Photography 101.8 - The Light Meter

Photography 101.8 – The Light Meter

Photo 101.8 Light Meter

Photo: Rainer Ebert - CC license

The following post is from Australian photographer Neil Creek who will soon be teaching a class in portrait photography in Melbourne Australia, and is developing his blog as a resource for the passionate photographer.

Welcome to the seventh lesson in Photography 101 – A Basic Course on the Camera. In this series, we cover all the basics of camera design and use. We talk about the ‘exposure triangle’: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. We talk about focus, depth of field and sharpness, as well as how lenses work, what focal lengths mean and how they put light on the sensor. We also look at the camera itself, how it works, what all the options mean and how they affect your photos.

This week’s lesson is The Light Meter.

Here’s What We’ve Covered Previously in this Series:

Lesson 1: Light and the Pinhole Camera
Lesson 2: Lenses and Focus
Lesson 3: Lenses, Light and Magnification
Lesson 4: Exposure and Stops
Lesson 5: Aperture
Lesson 6: Shutter
Lesson 7: ISO

In previous lessons we have talked about the basic theory of how a camera works, including some basic optics, and introduced the idea of exposure and how we control it with the exposure triangle. Now that we have covered each of the points of the exposure triangle, it’s time to bring them all together with the tool at the core, the light meter.

What is the Light Meter?

Sunset at Chelsea Beach

A challenging scene to meter

For as long as people have been taking photos, there has been a need to determine how bright a scene is. Any method of recording light can only work in a relatively narrow band without over or under exposing the image. To find the correct exposure that will record the image without over or under exposing it too much, photographers need to know how bright the scene is. An extremely talented photographer may be able to guess a near-enough exposure, but a light meter is a far more accurate and convenient way to do it.

Light meters in cameras react to how intense the light is as seen from the camera. SLRs measure the light (called metering) through the lens – TTL. They collect light that has actually passed through the camera’s lens and measure its intensity. There are problems when the scene has parts that are much brighter or darker than others, for example shadows on a sunny day. This can trick the light meter into measuring the intensity of the light incorrectly, depending on which part of the scene was illuminating the sensor.

Modern SLR cameras use multi-point light meters, meaning that several light meters are actually scattered around the projected scene, each measuring the light intensity at that point. Very sophistocated cameras may have dozens of metering points. How much the measured intensity of the light at each point influences the final meter reading depends on the metering mode selected by the photographer.

For a more detailed look at metering modes, you can read: Introduction to metering modes.

How to Use the Light Meter

Mode Dial

As we now know, the correct exposure is created by juggling the three points of the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter and ISO. The light meter is the tool that puts us in the right neighbourhood for how these should be set. If you are shooting on full auto, then when you meter the scene – usually done at the same time as focusing, by half pressing the shutter – the light meter gives its best guess for each of these variables.

If you want to take creative control of the photo, you can manually set each of the three variables yourself. Typically ISO is left at the default, or previous setting, and you take control by choosing aperture priority or shutter priority. On most DSLRs that’s done by turning the exposure mode dial. If you set the dial to Av – aperture priority, the photographer chooses what the aperture will be, and the light meter adjusts the shutter speed to mantain the correct exposure. The reverse is true for Tv – shutter priority.

When using these modes, it’s useful to refer to the exposure meter display on the camera. The exposure meter (display) shows the result of the measurement taken by the light meter (sensor). It will typically look something like this:

Exposure meter display on LCD

Exposure meter display on LCD

Exposure meter display in viewfinder

Exposure meter display in viewfinder

Each number represents a stop change in the light, as indicated, with the central mark being the “correct” exposure, as determined by the light meter. Each pip between the numbers represents one third of a stop. The arrow underneath indicates how close the current settings are to the correct exposure. Usually in priority modes, the arrow will stay in the middle as the light meter will be able to set the exposure correctly. However, if for example you set your aperture to 1/400sec in Tv (shutter priority mode) and the light meter indicated that you needed an aperture of f4, but your lens was only capable of f5.8, then the exposure meter will display one stop of underexposure. You will need to compensate for this by setting a longer shutter time, or increasing the ISO.

The juggling act becomes more complicated, and the light meter’s assistance more valuable, when you go to full manual control of the exposure. Here the exposure meter simply displays whether the current settings will under or over expose the image, according to the light meter. The photographer can freely change any of the values on the exposure triangle, and see the change to the predicted versus recommended exposure.

Exposure compensation

Even though the light meter in your camera is pretty sophistocated, sometimes it can get it wrong, especially with harsh contrasts, or highly reflective surfaces. Changing metering modes may help this, but a more controlled approach is to use exposure compensation. Imagine you are photographing a person against a large bright sky. The light meter thinks the sky is the most important part, and exposes correctly for that, leaving the person a dark silhouette. By using exposure compensation, you can tell the camera to take the metered exposure and make it brighter by a chosen amount. This will then allow the photographer to correctly expose the person. I’ll look at exposure compensation in more detail in a future post.

Examples

To show you how the different exposure modes might work in real world situations, here are some scenarios. The settings given below are what they happened to be for the examples shown. Settings for your own photo will be different.

Scanario 1 – Sports

  • High speed is needed to freeze action
  • Use Shutter Priority
  • Set shutter speed to 1/800sec
  • The light meter sets the aperture to f10
  • If under exposed, change ISO to compensate – ISO400

Kite Surfer

Scanario 2 – Portrait

  • An artistic narrow depth of field is desired
  • Use Aperture Priority
  • Set aperture to f5.6
  • The light meter sets the shutter to 1/160sec
  • If under exposed, change ISO to compensate – ISO100

Siera on a Swing

Scenario 3 – Night scenery

  • Ambient light is too low to accurately meter
  • Use full Manual
  • Set aperture to suit scene, erring to wider – f11
  • Set a long shutter speed to light meter’s best guess – 20sec
  • Set ISO to lowest possible for correct exposure – ISO100
  • Take a test shot and adjust settings if the light meter got it wrong

2009 New Years Fireworks

Scenario 4 – Off-camera manual flash

  • On auto, meter the scene and note settings
  • Set camera to one or two stops under exposed
  • Set up flashes and tweak power to expose correctly
  • Tweak the flashes exposure by adjusting aperture
  • Tweak the ambient light by adjusting shutter speed
  • Settings for example shot: 1/160sec f8 ISO125, click image for flash details.

Siera and Annie

Homework

  • Put the camera in auto mode and half press the shutter. While looking through the viewfinder, pan around a scene and see how the automatically selected camera settings – f ratio and shutter speed – change. This preview will disappear after a few seconds, so half press the shutter again for another look.
  • Set the camera in shutter priority mode and choose a shutter speed for effect, eg: short for sports, long for motion blur. Shoot different scenes and note how the camera adjusts the aperture to balance the exposure.
  • Do the same as above for aperture – wide for shallow depth of field, narrow for focus detail at all distances.
  • Get adventurous and put the camera on full manual. Adjust the camera settings yourself, and watch the arrow below the exposure meter. Tweak the settings to get the arrow in the middle of the meter – half press the shutter while looking at your scene to take a meter reading.
  • Try to apply what you have learned to make creative photos that take advantage of the different exposure modes.

Resources

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Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

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