If it pleases the court, may a case be presented for using a handheld light meter. While others have made many advancements in their technology of in-camera meters, TTL and E-TTL metering, I still believe that a handheld meter is a more reliable method. Th new technology seems to be slowly removing the relevance of an incident meter with each passing upgrade. Your honor, I am here not to dis-credit or dis-prove any of the facts brought forth but rather demonstrate the benefits a handheld light meter offers photographers and this industry. Facts, and science will be presented and when all has been brought to the light, you should be able to clearly see the difference in these two meters and how its existence is now more relevant than ever before.
First, it is important for the court to understand the difference of technology in of both an in-camera meter and a handheld meter. The meter in ones’ camera is a reflective meter. Reflective meters are very reliable so long as you understand how they work and how to best use the information they provide. An in-camera, reflective, meter has only one job. That is to find 18% gray. 18% gray is a middle exposure. Reflective meters want everything to be 18% gray, there is no black and white for them, just shades of gray. While, a handheld or incident meter isn’t content to the middle of the pack but rather is on the side of both Black and White and everything in between.
Let us look at the facts of the case. Since a reflective meter is looking for 18% gray, it has a tendency to misread the scene and under-expose or over-expose the image when anything but 18% gray is present. Figure 1 shows a black, gray and white shirt all placed under the same lighting conditions. I photographed each shirt individually using Aperture priority to demonstrate how the in-camera meter can be fooled. You will see that the white shirt is tends to be under-exposed by two stops because the meter was trying to make it appear 18% gray and inversely the black shirt is over exposed by 2 stops as the camera adds light to make the black 18% gray. The meter worked just like it was designed to however it did not provide me with the results I needed. The image with the gray shirt is the only one exposed correctly because the camera did not make any compensation while metering. (figure 2)
Even the most advanced in-camera meters work in this fashion– Finding 18% gray. The same hold true if using an on-camera flash or of-camera flash employing TTL technology. If the meter reads light hitting a black or darker area it will tell the flash to increase the output in attempt to obtain a middle exposure therefore over-exposing the scene and likewise it will instruct the flash to decrease output if the image is more white or high-key resulting in an under-exposed image. Another dis-advantage to an in-camera meter is the ability to measure a flash exposure. Yes, It will try to determine flash exposures while using dedicated units designed for the TTL system of the manufacturer, but as we have discovered, that method may leave you struggling to have the look you desire. Flash exposure, such as a studio strobe or off camera flash that is not dedicated to a specific camera or one that is set in a manual mode, can not be done with the use of an in-camera meter. So then, what does one do?
If it pleases the court, I would like to present several items of evidence and will leave it your hands to decide on the final verdict. The use of an incident meter will insure the photographer of an accurate exposure, no matter the subject matter. I then photographed the same shirts under the same lighting and took an incident meter reading and using manual mode photographed each one with-out changing my exposure. (Figure-3) You can see that the black is black and white is white, exactly what we want. A handheld meter on behalf of photographers, providing them with worry free metering which in turn leads to more time being creative and shooting and less time guessing and chimping. With an incident meter, the guessing is gone. Equate it to Ronco, set it and forget it!
It really is that simple. With this tool, it is easy to quickly measure the light at various parts of the scene easily and quickly without changing metering modes. This is helpful when you want to ensure that the dynamic range of an image is within the five stop range of usable information. Why is this so important? Can’t we just adjust the exposure in Lightroom or Photoshop? Yes and No. Digital sensors have less latitude for error than film did. In order to maintain detail and accurate color throughout your image, your exposure needs to be dead-on. One, this insures that you will capture what you see and most importantly this free you up from spending time at a computer and more time doing what we love, making photographs.
Another major benefit to a handheld meter is the ability to accurately measure flash exposure. When working in the studio with multiple lights, this is a crucial and valuable asset to have. One will need to know the exact amount of light each strobe is emitting if he/or she wants to build a successful image in less time. Many of the modern handheld meters can now tell you what % of the overall exposure is being influenced by flash which is a great way to easily add fill flash and balance two light sources when working on-location. This feature is just not available with the in-camera meter? So why is that important and what is the reason for measuring light hitting the subject and not reflecting off? Simple. Not everything is 18% gray. (Figure-4) and most of our clients are not 18% gray. A wedding is a perfect example of the contrast between subjects. A bride in her beautiful white gown and the groom in a black tuxedo. Without a handheld meter or a solid foundation on how to compensate with your in-camera meter, this could very well leave you frustrated searching for the correct exposure.
If you do not have an incident light meter and feel you can not afford one, you still have options. Start by using a gray card or exposure target. These can be purchased almost anywhere for under $15.00 and it is an easy way to begin shooting in manual and nailing your exposure with the first click of the shutter. Another way is to understand how your camera meter will interpret colors. A bright red is close to 18% gray, so is a middle green, like your grass. Blue jeans are very close to 18% gray as well, so you can use your in-camera spot meter and exposure lock to meter off these colors and still get a good exposure. To learn how your camera will react with certain colors, take some images of red, blue green and so on and study the histogram on your camera. If the spike is ion the middle, than they will appear 18% gray to your camera. If the histogram is too far left, it is darker and lighter if off to the right.
Like any professional, we can do better, easier and faster work with the correct tools and I believe a case has been presented that a handheld incident meter is a tool that needs to be in your bag. Happy creating.