When digital came out and became widely adopted it began to kill film. Slowly at first, but then much more quickly. As film usage went down, so it seems did the use of external, handheld meters (sometimes called flash meters, but they worked on ambient light too).
Using film was a totally different exercise than using digital — primarily because film cameras lacked histograms and you had no video preview as with digital (even though the first digital camera that I used, a $14,000 Canon and Kodak hybrid had NO screen).
In order to make sure your exposures were right on the money, you needed a meter–especially if you shot the very finicky color transparency or slide film.
The in-camera meter would suffice, but because it is a REFLECTED meter, it is subject to the tonal values in the scene (even on the fancy newer cameras and meters). But you had to know when that in-camera meter would be fooled and then override it (like you really have to do now).
A hand-held meter was consistent because it read the light falling ON the subject and was not dependent on the light reflected back from the subject.
Learning the old way (with film), you had to really know exposures and metering and a hand-held meter was a key component. There was simply no chimping back then!
Is an external, hand-held meter a tool for the modern digital photographer?
Many folks might say that you don’t need a hand-held meter in a digital world. I would say you do.
If you’re looking for a way to get CONSISTENT, ACCURATE exposures that save you time (and money, because time spent in post is MONEY), then the money you spend on an external meter can be a lifesaver and come back to you.
Also, if you do any type of flash lighting with external flash units in manual mode (portable flash and studio flash), then one of these meters will also be able to read your light from the flash and help you make fast and effective exposure calculations.
Lately, I’ve brought out the meter again and I have to tell you it has been a lot of fun and has made my work super easy to work in post.
It slows you down just a little bit as you take the reading and then adjust the cameras to reflect the settings, but it is worth it.
For one, it forces an exposure discipline that can make post production easier because ALL your images from the same situation are exposed the same way.
How many times have you been in Program, or Aperture or Shutter Priority mode and there were slight variations from frame to frame, even though you did your best to “lock in” that first exposure reading??
It has happened to me so many times, I couldn’t begin to count.
So now you’re thinking: Which One Should I Get?
My good buddy Dan Milnor of Smogranch fame (http://smogranch.com) swears by this meter and uses his whenever he shoots.
2. If you want to step up a bit — the Sekonic L-358 — is $309. More sophisticated ( a bit bigger) and also allows for the ability to trigger your flash units by a built in Pocket Wizard transmitter, this meter is very popular.
3. And finally, the real bad boy of external meters — the Sekonic L-758DR meter — which has both a spot meter and an incident meter (the dome, that measures light falling on the subject).
This meter goes for $634 (these are B & H prices, btw) and you can even profile your camera sensor to this meter for optimum exposures.
4. Sekonic recently came out with the Litemaster Pro L-478D Light Meter. It goes for $389 and has a digital readout. I have not used this meter (but have used the 3 others previously mentioned (and own the L-758). I suspect that it is as good as all the other Sekonic meters and you should be fine.
Less Expensive Options
There are also apps for your smartphone that meter the light. I have only used one of those and found it to be okay. I will do research for a future article on these and give you some suggestions.
How to Use the Meter
In the incident metering mode when using a digital camera, what I find works best is to have the dome out (not recessed) and place the meter at your subject’s face. You want the meter in the same light that is hitting your subject.
Have the meter point in the direction of the camera and hold it straight up, perpendicular to the ground. Push the meter readout button and notice the settings — set your camera to match. In RAW mode you will find these files consistent and process beautifully.
I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have a meter and how you like it? If you have any follow up questions, feel free to ask.