-478DR-U-EL in 2019. My new meter communicates with the Elinchrom Skyport system, but more on that later.
Lightmeters work by reading the brightness of light sources, like the sun outdoors or a lamp indoors and some of them even measure flash, which your cameras meter is incapable of doing.
Flash meters measure the brightness of flashes. To do this I will place the light meter as close as I can to the subjects, aimed at the light I am metering so I can get the most accurate reading possible.
If my light is 4’ (120cm) from the subject and I hold it 1’ (30cm) in front of my subject, I am going to get a lot less accurate reading compared to the result I would get if I held the meter 2” (5cm) from their face.
To put it simply, the light meter doesn’t tell me how to set up the camera, it helps me set up the lights. If I am using one light, I will measure the power output of that light and adjust it, so I get the exposure I want, provided its possible based on the capabilities of the light. If I am using multiple lights, I will get a reading for each light and change the power to match my desired brightness for each light. Then I will fine tune the power levels of the lights based on the results I see on my camera or computer.
The alternative to using a flash meter is just to use trial and air and that’s when you would just sort of guess the power output you need and take a series of pictures until you get either the camera on the right f-stop or you change the power of the lights so that it looks right on your screen. This experimentation May take up a lot of time and it might make you look incompetent in front of you
The L-308 just does one basic thing, it tells me the aperture I need to use to expose my picture correctly whether I’m using ambient light or flash. This meter will work for you as long as your desired shutter speed is below 1/500 of a second. You just change the mode from EV which is a technical measurement, to this sun which is available tight, to flash and finally to flash with a “c” which just means you’re going to use pc cable to connect directly to your flash or power pack.
99% of the time when you’re metering flash you’ll be on the regular “lightning bolt” setting and when you press the button on the side it starts watching for your flash to burst and when it does, it will show you the brightness in f-stops relative to where you
r meter is positioned. Normally you’ll fire your flash using the test button on the wireless transmitter you have on your camera.
With the dome over your sensor it will measure the light falling on the dome, which is what you want and with the dome off to the side, it will meter the light reflecting off of the sensor.
Now let’s talk about this fancy new light meter!
Elinchrom’s Skyport system is a wireless protocol that allows you to assign your lights to 4 different groups per frequency. So with all of the lights on the same channel, I set the main light to group 1, the fill to group 2, the kicker to group 3 and the hair light to group 4. Then the L-478 allows me to fire and test each group independently and then adjust that groups power right from the meter. This light meter really speeds up my workflow because i have to spend less time walking around my studio and I don’t have to shield the meters sensor so it can only see one light at a time. It will also meter your flash for shutter speeds up to 1/1000 of a second.
If you want to use high speed sync above 1/1000 of a second you’ll need an even fancier meter, the Sekonic L-858. I haven’t used one, but if they want to send me one, I will review it!