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The Benefits of using a Light Meter

Dan N (Dan_BergerBros)

Keywords: flash, studio, lighting, filters, guides, tips

BB-nikonians-presented This article is brought to you by Berger Bros Camera. Author Dan Neri is an Berger Bros employee and class instructor.

While the built in meters of our new DSLR’s are extremely accurate, and generally do a good job, there are numerous benefits of using a hand held light meter.

The built in meter of the camera is a REFLECTIVE meter, meaning that it takes a reading based on the light reflecting off of the subject. This works perfectly when your subject is a perfect 18% grey tone, but in reality, our subjects are almost NEVER 18%grey!

In the example below, we have three teddy bears; one white, one grey, one black. Under constant, even lighting our camera meter will give us the following results:

Actual Tone

Built In Camera Meter Reading in Program

Photo Produced


400 ISO

1/125 @ f/32



400 ISO

1/125 @ f/16



400 ISO

1/125 @ f/8


Immediately, we can see that our built in meter will NOT give us accurate results. The camera’s meter is based in 18% grey, and as a result, when our subject is either all white, or all black, the cameras meter will try to shift the exposure to render the subject as grey. White will be under exposed, and black will be over exposed. Grey will stay grey.

Why should our meter readings change, when we are under the same constant even lighting?? Once again, the built in meter in our camera uses the light REFLECTED off of the subject to read exposure, and as we can see, the tonality of the subject will affect our meter readings.

Enter the hand held light meter..

If we took an INCIDENT meter reading of the light falling on the subject, our meter will give us:

400 ISO 1/125 @ f/16


The EXACT same reading that our camera gave us off of the grey teddy bear!


We can set our cameras in M exposure mode to the exposure that our hand held meter gave us, and shoot away. Remember, if the light changes, or the distance from the subject to the light changes, (but NOT the camera to subject distance), we will have to take another meter reading and readjust our cameras exposure to match.

Using a hand held meter is a fool proof way to ensure that our exposure is accurate, and a meter should be in every serious photographer’s bag.


Some perfect times to use a hand held meter include:

Indoor arenas: The light NEVER changes inside, and the cameras meter can be fooled by the background or the color of player’s uniforms. White ice from a hockey rink can throw in camera meters all over the place!

Outdoor arenas: A stadium’s lights provide plenty of light for today’s DSLR’s. Use your hand held meter to measure the light falling on the field, and lock in your exposure. Unless there is a power failure, the lighting will never change over the course of the event.

Natural light portraits: When taking portraits of subjects in natural light, use your hand held meter to read the exposure on the “hotter” side of the face to ensure that you don’t over-expose the subject. ALWAYS METER FOR THE HIGHLIGHTS!!

Still Lifes: As we saw in our example above, the subjects tonality will alter the exposure our built in meter will give us. Once again, take a hand held reading on the highlight side, and shoot away.

These are some quick examples of when and why we use hand held meters.. there are many more, especially when we start using strobes and constant lights in studio situations.

BB-nikonians-160x50-Camera This article has been brought to you by Berger Bros Camera. Author Dan Neri is an Berger Bros employee and class instructor. If you want to know more about Lightning please visit the Nikonians “MASTER YOUR TOOLS” section. For a direct contact to the team of Berger Bros please visit the “ASK BERGER BROS CAMERA Forum”.


(1 Vote)

Originally written on June 3, 2011

Last updated on June 3, 2014

Dan N Dan N (Dan_BergerBros)

Basic, 26 posts


Min Chai Liu (mcliu19) on July 24, 2015

I would like to know .The light meter of two different brands give the same reading under the same lighting condition or they are biased.. If they are biased then how to calibrate them.. Thanks in advance. -Liu

Ian Jackson (Beemer2) on June 6, 2011

Incident light meters measure light intensity and not colour. You are correct about not having access to the ice. An incident light meter must point to the camera and be in a position that receives the same illumination as the subject. Ian

Leo Lyons (leolyons) on June 6, 2011

In the situation described I would go for spot metering off something that is close to the 18% grey and lock the camera at that. It does also have to be borne in mind that a darker subject or a lighter subject may still need an adjustment even if you are able to use an incident reading. DSLRs with instant viewing of the shot are valuable here too - as long as you are aware of any anomalies bewteen the screen brightness and how the photo is going to look on a calibrated monitor.

Lee Dawson (Sportymonk) on June 6, 2011

1) Concerning arenas, not too many people will have access to the ice or play field. 2) I see the photo examples above but I still have to ask, isn't the reflected light that is recorded on the sensor what is important compared to the light before it strikes the object and is changed by the color etc of the image. Seems the reflected light is what the camera records and would thus be more important.