Magazine Article


It's All About Accuracy
Why you still need a light meter with digital capture


Lighting is everything. And the way each photographer articulates his or her light determines their success both as a photographer and as an artist. Whether you're a photojournalist using the drama of available light, or a portrait photographer who feels naked without strobes, lighting is the one constant that underlies all photographic work. Digital, true to form, has altered the ways in which you use light and the various technologies associated with its production.

"Adding a handheld meter to the equation means the photographer is looking to use the information the meter provides to 'craft' the shot," says PHIL BRADON, product marketing manager, Sekonic (distributed by MAC Group).

A craft that implies adjusting shadows, highlights, and brightness to fit your individual perspective, or that of a client's specific needs. No photographer would ever ask: Why is light important? However, photographers sometimes ask: Why are handheld light meters necessary?

Digital cameras, with their built-in meters, histograms, and LCDs, tend to offer a false sense of confidence for many photographers looking to test their light in a quick, convenient manner, but Bradon says that such technologies just don't handle the nitty-gritty of exposure variances. "In-camera metering and histograms can't help you set lighting ratios, or help you get the precise ambient-flash balance you're looking for," he says. "Histograms can tell you when you're grossly over- or underexposed, if you know what to look for. But it's hard to interpret the subtle changes in exposure that could cost you the shot. And incident light measurement, which deals solely with the light and not with subject reflectivity, is the simplest and most foolproof way to determine exposure."

Are light meters more accurate than the technologies built into the digital camera? According to Bradon, the answer runs deeper than what you may expect. "The move from analog to digitally processed light measurement happened quite a while ago," he says. "What's happening now is that as image-making has gone to digital, the accuracy of the imaging systems, the digital cameras, have actually caught up with the meters. Film photographers had a good safety margin of latitude to make up for any imprecision in their metering techniques. Today's digital photographers don't have that luxury. Even small changes in exposure can be easily seen in a digital image. And light meters like the Sekonic L-358 and L-758 are the perfect guides for good exposure."

So, as digital technology becomes increasingly more sophisticated, light-metering technology lifts the bar, already significantly raised by digital, to irresistible heights. Such heights include seamless control of lighting contrasts. "Most important is incident light measurement, which is critical for portrait, object, and fashion photography," explains DAVID A. FISHER, product manager, Bogen Imaging. "It measures and analyzes light that strikes the motif, regardless of the object's reflectivity. Complete control of lighting contrast leads to well-balanced exposure results, and allows for targeted use of the available range of dynamics. Meters such as the new Gossen Starlite 2 are capable of measuring individual flashes, calculating multiple flash illuminations, and analyzing flash and continuous illumination--even with several flash units in combination."

To take advantage of both the added value of digital along with the increased sophistication of light-meter technology, photographers need to synchronize the two into their capture process and post-production for polished results. "Gossen uses a two-color corrected-silicon photodiode measuring sensor, which has been optimized for use with digital--both photo and cine/video," explains Fisher. "Digital meters such as the Gossen Starlite 2 place a broad range of options at the fingertips of the user, allowing them to consistently implement their own individual ideas regarding depth of focus and motion."

Through precision, photographers can communicate their own ideas more effectively than they could in the past, when their images were clouded by inaccurate metering. Fisher also looks at spot metering to determine more secured light values from image landscapes: "spot metering (1 and 5) with the Starlite 2, automatic calculation of the contrast range with detail on the analog scale, mean value generation based on measured values from important areas of the image, automatic readout of the share of the ambient light when metering flash, and light intensity measurement."

The big story for Sekonic, says Bradon, is its Digital Transfer Software. He points to the relatively seamless integration of light technology with image software in the L-758DR DigitalMaster. "We now have Version 2.0, which is much easier to use than the original," he says. "Photographers can map out the dynamic range of their DSLRs and import that into the L-758DR to guide them to the best control of light and exposure. I believe we will see this becoming more popular as HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography becomes popular."

Another Sekonic development is the C-500 Prodigi Color meter, the first photographic color meter that also measures color as digital sensors in DSLRs and Cine cameras do. "All other photographic color meters use three photocells--filtered red, green and blue--to determine the color of the light in the picture and the amount of filtration needed to correct it back to the color you need, say, daylight or 5500 Kelvin," explains Bradon. "All other photographic color meters are designed to do this for photographic color film, which records color differently from the way we and our digital cameras see it."

Ending up with a meter Bradon describes as "surprisingly simple to operate," the C-500 incorporates an additional photocell filtered to read the red that digital cameras record. Thus engineers created a new processing program to adjust the way the green and blue filtered photocells process data.

Added accuracy means shooting what your eye can see. And if you trust your artistic vision, then adding a light meter to your gear box might not be such a bad idea. In fact, it may be one of the brightest ideas you've had this year.
[Ed. note: In addition to Sekonic and Gossen meters, Kenko also offers light/flash meters.]