To Meter, or Not to Meter

Sekonic L-358 light meterI’m a rather easy-going guy–easy to get along with, open-minded, always teachable, and willing to try new things. But one thing that drives me absolutely nuts is when I meet an assistant who doesn’t know or understand how to read and meter light. Just how do you actually know what the light will look like in your image? And, if you tell me we will see it on-screen, no big deal I’m going to send you home and never hire you again! Well, maybe I won’t do that, but I know a few photographers who might. The bottom line is that as an assistant, you have to understand light, inside and out. And looking at it on-screen just isn’t good enough (in my book) unless you’ve been shooting for 20+ years and can find your way around a darkroom with the safe-light off.

I’ve worked with plenty of shooters who really don’t use meters anymore. This is usually because they have been shooting the same types of subjects, over and over, under the same lighting conditions, with the same gear, and in the same space, for years and years. Okay, I get it. Tell me where to set the lights and what the power settings and light modifiers are and chances are we will get dang close to what they expect. If you are a new assistant, however, you will never really learn lighting this way. The chances are good that such a photographer started their photo career with film and using meters. Then, as they transitioned to digital, they became so completely tuned in to the differences and similarities between film and digital, and how it related to their lighting preferences, that they could light and relight their setups blind-folded. I can almost guarantee that a student, fresh out of school, will not be able to duplicate such a workflow. It takes years of practice–lighting, metering, adjusting, seeing the results on film/screen, readjusting, and so on.

Knowing light is absolutely crucial to communicate the client’s message in the image. I’m talking about the physical qualities and the emotional nuances of light. Careful, critical study of all types of light will greatly increase one’s ability to re-create a specific light, on-set, when called to do so. The use of a light meter will give you good starting points when designing a lighting layout. Knowing the intensity, direction, and color temperature of the light will create a more definitive picture in your mind about the light, even before you see the first image. The ability to create a specific type of light quickly and efficiently based on the client’s needs is paramount for a good photo assistant, lighting designer, and photographer. Another factor to consider here is lighting for video, as more and more photographers are turning to video capture with DSLR’s. Consider what has happened to Vincent LaForet’s career.

I understand that digital has made parts of our lives as photographers easier. But, I also subscribe to the fact that maintaining as much control over the shoot on-set, prior to post, is what makes a true professional. Controlling your light, of course, is a big part of that. Competency with a light meter and lighting a shot or set will free up the photographer to work more closely with the art director and client. Knowing how your light will look even before the first test image is shot not only makes the shoot go smoother, but it will make the editing process, on-set for the art director and in-post for the retoucher, much easier. I’ve yet been unable to accomplish any of this without using a light meter.

gels, diffusion, cto, ctb, frost, nd, neutral densityWhenever I’m on set as a first assistant, I will usually have a clear idea of what the lighting direction will be for each shot. I will pre-visualize what the lighting set-ups will be, where the lights will be hitting, what modifiers I’ll use, and what the power of each light will be in relation to one another. Metering each light individually will tell me almost precisely what it’s doing, at least in power and direction. When I use a light meter, I can at least take much of the guess-work out of the equation. If I’m mixing light sources or require a balanced color temperature on set, I’ll meter for that, too.

I’ve always been a continuity buff when watching TV and movies. It first started out when I would catch wardrobe malfunctions and camera angles. But then, as my awareness increased, I started detecting subtleties and shifts in lighting–colors, direction, and quality. That, in turn, started me thinking about how lighting, just like music and sound effects, can create emotions for a desired effect or reaction. Study Film Noir and other classic films by Hitchcock and Welles. Even in black & white you can feel anxiety with contrast, fear in deep shadows, movement with lighting direction, and so on. I love to study light in film. Watch the HBO series, Six Feet Under, especially the first two seasons… the lighting freaking rocks! Most people watch TV and film for the story or the character. But, when you really dissect the lighting, music, and camera movements you can really begin to understand how these elements really support the story and character.

The same is true for the talent, product, and environment in a still photograph. There are zillions of images in magazines, online, signage and billboards. Look at them critically and objectively. Ask what the emotions are that are being illustrated. How is this being achieved with light–color, direction, how many lights are being used, what are the sources, what is each one doing, and how is each one being modified? Think about how a different composition might change the mood, and how the light should change with such modifications. Consider what went through the photographer’s or art director’s mind as the layouts were discussed in pre-production. Study lighting diagrams in lighting books and really understand how much can be done with just a few simple tools. Check out Guess the Lighting.

The following is a passage from Wikipedia: The word “photograph” was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek (phos), meaning “light”, and (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing,” together meaning “drawing with light.”

Once we draw, or paint with light, you will need a light meter to see what you drew!

Actual light meter operations are outside the scope of this article, as I intended it. Perhaps I will do another article, or video, in the future for some how-to instruction with light meters. There are many resources online, however. One of the best I’ve found is Sekonic. I would say that the best light meter to know for still photography is the Sekonic L-358. Rent one and learn it! Also, know and understand how to use gels and diffusion to color correct and control light output. Two good resources are Lee Filters and Rosco.

What are some of your experiences working with photographers, with and without meters? What are some of the situations you find yourself in where you aren’t using a meter, and why? Please talk about some of your experience in the comments.

Comments

  1. says

    Well Said, Tim.
    I have used a light meter assisting many a photographer, doesn’t matter if THEY use one or not, I always get called back. Brief review and a day of using one in all lighting conditions will make you the go-to assistant on the list, a place you want to be. Well Said, Tim.

  2. Devon Morgan says

    I agree…well said.

    I am a photographer who doesn’t use a light meter when I take my own photographs. Although the use of one on set has been drilled into my head since my days in art school studying photography. As I continue to grow and and pursue a career as a photo assistant I am slowly beginning to realize that the habits i have become accustomed to in my own work won’t necessarily “Fly” with professional photographers.

    So thank you…

    (Dusting off my meter)

    Best

    Devon

  3. says

    Great post! I am one of those 20+ year shooters that sold his light meter years ago. I shoot a pretty wide variety of images and just rely on my internal meter these days. I totally agree that assistants should not only know their way around a professional light meter, but should own one, keep it in their kit bag and bring it to the set.

    Chris

  4. says

    Awesome post.

    I am currently working as an assistant in Minneapolis and I have yet seen a photographer use a light meter. I have owned one since college and it has saved me on more then one occasion. I am a newer assistant and still have yet to build a grip kit to take into the studios but once I finally get it made I will always have my Sekonic in there and use it even if the photographer is not using one.

  5. says

    I used to meter when I was shooting film. I never use it anymore. its been so long that I actually will have to read the manual again. I don’t really shoot much in heavily lighted situations, but I should be using one… its true. Pulling out the manual…….

  6. Bruce Eisenberg says

    Because we do a good deal of complicated lighting and there for use lighting ratios we always start with meter reading and then adjust visually from there. We also balance color temp which has also been eliminated by many photographers as well.

    I can not tell you how many assistants and interns we have had that do not know how to properly meter exposure or color.

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