Glamour Photography TipsSubmitted by Michael on Thu, 2011-01-13 16:49

Why I never ever use a light meter in my photo shoots

Maybe you are one of the photographers loving to use a light meter when setting up studio light. That’s totally cool. Or maybe for you a light meter is an utter waste of time and you wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot pole.

That’s cool as well. But then there are a whole lot of people who are wondering if metering light the old fashion way would hold any magic and add quality to their photos. If you are one of them, then this video is for you. I thought I’d show you how I use a light meter (when students force me to do it) and then, I show you why I never ever use such a device when actually producing real photos.



Some unphotoshopped example photos of our shoot:


Model: Emily

I wish you good light!
-- Michael


The results speak for themselves. Thank you for posting the raw photos.

It's my pleasure, Danielle

Another great and informative video! I'm tossing all three of my light meters out right now.

If you would find someone to exchange your light meter to a nice speedlight, then this would be a win for you - for sure.

Great video Michael.

Love the histogram stuff.

I have been shooting without a meter for a while, and shoot mainly in studio and in manual.

The way I had been getting my exposures right was by eye on the camera display.

Recently I got the buff cyber controllers.

These include a flash meter and adjustment system.

Where I have found these useful is in being able to set up my lights, all of them, and to adjust them, while my models are doing makeup changes, etc. as I can do the metering without the model being in the photo. This helps get to a starting point.

Still, as you say, one must look to see the results.

Then being able to tune lighting from the camera position has been quite beneficial which is a feature of this system.

Still, as of this writing, most of my exposures have been without metering. To view examples, see http://www.culturedwoman.com

One area I have had issues is that what I like on my camera screen is often much darker on the PC... The light meter is helping me to expose a bit more initially and keep away from under exposure.

Really like the hystogram bit, perhaps some hystogram study will help me with the overall lighting levels.

Your examples are great! I see you are experimenting with a ton of different lighting options. Ringlights, an octabox, softboxes... great. Any favorite already?

As for the camera display, yes, if your studio is rather dark then you are better off dialing down the display brightness a bit. For my feeling most of the displays have a default that is a bit too bright anyway. It feels really good when you look at it but it's not ideal for eyeballing the lighting.

Indeed: Goodlight - or more exactly: perfect light.
Thank you for convincingly comparing the 2 ways to find the best lighting conditions.
Thanks also to Emily, who- with her non-static posing - gave some extra liveliness to this tutorial.

... Continue this kind of tutorials and you will become even more famous.


Thanks a lot for your encouraging comments. I forwarded them to Emily!

Fantastic and very helpful,please keep that way
Thank you sooooo much!

Really a good video!

very good comparison!
now saving money better things than light meters..

Exactly! And even if it is just going out to a nice bar after the shoot the one or the other time. "Meet the models" is better than "meter the models"

You have a very pretty wife. How did you convince her to marry you? j/k.

Just like you, I've pretty much abandoned my light meter since I got my 50d and use the live preview and histograms. Of course I use this in conjunction with my flash kit!

> How did you convince her to marry you
That was easy. The Speedlight EX580 got a stroboscope mode which I can use in a hypnotic way to transfer my model into a trance like state. The rest is standard Jedi-lingo: "This is not the droids you are looking for... The guy with camera is the spouse you are looking for.". Done deal!

Ha Ha Ha! There is something hypnotic about flash units with respect to pretty models, the just can't get enough! Nice to see that she doesn't get jealous that you're shooting other sexy models.

You now have me in a dilema, I have been shooting for a few years now and always used the camera histogram and LCD but in an endeavor to improve my lighting I have spoken with many photographers I admire and the common thread is that a light meter works wonders.
After viewing this article I see you using the same principle I have been using but with a small difference, you also do a close up shot to check the image. I have been using this and already I feel my lighting has improved.
So the question is to purchase a light meter or not, I think I will hold of for a while and really explore the new technique you have taught me first. I would also like to say what a beautiful wife and model you have.

Good lighting to you cousin Michael


Thank you so much, cousin Richie! I think it really helps to learn one setup after another instead of trying some generic approach. If you do the same setup over and over again, then you can guestimate the values already. Then it's time to learn the next one.
Another thing that helps me much more than any meter is, to really get the different lighting zones that the lightsource projects onto my subject. The highlight area, the diffused and the shadow area, as well as the two transfer areas in between those 3 sections.

Wow! It looks so gorgeous!

Your knowledge and wisdom is amazing and if you can excuse the pun, sheds so much light on some areas that are typically left very "grey" when it comes to traditional teachings.

I am just so grateful to you for your willingness to share your professional talent with the rest of us.

Thank you so much!

Thanks a lot, Paulo. Yes, in this darn age a lot stoff expires pretty fast. But thanks to the internet we now also have a way to spread knowledge wide and deep in record time.
I hope a lot of people use this and I hope with my blog I can inspire a good number of people to enjoy beauty and nude photography as a hobby or even as a profession.

Great Movie!
(as usual ;)

Good Light to you too!

I'm glad you like it, Wacek

This was awesome Micheal! You have always helped me right when I think how can I do this!

Thanks a lot Donal! I am so glad the stuff is helpful for you! I know you are interested in workflow and I haven't posted much on that lately. Hope I can come up with something useful on that topic, too!

Hi Michael,

nice video, tipps and good endresults. But one of your statements is not completely true: incident meterin like you did in the video doesn't care if it's white, grey or black, because the intensity of lightoutput is measured. Opposite, reflective metering like the build-in meter of any camera uses, does meter for middle grey. So if your light meter is calibrated properly and you're metering properly, then your lightmeter gives you a very exact figure! And if you work with several lights and want to build the whole set before your model arrives, lightmeters are perfect and can't be exchanged by the histogramm.
In daily work I mostly shoot without the flashmeter, but for preparing a bigger shoot it really does the job for me!


Cousin Martin,
you are a posterchild of a photographer. You carefully prepare your set even before the model arrives. That's great! The model feels so much better when you can start taking good photos right away instead of endlessly fiddling around with light while she is posing there as a lighting dummy. I believe caring upfront and making the shoot dynamic is part of the secret sauce behind a lot of good photographs - I really believe this.

Right, the incident meter does not care about brightness of the subject. That's my point. As a photographer I usually DO care about that while an incident meter DOES NOT. I mean, I don't need to go like Ansel Adams and decide to place the skin of my model into zone 6 or something, but at least I care about wether I want to record texture or not. The model in this video has got a coffee brown skin. Technically, it's correct if she is sinking into the shades of black - but artistically? Usually I don't want that. And that's where reflected light metering "shines" - litterally :-). The incident light meter cares that a medium tone is perfectly recorded as a medium tone. On the other hand my camera meter and my histogram give me values to record "whatever I zoom into" as a medium tone. That's much closer to what I usually want to achieve.

The calibration of incident meters is covered by ISO 2720:1974. Technically this norm does not suggest anything regarding medium reflective gray. Practically the outcome is that incident light meters tell us values that cause a medium tone to be recorded as a medium tone. The more we go into highlights or shadows, the more we run into limitations of our camera, our screen, our printer and also our own vision. Same story with highly reflective and absolutely non reflective surfaces. That's not the fault of the light meter, however it's up to us photographers to make up for this limitations. For me, the histogram is currently the ideal tool to help me doing so.

I actually do think that incident meters are great tools and are fun to work with. The fact that they are indisposible for you when preparing a bigger set proves that point. I personally build sets with a different routine. One thing I frequently do is to take a photo of my own hand at the spot where the model will be once she arrived.

Thank God
I was in a shoot with some so called rich professionals, and i was getting jealous of their equipment and when they were using the lightmeter and some kind of color charts as well, i was like, i should have all these gadgets to be a professional.
Now after this video, i think that lightmeter is a waste of money. It can be omitted from the list of the equipment that i might be needing now and in the future :)
I got my first speedlite 580Ex2 couple of days back and i am trying to learn it via great DVD video training by Michael Andrew and Your site Smoking Strobes.
It seems like the people with the name Michael are naturally good with speedlites LOL ..
Michael Andrew and Michael Zelbel , two experts of speedlites

Unfortunately I don't have Michael Andrew's DVDs, but I guess he's still a good deal better than I am - even though I'm named Michael as well.

While your videos are extremely helpful, I'll need to disagree with your opinion of not using a light meter. I do a 3 and sometimes 4 light setup and can easily set up exposure of all my lights in under 2 minutes depending on my iso and aperture. From there, i consult my histogram and adjust from there.

Relying on just the camera's ability to read reflected light vs the meter's ability to record direct light on different parts of the subject is much more accurate in my opinion. And having the model wait while you shoot, look at histogram, adjust flash, shoot, look, readjust... and doing this for 15 minutes with all your lights just for one scene is impossible.

Setting up light with a meter as a starting point is what i personally recommend to people and from there, it's up to them to get creative with how their lighting looks from there. :)

> Setting up light with a meter as a starting point
>is what i personally recommend to people and from there

Sure, that's also a good approach

I am a student of photography at the College Marsan in Montreal. I really enjoy your videos and we are taught also not to use a light meter. we work with lcd and histogram as well.

Cousin Michelle! Hahaha, that's cool! I am glad to hear that your college is so open minded.

I think it really helps to learn one setup after another instead of trying some generic approach. If you do the same setup over and over again, then you can guestimate the values already. I see you are experimenting with a ton of different lighting options.

Thanks very much for the info.

Thanks for watching, cousin Jim!

Looking at the posts below, i see I am late to the game but I just joined and have been looking at the various subjects you cover and am impressed with all you are sharing. But, I am confused about this video on why you don't like using a light meter. In it you got a light meter reading of f/16.3 which could be f/16 but you didn't mention the shutter speed. When you test shot using the camera meter and histogram, you showed the exposure was still f/16 with @ 1/125. So, was the
in-camera metering and histogram the correct setting? If so, what was different than the light meter reading of f/16 which produced an underexposed shot. If not what would have been the correct exposure for this demonstration?


> i see I am late to the game
Hahaha, no prob, welcome to the game, cousin

> why you don't like using a light meter
It's too time consuming, not exact enough, counters creativity, an unnecessary extra piece of gear,...

> but you didn't mention the shutter speed
Yep, the shutter speed is not relevant when working with flashlight only. As long as the shutter is slow enough to allow the flash to sync, the duration of the exposure is dertermined completely by the burntime of the flash, often something around 1/1000s.

> So, was the in-camera metering and
> histogram the correct setting?

I stayed on f/16, dialed up the flash by one f-stop and then validated the following:

- the preview showed the light I wanted
- the histogram showed that I am not blowing out highlights
- the histogram of a detail shoot showed I am not loosing the shadows

The correct exposure of the first flash setting would have been f/11.
Makes sense or too confusing?

I too have experienced a light meter reading that did not produce what I expected was the correct exposure and thought I was not doing something right. Made me crazy!

If I understand how you arrived at f/16 with the camera metering and histogram, the camera setting was originally at f/11 but you adjusted to f/16 and increased flash power one stop to compensate.

Thanks for the answers. Look forward to more insight from your emails and website.

Nearly: The camera was still on f/16 from the previous photo. I saw that the light was 1 f-stop too dark, then dialed up the flash one f-stop and then validated with the histogram that the light was correct now for the chosen f-stop.

Another great and informative video!

Thank you, cousin Melvin!

hi, maybe you have some trouble with your lightmeter? normally, it meteres the light and not the reflection. what you explaned is the way the in-camera-lightmeter does. here you often get some "funny" results. but metering light directly shows best results in all of my shooting conditions i had so far.
regards, volker

Hard to get my thick German accent? Here's the transcript!

Hey fellow photographer, how is it going? I am Michael Zelbel and with me I’ve got my wife Emily and we are going to show you how I usually adjust the power of manual flashes like this mono block over here and I want to show you who to do that with the lights meter and I want to show you why I never ever use a light meter, now it is just for demonstration purposes, strangely enough a lot of people ask me what light meter should they buy and it is even people who make very decent light without any light meter, sooner or later they come across a foreign post or a professionalist that is telling them you need to have a light meter to make really professional light and so on and that is all bull. It is just not true, if you want to make really, really good light and spot on then you can do that with your histogram and digital camera and the preview LCD. Those 2 things give you much more accurate information than any light meter, the lighting set up that we have over here is simple but kind of tricky we have got auto box with louvers which usually would make very soft light but since it’s 1.5 meters or 6 feet away from the subject, that is kind of hard again, that is already a very big distance, so it is hard to guess how strong it will be and another thing is usually I will have the auto box higher but since it is making hot light now, it would be higher ,the jewelry that Emily is wearing would throw veryharsh shadows into her forehead so I lowered the auto box until it was approximately the height of her face and it is very hard to guess wether this light is charming or not so just from seeing the lighting set up, I wouldn’t know where I am in terms of setting, in terms of artistic quality of light but anyway. Let us suppose I want to use a light meter to meter this flash then what I would do is I would have it at the height of her face and flash and it say f/22.7, now I want to have f/16. What I would is I want to turn it down quite a lot to 1 ½ F stops roughly, it would be here, meter again, now it is at f/16.3 I could finetune it so that it is exactly f/16 but what is it exactly mean f/16? It means if my subject is neutral grey, she is not completely black, she is not completely white, then f/16 she is neutral grey and she got a non reflective surface, in other words if the surface efficiency of her is very low, then f/16 would lead to a great exposure. I mean neutral grey is probably not so important but it is non reflective, she is wearing jewelry which is very reflective, she is wearing a shirt and a panty that is reflective, we don’t know I mean the light meter doesn’t know and we all have to facture all that pain. I mean she is also has skin her skin is not neutral grey, it is not non reflective and it is good that way because if it would be, then she would be a zombie and I would be very afraid. So if I would now start shooting with f/16 like light meter told me I would be very disappointed, we do that, we see the light is very dull, it is too dark, her hair is sinking into black and we see all we should have exposed much higher and contrast to that, if we don’t use the light meter, we just use the camera LCD. What I would do right now is I would take a shoot and see it is too dark, I would dial up the flash again by probably one-f-stop and then have a look, does the light look good in my display? Is it what I want, dial it up until I would say yeah this is the light I want and then I look into the histogram and in the histogram I can’t see, okay it is not burning out, it doesn’t kiss really white areas, so are not too high with my lights. What I don’t see it is, are there are dark areas into her hair which are sinking into black, so in order to find out that, I go closer, I go really close to her and shoot a photo of just her hair and probably a piece of jewelry and then see does the histogram still have areas which are really, really sinking into the blacks and if not, then I don’t have really black skin there on my subject I don’t have highlights which are burning out, so now the 2 information set I have got is on the one hand the exposure is technically correct and on the other hand it is artistically what I want, so that is something which really helps me in contrast to a light meter which tell me yes, it is roughly at f/16 and still I won’t get the results that I want. Alright but anyway no matter if you are using light meter or not, I wish you a lot of fun with your photo shoots. I hope to see you next Thursday in the next video and until then, I would wish you good light.

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