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An In-Depth Tutorial for Using a Light Meter to Find Your Camera's Exposure Latitude

10.27.11 @ 11:06AM Tags : , , , ,

This is a guest post by cinematographer Angelo Lorenzo.

Maybe you’re an army-of-one indie director. Maybe you’re a cinematographer who has decided to step up your game or reinforce your fundamentals. Whatever the case may be, the cornerstone of video capture is the control of the light that hits your lens and knowing the limitations of your recording system: the camera.

Your eyes don’t see light the way a camera does. You need a measuring tool — a light meter — to analyze a scene objectively. If you’ve never used a light meter or you’ve slid back into the comfort of judging an image through the video monitor, Able Cine has produced a video on basic light meter usage that you can take a peek at.


The other half of the battle, after you know how to measure light, is knowing the camera’s limitations in recording that light. Exposure latitude is the range of light that a camera records and reproduces on the screen, from pure black to pure white. It can guide a number of practical and creative decisions for a production: from shaping the rental list of grip and lighting equipment to setting realistic expectations on color grading and final output.

Don’t know your camera’s limitations? Experimenting with a new in-camera gamma curve or picture style? Renting a camera you haven’t used before? You’ll want to run this test to see where you stand with exposure latitude.

What you’ll need to test exposure latitude:

  1. A lens capable of f/2.8 to f/22. This is purely for convenience as you can test 6 full stops of latitude at a time.
  2. A spot meter.
  3. An 18% gray card.
  4. Adequate lighting of any kind; A 650w fixture should do the trick if you have it hooked up to a Variac or have some scrims handy.
  5. An editing program that has an IRE scope or a field monitor that has an IRE scope built-in. Adobe Premiere Pro is used in these screenshots.

Step 1:

Set your camera to its base sensitivity and your preferred shutter speed. This usually means a setting of 100 ISO or 0 db for sensitivity, and 1/50th of a second or 180 degrees for the shutter speed. Make sure to set your spot meter to aperture priority and dial in matching ISO and shutter settings. If your camera uses db for sensitivity and you don’t know the base ISO rating, this article will cover a way to reverse engineer that information with a meter reading further down.

Step 2:

Set your gray card on a stand and position your lighting so that it evenly lights the gray card. For the next step, your spot meter should read as close to f/22 as possible.

Step 3:

Set your camera to f/22. If you have a field monitor with a built-in IRE scope, you should notice that your gray card creates a line on the scope at 50 IRE. Begin to open your lens up until your gray card creates a line at 100 IRE. The number of stops between f/22 and the f-stop that reads 100 IRE is your upper latitude limit – the amount of detail you can capture before the highlights blow. Note down the number of stops before you continue.

Adjust or dim the light until your spot meter reading on the gray card reaches f/2.8. Set your lens to f/2.8 and repeat the process by closing your lens until the IRE scope reads 0 IRE. The number of stops between f/2.8 and the f-stop that reads 0 IRE is your lower latitude limit – the amount of detail you can capture before detail is crushed to black.

If you’re not lucky enough to have a field monitor with the built-in IRE scope, or to be doing these tests at a rental house that has one available, the next best solution is to use the IRE scope in your NLE (seen above). Set up the latitude test as described above but record it, pausing for a second or two after each 1/3 stop lens adjustment. This will allow you to count how many stops you’ve opened or closed when you watch playback. You should record one video opening your lens and a second video closing your lens.

In Adobe Premiere Pro1 for example, place your footage into a timeline. As you play back your footage place a marker on the timeline every time the lens is adjusted 1/3 stop. Open your reference monitor and set video output from “Composite Video” to “YC Waveform”. As you shuttle between each marker, the line on the IRE scope will also rise or fall accordingly. As the line reaches 100 IRE and 0 IRE, you can count the number of markers to figure out your upper and lower latitude limits; this is why you should record two separate videos for your upper and lower limit testing.

That’s it, you’re done! Testing my Canon 5D Mark II with Technicolor’s Cinestyle, for example, gave me the results of 3 1/3 stops of upper latitude and 5 1/3 stops lower latitude. This test also revealed a particular quirk of Technicolor’s Cinestyle: it crushes black detail at around 8 IRE rather than 0 IRE.

Going back to cameras that use db for sensitivity, finding their base ISO with the above setup is fairly easy. Set your camera to 0 db, whatever shutter speed you prefer and a modest aperture of f/4. Adjust your lighting until you create a line at 50 IRE on your IRE scope. Take your spot meter, set you shutter speed to match and take a reading from your gray card. Adjust the ISO on the spot meter until it reaches the equivalent aperture of f/4 – this ISO setting is your native ISO. Testing a Panasonic HPX500 gave me the correct base ISO of 640.

Knowing your camera’s exposure latitude and, to a further extent, trusting your light meter along with it will result in more finessed exposure settings that are more consistent setup-to-setup.


Angelo Lorenzo is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and camera operator that has worked on a number of commercial, music video, and film sets. When he’s not on set, he’s readying the launch of Films For Us, a platform that allows filmmakers to sell their films and shorts while blogging and connecting with their audience.

  1. Ed. Note: as of this post, you have six days left to get 50% off Premiere Pro if you’re an Avid or Apple editor. []

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  • “This test also revealed a particular quirk of Technicolor’s Cinestyle: it crushes black detail at around 8 IRE rather than 0 IRE.” …because 7.5 IRE has always been televisions traditional pedestal?

    • Analog television

    • The conventional wisdom on this is that h.264 does its nastiest compression on black below that value, leading to artifacts and severe loss of detail. Thus, CineStyle does not allow values below this, to retain detail in the blacks.

    • Joe,

      The 7.5 IRE standard is an interesting one. It is the standard for black in analog NTSC for North America. Digital cable and ATSC (digital broadcast, which fully replaced analog NTSC) use 0 IRE.

      The only real reason to be cognizant of setup is when you’re converting analog tapes to digital. SD camcorders mostly all record at 0 IRE and a lot of DVD material is mastered at 0 IRE (The North American DVD player will use setup voltage to boost it to 7.5 IRE, this is why some DVD players have “enhanced blacks”, it turns setup voltage off for HDTVs)

      Occasionally I’ll be asked to turn in footage at 7.5 IRE, but chances are it’s because a particular tv station or set of stations use some analog equipment in the broadcasting centers.

      As to why Cinestyle stops near that level is anyone’s guess as I don’t think their is an official answer but I would side with Luke’s wisdom: its probably tuned to how the 5D compresses h.264 and prevents artifacts. I haven’t done A-B testing on it.

  • thanks for this great post koo. What no film school is all about– learning!

  • Great post, very useful!

  • Damit, too dam complicated, I can’t even read through this jargon.

    • What part confuses you the most Max? The IRE scope is pretty analogous to a histogram if you’re use to shooting photos, it just reads slightly different. While a histogram is a graph that shows the amount of dark pixels to light pixels, an IRE scope reads like the following: left-to-right is left of frame to right of frame and bottom-to-top is from dark pixels to light pixels.

  • Very helpful, thanks!

  • I had no idea I didn’t know how to do this. Keep posting these more advanced articles, dood! Your readers knowledge base is growing with you, and it’s good you’re catering to that.
    Thanks Koo!

  • Does this also apply when shooting outside with only available light?

    • Renier, I would say so. At the very least, it gives you an idea of where to balance your exposure — do you expose for the shadows and blow out the lit background, or do you expose for the background and use inexpensive equipment like bounce boards and flags to shape your light?

      The other thing it does is help you plan for color decisions in post. If you know you need to overexpose a little for a certain look in post, you know you need to bias your talent in more shaded areas or have some flags or black cards to block direct sun.

  • Okay, sorry for my ignorance, but I’m trying to understand. You gave the example of the Canon 5D as “gave me the results of 3 1/3 stops of upper latitude and 5 1/3 stops lower latitude”, So how do I use this? 3 1/3 stops from what f-stop to begin with? So do I take a grey card reading for my main subject and then make sure nothing in my frame is 3 1/3 stops above that or 5 1/3 stops below the main subjects aperture setting? Again sorry for my lack of knowledge.

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