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Quick Tip: Should You Buy a Light Meter?

This post is part of a series called Ready, Set, Exposure.
The Ultimate Beginner's Introduction to Exposure
The Complete Handheld Lightmeter Guide

Today we're taking a look at the once ubiquitous light meter, and how it can still help you in today's world of cameras attempting to do it all for you. We'll walk through what a light meter is, and suggest a few potential uses for your photography!

What Is a Light Meter?

A light meter simply measures the amount of light in a scene. This is a very handy value to know in photography, as we can then set the exposure time perfectly. When using a film camera, a light meter becomes far more important due to expensive film and processing costs.

Light meters come in two kinds, reflective and incident. In-camera light meters are almost always reflective, as they reflect light from the whole scene. Handheld reflected light-meters also require a photographer to stand next to the camera to record the whole scene.

Handheld incident meters, on the other hand, require a photographer to go as close to the subject as possible in order to get a reading.

Mike turner has written an incredible in-depth tutorial on the subject, which I would happily recommend anyone for further reading for a complete explanation.

should you buy a lightmeter

Image courtesy of mirsasha

Do You Really Need One?

There is a lot of debate between professional photographers, but in my opinion the answer is yes. They offer considerably more detail than the in-built meter inside your Digital SLR, and can often improve your pictures in certain scenarios.

An example of a good use of a incident meter would be when taking a photo of a model. Using a light meter, you can record the light on their face, clothes and shoes. You then simply add the figures given together and then divide to get an average - this should suggest a very accurate exposure value.

If you are still using a film camera without an in-camera light meter, then this product is a must - it removes all the guess work involved.

should you buy a lightmeter

Disadvantages of Light Meters

Although I think everyone should have a light meter if within their budget, they are another piece of equipment to become familiar with, carry round, and set up every time you want to take a photo. After the first few shots it can become tiring.

Modern day SLR cameras are amazingly accurate at metering, and problems generally only occur when you are either in extremely sunny or dark areas. It is during these times the light meter can come in most useful.

With any modern day digital cameras - even from under $100 - you can take a photo in seconds and instantly see the result. If anything needs changing, you can adjust settings or add a flash. It's a lazy approach to photography, but it's perfectly fine for many people.

should you buy a lightmeter

Image courtesy of Alex Dram

How Much Do They Cost?

The average price for a brand new light meter ranges from around $150-$300. These often include both a reflected light and incident meter built-in.

I will admit that it's quite an expensive gadget to have in your camera bag, but if you are not happy with your camera's in built meter - or also wish to shoot on film regularly - it makes sense to purchase.

If you are amateur photographer and cannot afford the kit, why not ask family members as often the older generation might have one stored away along with all their old film gear.

If you own an iPhone or iPod touch, an app for measuring exposure has been released and it costs the small price of $3. You can check it out here. I have no idea how good it is, but might it might be fun to try out!

should you buy a lightmeter

Image courtesy of bflshadow

Further Reading

The subject is massive, and I have only skimmed the surface in this short article. Here are some links for further reading into the subject.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Do you use and own a light meter? If so, why/why not? We'd love to hear your opinion!

should you buy a lightmeter

Image courtesy of jam343

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