For the Illuminati blog’s first article, let’s start with a basic question – why even use a hand-held light meter in the first place?  

First, a story.  Years ago, some colleagues and I were having breakfast in Cologne, Germany.  We were in town for the Photokina Show, and the first time in Europe for many of us. Someone was excitedly talking about the showers.  Now, anyone having their first shower in a hotel has had the same tense and danger-fraught experience: trying to get the water temperature right.  Scalding and freezing are very real risks.  My colleague gleefully described discovering their “shower number”.  Our hotel’s faucets had numbers on them – the water temperature in Celsius.

Now they could get the water the perfect temperature quickly and with no personal risk!  Every person had their own number.  Even if they went to another hotel, their shower number would be the same.  That temperature measurement had turned an unpleasant and tedious experience into a quick and pleasant one.

The same is true of photography.  Measuring light helps you turn a hit-and-miss process into a quick and controlled one.  Some examples:

  • Set foreground/background lighting ratios for a consistent look
  • Measure practical lights and set your lights to fill the shadows just the right amount
  • Once you have a scene set up, use a light meter to take some measurements and jot them down.  Use paper, an app, whatever.  Now you know how to repeat the set-up whenever you want.
  • Once you have measurements written down, you can share them – with online readers, an assistant, a director, or a crew.  Measurements are key to good communication
  • The exposure for any photo is automatically saved in its metadata

Hopefully I’ve gotten your attention and maybe started you thinking about the value of a light meter to your work.  I’ll close with a favorite quote: 

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.  — George Eastman


Ready to guess the temperature?

Adding numbers makes it easy…

Light meters like this one have been used by photographers for decades