How to Use a Light Meter to Improve Your Photograpy

how to use a light meterWhether you’re a budding point-and-shooter or a veteran at the art of taking photos, anyone who has even the slightest interest in photography should know that light is important. It’s one of the hardest aspects of a great shot, because light can make or break a photo yet changes within seconds. Here, we go through the different types of light, the concept of metering, and how to use a light meter to get much better photos.

This course on lighting will serve as an excellent companion to your reading.

Types of Light and Light Metering

When shooting in natural light, you have to be mindful of the different types of light to know what setting to shoot in. There are four varieties:

  • Soft light is the type of light found in completely shaded scenes. It heightens colorful objects, so if you want to emphasize the different shades of color in a picture, soft light is the way to go.
  • Side light is awesome for highlighting your subject’s texture. This is when the sunlight or light source comes from either side. It hits one side of the subject and leaves the other in shadow, giving you a nice, dramatic contrast. For black and white photography, using side light is best, giving the picture a dramatic feel without being too exaggerated. To go more in-dept on the subject of black and white photography, check out this course.
  • Front light is the situation when the sunlight or the light source is behind you (the photographer). The light becomes low and comes from the front of your subject, leaving the shadows to fall behind. If you’re shooting color, this is almost as good as using soft light to bring out the color contrasts in your subject.
  • Back light is when the light source is directly behind the subject of your photo. Shooting this way will give you deep contrasts, highlights, and shadows, and give a soft glow to less opaque objects. Back light is ideal for shooting silhouettes or playing with shadows, but leaves you vulnerable to lens flare. To avoid this, you can use a hood (if your lens is directly facing a strong light source).

Light metering is how your camera adjusts to all those different types of light conditions. The camera’s aperture, which is size of the shutter opening, and the shutter speed adjust to the lighting condition and ISO speed. Most digital cameras these days have a built in computer that meters the shot for you and adjusts these automatically.

The old analog cameras had a built-in light meter (usually), but you still had to manually adjust the camera setting. However, since the light where you’re standing to take the shot is different from the light where your subject is, there are subtle differences that the human eye can’t pick up clearly. Your built-in meter just measures the reflected light, then takes an approximation of how much light is actually on your subject (incident light).

Enter the handheld light meter. These devices are used to measure the amount of light in an area and help you determine the right exposure for the photo. The photographer measures the actual amount of light where the subject is placed, and can then adjust his or her camera to take a good shot from anywhere in the room.

Professional photographers use hand held light meters when shooting to get more accurate exposures. Understanding how your camera meters light and how to use a light meter is very important if you want consistently beautiful shots. If you want to take amazing landscape photos, this course will help you understand the lighting tricks involved.

Two Types of Light Meters

The incident meter takes the amount of incident light on the subject and needs to be aimed at the light source while in front of the subject to give the best reading. These are hard to use if you’re taking shots from far away, say on a mountain, and you don’t have access to the scene that you want to shoot.

With incident meters, all you have to do is point the meter to the camera, making sure the diffuser cone’s over the sensor. The light meter needs to be in the same light that your subject’s in, otherwise you’ll get a bad reading. You can use these for far away subjects only if the light they’re in is the same type that you’re standing in.

The reflected light meter works best if you aim at the subject from where you’re shooting, as it measures the reflected light. These aren’t as accurate as incident meters, of course, and don’t work too well with scenes that have lots of shadows or different shades of light.

Aperture, Shutter, and ISO

There are 3 variables involved when getting the right exposure: the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. We said earlier that the aperture is the size of the shutter opening, and shutter speed’s how fast the shutter closes. The ISO is how sensitive your camera is to the light that’s available. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive you are to light, and the less time it takes to shoot.

The light meter reads the light in a scene and tells you how to set these three variables. For DSLRs and other digital cameras, the little mechanical whirr you hear when you half-press the shutter button is the camera adjusting its settings according to the light meter.

When shooting, use the light meter (whether incident or reflected as discussed earlier) to measure the light in the scene, then you can shoot using either aperture priority (best for shots that require control of depth of field), shutter priority (best for high-speed situations like sports scenes), or go full manual.

Aperture priority is found on most digital cameras, where you can pick what exposure to use and the light meter adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. The opposite holds true for shutter priority or speed priority. You choose how fast the shutter will close and the light meter adjusts the aperture to get the right exposure.

Most electronic cameras have a meter on the display to tell you whether you’re underexposed or overexposed (in some situations the light meter adjustment can only go so far).

There should be a tiny arrow underneath a line, and if that arrow’s right in the middle, that’s the correct exposure. Anything to the left of  center will leave your pictures underexposed (too dark), and anything to the right will give you an overexposed or burnt picture (too bright).
Light meters are handy, especially in full manual mode, because they tell you the values you need for a particular exposure, shutter speed, or ISO. It’s quite the balancing act, but good photographers often prefer manual shooting because of its flexibility.

This great course will teach you more about shooting manual.

Get Shooting

Remember, it’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer. Even an iPhone can take some pretty decent shots in the right hands, as you’ll learn in this course. The best photographers know how to bracket their shots and adjust their cameras in any light, whether or not they have a light meter with them.

It won’t be super accurate, so use your light meter for fine tuning, but you should still have a general sense of what settings to use in different light situations. The only way to get there is to practice, practice, practice. This blog post will give you even more insight on lighting if you’re still hungry for more.