Introduction to Light Meters

By Ray Larose - last updated May 14, 2014


Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. myLightMeter App by David Quiles
  3. Analog - Gossen Lunasix
  4. Analog - Weston Master V
  5. Digital - Sekonic L-308s
  6. Built-in Meter - Leica M-E
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bonus Video

Introduction

I’ve been seeing quite a bit of talk on Twitter about light meters lately, perhaps because I follow mostly film shooters or simply because it’s a trending topic in the photographic community. But regardless of which medium you shoot, you are metering light (if you don’t know the difference between incident and reflective metering, do yourself a favor and Google that - I suggest this site). Many people let the camera do the metering behind the scenes while others like to take full control of this aspect of photography. I love to use hand-held meters to get the most accurate possible reading. But the purpose of this post isn’t to tell you how to do it or which is the best, rather it’s to tell you about the 4 light meters I use all the time and why I use them. I’ll leave the conclusions to be drawn by you.

I always have at least one meter on me – nearly 24/7. That’s my phone. In a pinch, it’ll get me a useable reading using one of the many apps that you can download for free or for cold cash. So, I’ll talk about that one first.

myLightMeter App by David Quiles


There are dozens of light meter apps for Android and iOS devices. Wading through the sea of these can really be a challenge, but after installing and uninstalling a couple dozen of these things, I settled on a simple and clean one called LightMeter (myLightMeter on iOS) by David Quiles. I started off with the free version (Google Play / iOS) that comes with ads, but quickly upgraded to the pay version (hell, only $0.99 at the time) as it was something I was using quite a bit and I believe in supporting these app developers.

Like I said above, this one is good in a pinch, but it is not as accurate as a proper light meter. I’m usually within a stop of a good reading, an often it is spot on. I like to have this with me in case one of my other meters runs out of juice or if I flat out forget one of the others. That actually happens quite a bit with me. But if photography is your lively hood, then this is little more than a toy.

Pros:

  • You always have it with you.
  • Gives a nice retro look and easy to read several readings at a time.
  • Offers incident (if your phone allows) and reflective light metering.
  • Can spot measure.
  • Has a free option. And free is always nice.

Cons:

  • Not as accurate as a proper light meter.
  • Changing ISO is a bit dodgy.
  • Not as quick as a proper light meter.
  • No flash metering.

Analog - Gossen Lunasix


Like the apps, there are many alternatives if you are looking for a classic analog meter. What I like is they are cheap as hell if you are picking up a used one from a camera shop or on the bay. I went with the Gossen Lunasix as my camera shop had one on the shelf and it worked. I picked it up for $20 and it still had its original leather case. This model first hit the streets in the early 1960′s and ran for ~20 years.

I loved the look of this meter and really picked it up for vanity reasons – it matched the era of my Leica M3 and really grabbed the attention of people in the know of analog photography. But as much as I like this one, it’s probably the one I use the least. No real reason, just is. But when I do use it, I only use it in incident mode (with the dome over the meter) as I feel this is the most accurate way to measure light. Reflective works best off your camera (in my opinion).

Note that batteries can be a pain in the ass. It calls for mercury oxide batteries which are no longer made, so you have to use the alternative 1.5 volt 170 mAh alkaline cell battery found on Amazon or other shops that sell watch batteries. It takes 2 batteries at around $4 a pop. If you won’t be using the meter for a while, pop em out and tape them to the case so you don’t lose them.

Pros:

  • Doesn’t get more hipster than this. (grins)
  • There is a certain joy using analog tools with your analog cameras.
  • Proper light meter, so accurate.
  • Very easy to change ISO settings.
  • Dial makes adjusting f-stop / shutter ultra fast.
  • Incident and reflective metering.
  • EV readings nice and clear for using with Hasselblad.
  • Neck strap.

Cons:

  • Discontinued batteries.
  • A little bit more of a learning curve than other options.
  • Maybe too hipster for some?

Analog - Weston Master V


The Weston Master V is my new favorite light meter. Dirt cheap on eBay – and best of all – no batteries! I can’t tell you the joy of walking around with gear now (Leica M2/M3/Weston) and no of it requiring a single battery. No charging, no trying to order hard-to-find batteries, just no damned fuss.

This pretty much has all the benefits of the Gossen above – but no batteries to mess with. It never, ever dies. This has become my go to meter and I use it all the time.

Pros:

  • Fast, accurate.
  • Super light-weight.
  • No batteries.
  • Doesn’t get more hipster than this. (grins)
  • Proper light meter, so accurate.
  • Very easy to change ISO settings.
  • Dial makes adjusting f-stop / shutter ultra fast
  • Very inexpensive

Cons:

  • A little bit more of a learning curve than other options
  • Maybe too hipster for some?

Digital - Sekonic L-308s


The Sekonic L-308s is actually my first hand-held digital light meter. I picked it up on Amazon for a little over $200 as I wanted a truly reliable, accurate digital meter. I’d have to say this bad boy is the reason the poor Lunasix stays home most times. It’s just a good working piece of hardware – not as beautiful as the Lunasix, but a hell of a lot more powerful. I use this 9 times out of 10 with the Leica ME as well – I just trust this more than the on-board meter.

I watched a video (or two) on YouTube to figure out how to work it. People on Amazon complain that you can’t adjust the f-stop on it, but that’s just not true. They just don’t know how to read the instructions (hint: meter, then up/down toggles to adjust).

For you strobists, this is a massive tool over built in or the old school analogs. I haven’t been doing anything with flash lately, but this has absolutely everything I need when I get back into it.

For some quick stats, you can measure ambient light from f/0 to nearly f/20. Flash from f/1.4 to f/124!!! The display covers ISO 3-8000 in 1/3 steps, shutter of 60 to 1/8000 and aperture of f/0.5-90.9 also in 1/3 steps. When shooting my ISO 400 film, I keep the ISO at 200 and the f-stop at f/2 for the majority of the time.

Pros:

  • Fast, accurate.
  • Super light-weight.
  • Incident and reflective metering.
  • Works with flash/studio lighting setups.
  • Several modes to choose from.
  • Wider range of f-stops/shutters than others here.
  • Standard batteries.
  • Built-in lumisphere with clip-on lumidisc.
  • Neck strap.

Cons:

  • Relatively expensive compared to the others.
  • Not intuitive when you first pick it up. Watch a video on YouTube and save yourself a headache.

Built-In Meter - Leica M-E


Ah, last but not least, the built-in meter. I have this because it’s super simple and, well, it came with the camera. But honestly, I don’t always use it. I like my handhelds more – especially for incident metering. I don’t have a whole lot to say on the built-in meter as it does well.

Pros:

  • Built right into the camera.
  • Accurate (understanding how it measures light), fast – minimal feedback through view finder.
  • No need to carry an external meter for reflective measuring.

Cons:

  • Center-weighted meter (@ 1/3 the focal length)
  • Not practical to carry around as a meter when using the M2/Blad.
  • Feedback is limited.
  • Isn’t the most intelligent meter in the world. You need to learn to work it for your needs.

Conclusion

I hope this brief article sheds some light on the various meters and what their main differences are. Again, this wasn’t about how to use them – just a quick pros/cons list of what and why.

Bonus Video

Here's a video (unrelated to the author - rather by Mark Vargo) that's a very informative about the two ways to measure light (incident and reflective) and how to use them to properly to read an exposure. While it's geared slightly towards cine/video shooting, it applies equally well to still photography. Worth a watch.