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Have Digital Cameras Made Light Meters Pointless? Ryan E. Walters Explains Why They're Still Important

12.25.12 @ 2:15PM Tags : , , ,

Light meters may seem like relics of a different era, but they are still consistently used by filmmakers working with digital cameras. We’ve shared a fantastic guide about using light meters from Ryan E. Walters before, and now we’ve got a great post on why light meters are still relevant and how they can help you light and expose your shot, and get a far more precise image overall.

This is a guest post by Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters.

With the proliferation of digital cinema cameras these days, I often get asked, “Do you really need to use a light meter? After all, isn’t the whole point of working with digital ‘What You See, Is What You Get?’” While a case can be made for that perspective, I believe that by doing so you miss out on the power, efficiencies, and knowledge that working with a meter adds to your skill set. Here is why I think the light meter is a critical tool to use with digital cinema cameras.

Using A Meter Gives You Power

Precisely control the look of your images: Great lighting doesn’t just happen by accident, or by blasting light everywhere on set and recording it. Great lighting happens through control and precision. If you want your images to stand out from the crowd, I would suggest that you need to be purposeful and intentional with your lighting. That means you need to know how your camera responds to light, and then you need to precisely place those values where you want them in the frame through careful lighting. The only way to know precisely where those values fall is through the use of a meter. A waveform or histogram can give you a good overview of a scene, but it can’t tell you that you need 10 more foot candles of light, or that you need a half stop less of light to get to where you want to be. It only tells you that you need more or less light.

Ability to match shots or scenes shot at separate times or at different locations: If you know what your light levels are for a given scene, then you can come back and shoot pickup shots for that scene weeks or months later and they will intercut perfectly. (Even if you end up using different lighting instruments then what you initially shot with). Furthermore, by knowing the light levels of the initial scene you can make a completely different location match the original location through lighting and creative camera work. I have worked on several projects where I have had to keep a consistent look throughout the project, but the scenes were shot over many months in different locations, and yet the end result looked and felt like it was all shot in the same place, using the same location. (This is especially helpful for interviews for documentaries). If I didn’t have my meter and didn’t know the light levels for each shot the look would have been inconsistent.

Know if a specific look will hold up: Today’s digital cameras offer a lot of flexibility in the looks that they create both in camera, and then later through the final grade. If the time is taken during preproduction to test various looks, you can transfer the information you learn in prep to your meter. Then by taking readings on set you will have an accurate way to know for sure if the details in that black car will hold up after the shot has gone through the final grade. Having the power to know this in advance is a lot more affordable than having to reshoot something, or take the final look in a completely different direction because it didn’t hold up.

Using A Meter Makes You Efficient

Makes you faster on set: It seems like these days there is a continual push to work faster and get more done in a day. So I am always looking for tools that allow me to be more efficient as well as allow me to deliver the quality imagery I desire. My meter does just that. By using a light meter, I can take measurements and know exactly what changes need to happen instead of guessing. It also gives me a clear, precise means of communication. I can tell my Gaffer I need 23 foot candles of light at this location, or I can say I need a double scrim in that light over there. During preproduction, I can also talk with my Gaffer and say: I want my key to be at T4 @ ISO 800 and 24 fps, my fill at T1.4, and my kicker to be at T8. Or I can say I want a key to fill ratio of 8:1. And then she can make informed suggestions on the type of lighting units we should use to get my desired results. This a lot faster than just saying, “I need more or less light here,” and then making several adjustments to get to the correct levels.

Ability to light multiple locations at the same time, or pre-light the day before: Lugging a camera system around with you to light your locations not only adds extra work, but it can also incur additional expense and time that can easily be avoided. By knowing how your camera system responds to light, you can use your light meter to light a secondary set while you are shooting on the first set. Or you can be lighting the set the day before to make the shoot day go smoother and quicker. I have worked on productions where we had to shoot in 4 locations in one day and we did not have the budget to rent 4 different camera systems. We also did not have the time to transfer the camera back and forth to preview the scene, nor was there the budget to add an extra days camera rental for the pre-light day. By knowing how the camera system responds to light, I was able to have each set lit and ready to go before the camera arrived, allowing us to make our day, and keep the budget reasonable.

Post production is easier, quicker, and more affordable: By maintaining consistent light levels within a scene it means that when it comes time to grade the footage less tweaking and shot matching has to be done in-between individual shots. This speeds up the grading session, and it allows for more time to finesse/grade the footage rather than correct/balance it. And, consequently, it also reduces the post production costs. I have also worked on productions where the turnaround was so tight that there wasn’t time to do any grading, or correction. The end deliverable was a straight edit of the footage. Because I had controlled the light levels and maintained a consistent look shot to shot, post production was a breeze and no one ever knew that the footage was not color corrected or graded.

Using A Meter Gives You Knowledge

How a camera responds to light: The one consistent with digital cinema cameras these days is that they all place mid-tone at different values. Depending on the camera system and the recording format, mid-tone can fall anywhere from 38% IRE up to 55% IRE. These are huge differences in placement, and you may or may not like where that placement falls. By using your meter and testing your camera system, you can get an accurate representation of how that camera responds to light. And then, if you use a program like the DTS software, you can map the camera response to the meter. (Examples of different mid-tone values can be seen in the Best Practices section HERE).

Able to scout a location and know what you need in terms of light levels: By carrying your meter with you on a location scout, you can measure the light levels and know exactly what it will take to get your exposure to the levels you need, and what challenges the location presents. Knowing this information beforehand will enable you to be better prepared going into the shoot, and save you a lot of time and headache on set.

Trains your eye to judge light levels: The more you work with a light meter, the more you can train your eye to get a better sense of what different light levels and lighting ratios look like. As you train your eye to see these levels, you will also gain the knowledge of what the lighting requirements are to get there. Over time, as you train your eye you will be able to light faster, and make more informed lighting choices. At some point, you may even become skilled enough to light completely by eye and not even need a meter. You will just walk into a location and know that what you need is a Tweenie bounced into a 4×4 card from camera left about 4 feet away from the talents position. :)

For me, the point of using a meter in the digital age is to take my lighting skills and knowledge to the next level. Lighting off of the monitor, via the histogram or waveform, does not offer me the same power, efficiencies, or knowledge that I get from using a meter. You can light using those other tools, and many people take this approach. But for my style of working, those tools do not offer the same benefits that my meter gives me.

If you want to learn more about how to use a light meter or how to profile a camera, check out my Sekonic Page. I also have a Review of the 478D, as well as information on the Urban Legend of 18% Grey.

What are your thoughts? Do you see the light meter as a helpful tool or as an antiquated piece of kit better suited for film? How do you prefer to light a set and set your exposure?

This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Blog.

Ryan E. Walters is an award-winning Oregon-based cinematographer. His work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. His experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Recently shot on 16mm and practiced with a Sekonic a week before the shoot just taking it around with me with my film stock setting on getting a feel for light levels.

    I now bring a light meter even on digital sets. It really changed the way I perceive light and I am now more comfortable with knowing which light I need (i.e. 150w vs 650w, 750w vs 1.2k, etc.). This really makes things faster on set.

  • Great piece. Hopefully it will be read and followed.

  • You are right on the money, Ryan. It absolutely drives me up a wall when I work with a gaffer or a DP who has no knowledge of how to control their light with the precision that a light meter offers. It’s the most important tool out there when it comes to effectively communicating with your crew.

    I will say that since I started diligently metering my light, I’ve become much more confident in my ability to light by eye, which is great for quick projects, but sometimes I feel as though I rely too much on my eyes and it makes me feel lazy.

    Great post, Ryan. I’d love to see some more cinematography posts from you in the future.

  • And your point re post-production. Infinite post malleability is nice, but the DPs who get hired back are the ones where it’s exactly what was asked for straight out of the can. Ten minutes with a meter on set can save hundreds if hours staring at a screen.

  • I don’t even get why this an an article. What kind of a cameraman out there doesn’t use a meter? Seriously, are people doing this?

    • There are many different styles / preferences for how to work, and with the advent of digital many people do not use a meter nor do they see a need to use one. While that is not my preference (obviously …) I’d be cautious against assuming that everyone works with a meter. We’ve all got to start somewhere, and I’ve noticed that people that are just getting started since video DSLRs have a higher tendency to not use one, nor see a need for one.

    • Gary Simmons on 12.27.12 @ 8:49PM

      I am one of those who started with a DSLR and the only reason I do not use a light meter is my budget hasn’t caught up to it yet but its on the list. I am striving to become a real professional one day and articles like this plus books by pros are the only educational opportunity I have where I live on the Texas coast my images are getting better as is my editing but the learning curve is steep I have not put out anything worth talking about but I hope this summer I will do the first short I am in the planning stages for but if it wasn’t for no film school and a few other sites I wouldn’t even be close.

      • Way to go Gary! Keep at it. :) It is all about forward momentum, and doing whatever you can to further you skill set and craft. :) Meters can be expensive, especially when the budget is tight. I’m sure that as you grow you’ll get to the place where you can add that tool to your tool box. :)

  • _”At some point, you may even become skilled enough to light completely by eye and not even need a meter.” _ If your Gaffer can’t do this, then he isn’t a Gaffer. In Hollywood the Key is set by meter, and the rest is done by eye.

    Teamwork leads to speed and efficency. When the Gaffer places a light, the Key Grip tells his crew what nets , toppers, bottomers, siders, etc are needed. The Director and DP decide on the look, and the DP relays this to the Gaffer and Key Grip.

  • Hi Ryan, thanks for the great post. I’d like to know if you have any techniques to calculate how much light you loose when you bounce it and how do you decide the power of your lights knowing they’re going to be bounced. I know it depends on the bouncing material, distance and the type of the light… The point is that it’s possible to calculate (distance x angle) the amount of lux/footcandles when using direct light, but how can I do that if I’m bouncing it? I’d appreciate if you can give some tips about that.


    • That is a great question. :) I’m sure there is someone out there who is much smarter then I am, who has developed some charts, etc, unfortunately I haven’t done that. For myself, what I have done over the years, is experiemented with different lighting setups using smaller lamps (Like a small arri kit) in my garage, and then taken that information and extrapolated it from there. If I found that a 650w lamp was giving me about half the mount of output that I needed, then I knew that a 1k would probably get me there.

      My own style to working with bounced light, has been to work backwards. I’ll experiment with different bounced light to create the look I’m after, and then I’ll take my readings to see where they fall. (I do this all before showing up on set for the shoot.) I haven’t developed any formal rules from doing it this way, but rather feelings for how things work from experience. You’re question has inspired me to see if I can’t come up with a more forumliac approach. So thanks for that. :) While I haven’t completely answered your question, I hoipe that I have aleast given you an idea of how to approach it. :)

    • +1 on that timur civan post. Plus it tells you why you should buy the cheaper sekonic. :D

    • +2 on the Cimur Tivan post. I had no idea that Sekonic had released the 478D until today, and let’s just say that I’m no longer saving up for a 758cine.

    • Timur is a talented and great guy. :) And that post is helpful for sure. :)

      Back in September I did this writeup about the 478D, and it is my new favorite meter:

      However, as I noted in my review, I still find it lacking in some areas. (Detailed in the post.) The biggest of which is the spot meter. If the spot meter is crucial to your style of working, then the 758Cine will still be your best bet. But if you don’t use the spot meter, then the 478D is the way to go. :)

      • Unfortunately, I actually prefer spot metering, and I love the accuracy of the 1% meter on the 758 Cine. But the price is just so high that it’s really hard to justify the expense. I do feel as though I could make the 5% meter attachment on the 478D work for my limited needs, especially considering that the 478 and the attachment are only about 2/3 the cost of the 758.

        Also, I realized that I spelled Timur’s name wrong. My bad.

        • Yeah, I know what you mean- the price is high for sure. :) Here is a little trick around that, if you need to get a 758Cine due to the spot meter: Check ebay for photography stores in Japan that sell the 758Cine. I was able to pick up one for about $450 Australian dollars. When I bought it, the exchange rate to American dollars was about 20%, so after shipping & handling, I paid $375 American dollars. It took me a while to find a deal like this, but it is possible.

          There is a BIG gotcha if you do this that you need to be aware of- the meter you get from these stores will NOT be compatible with the flash packs for American strobes. For that you have to buy one that is made for the US, which will be the full price. So if you do any flash / strobe (photography) work at all, then this WILL NOT work for you. If, on the other hand, you are like me and you never use flash / strobes then this option will work for you, and save you some cash. :)

      • Awww shucks….. ;)

        Only reason i don’t own the 758 is that i already had a spot meter. So i just went for the incident Unit.

        Awesome write up Ryan. Keep em coming. :)

        • Nice! That makes perfect sense. :)

          Is it cumbersome to have two meters hanging from your belt? I know personally, I’m always trying to find ways to lighten what I carry on my belt, so personally, I would find it annoying to have an extra meter hanging around … However, I’m still looking to find a more comfortable way to wear my meter, as I’m not entirely happy with how it hangs off my belt in the first place … (But the smaller size of the 478D is helping with that …

  • Am I a terrible DP, then, for not knowing exactly the output I’m looking for? This author seems to hammer home to point that you should know “T4 here, T8 there” etc. and I know for sure I’m lacking in being able to call out what stops I want. I know exactly what I want the camera to be set at and then throw enough light to get it there.

    Any suggestions on how to build up to this?

    • Thomas, if you’re creating strong images that tell stories through lighting, composition, camera movement etc, then you are a good DP. But what Ryan was getting at in this post is that, even though light meters aren’t a necessity for digital like they were with film, they can still be an incredibly helpful tool in the digital age for all of the reasons mentioned above. For me, the biggest reason to meter light on set is to be able to communicate effectively with my lighting crew. I can tell my gaffer to cut the backlight by a stop and a half, and he can go do it in 30 seconds, as opposed to me looking through a monitor and having the gaffer putting in scrims or backing up the light until it looks right. Essentially, it’s just a far more precise and efficient way to work.

      As for how to learn, I’d say that you should first read and watch everything that you can about metering light. The link John Jeffreys posted above and Ryan’s tutorial video about metering light are great places to start. Just try to figure out how it all works on a theoretical basis.Then, if you’re able to, get your hands on some kind of meter. It doesn’t have to be a 758 Cine or anything like that, just something that you can play with to put the concepts that you learned into action.

      Lastly, try your hardest to rent one next time you DP a project. Force yourself to use it for all of your lighting needs, and make sure you communicate with your crew using the common terminology from the meter (whether that’s with t-stops or footcandles). All of that should get you thinking about light in a much more conceptual, yet practical way, and it should make a world of difference in how precisely and efficiently you’ll be able to light. And like everything, it definitely takes a ton of practice to really get good at it.

      Hope that gets you on the right track.

      • You don’t need a meter to tell your Gaffer to drop the back-light by a stop-and-a-half 8-) I can see a stop-and-a-half by eye. And if you were working with a good Gaffer and Key Grip, the back-light would never be that hot 8-)

        BTW, most lighting pros can see one-quarter-stop, that’s why the grips have blues (lavanders).

        Motion photography is a team endevor, if you have a good team you don’t need to micro manage. A case in point. A good 1st AC will check for light reflections in windows, and pass the information along.

        • That is awesome that you can see and know all of that by eye. :) Seeing a stop and a half by eye is easy to do for sure. :) However, for myself, it wasn’t until I got a meter, that I was able to put words to what I was seeing- it gave me the vocabulary, and helped me to know what I was looking at. :)

        • Yeah, that was a pretty crappy example of why a meter is important haha. Maybe a better one would be bringing up the ambience of a large space by 2/3 of a stop. I think that would be insanely difficult to do without metering.

      • Robert,

        Exactly. Thanks for the reply- well said. :)

        Another suggestion I have, is to go to a local photography store and look into getting a used meter. My first meter was a $30 analogue incident meter.

    • As a retired professional, I think he spends to much time talking about things that no-one cares about in the real world. The things he says are true, but on a Hollywood set, no-one-cares about metered stops … just what looks good. In over twenty years of working for the studios I never saw anyone metering back-lights, lamp-shades, etc on a live film set. About the only time you’ll see a meter used is to rough-in the lighting on a three camera show. Then you fine tune by eye once you have actors doing their walk-throughs.

      The best way to learn is to apprentice with some-one who can light by eye. Or pracrice, practice practice on your own. Set-up a scene and light it to get the look you want, then walk around the set and meter everything (and write-it-down in your note-book). As you and your crew get more practice, the easier it gets.

      Lamp shade too hot, just spray the camera side of the light bulb with Black “Streaks & Tips” — get it at your local drug store.

      Lighting isn’r Brain Surgery, just simple physics.

      • BTW a meter is ALWAYS used to set the key-light.

      • You are obviously correct that it is all about what looks good in the end, and the technicalities do not matter as much. And being able to apprentice under someone who can light by eye would be a HUGE benefit. However, I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of people reading here do not work in Hollywood, nor will they have those kinds of opportunities. So then the practical question comes up, how do you learn, experiment, and grow? If you can do that without a meter, great, no shame in that. :) For myself, I want to know what I’m working with so that I can repeat it again the next time I need to create that lighting effect. :)

      • Daniel Mimura on 12.27.12 @ 9:15PM

        On my first big movie and only big budget movie, I found the opposite to be true. Everyone had a light meter. Gaffer and best boy electric metered backgrounds all the time while the DP was metering the stand ins.

        This was film where you had more latitude and they were working harder to get it right.

        • Awesome! That is nice for sure. :)

          These days with digital I am finding it to be a very mixed bag- and it has a lot to do with the budget level of the project. Of course my first preference is to have the budget to work with my crew of choice. And for these projects my Gaffer is top notch and uses a meter. On the lower budget projects I work on, that isn’t always the case, and for the really small projects, it may just be myself and a grip or an assistant- and there I’ll use my meter myself to ensure that I can tell my assistant what tool I need to get the job done. Which really helps speed up the process on a small production. :)

          • I think the DP should definitely have a meter if no one else does.

            I recently bought a Sekonic L-308S (incident + 40º reflected) for use with my Blackmagic Pocket camera and it’s been invaluable in producing consistent exposure and for working out the strength of areas of the scene and I don’t even do that much shooting.

            It gives me exposure information independent of the type of camera I’m using. You can be certain that if you meter something and set two different cameras to the same setting, the only thing you’re left worrying about is your dynamic range and image profile.

            A light meter to me increases efficiency of the lighting crew/DP. Relying on a monitor is never ideal.

    • Nope, that doesn’t mean you are a terrible DP. Honestly, we work in a results oriented business, and as long as you can deliver the results your clients need consistently and reliably, then at the end of the day that is what matters. Even if that means you do not use a meter at all. :)

      It is not so much about being able to call out stops and it is more about being able to communicate effectively with the people you are working with. And I have found the light meter to be the tool that has allowed me to do just that. :)

  • Quick question, if you’re just shooting interviews and some B-roll is it ok to use the in camera meter. I have the t4i and the in camera meter has been helpful on my sit down interview shoots… Great article though, any iphone light meter apps out there that you like or care to review? thanks!

    • There is nothing wrong with in camera meters. They are SUPER helpful. After all, they are telling you exactly what the camera is seeing. :) If it is getting the job done, and allowing you to deliver the results your clients want, keep at it. :) If, however, you need to accomplish any of the things that I talked about above, or you want to grow in a new / different way, then I’d encourage you to look into getting a light meter.

      There is an iPhone app (Light Meter) that is VERY affordable. I’ve been playing with it off and on for a while now, comparing it to my 478D & 758Cine, and it hasn’t been as consistent as I personally like. However, I know of a BSC cinematographer who uses it to set his key light. He will use it to take a reading off of skin tones in his key light, and when he does that, he has gotten good results. So if you use it in that manner, then it could work for you. :)

      • +1. I used this Light Meter app for a recent commercial shoot. For 99cents, it worked GREAT on set. Even more valuable, during location scouting the app allowed me to email screenshots with light reads to my crew in advance. I’m a fan.

  • My light meter is a mainstay on my hip at all times if I DP. I shot a decent amount of film in school, so I’m used to that workflow, but even in digital I consider my sekonic the most important piece of kit I carry. Whenever I light by a monitor the image feels flat and uninteresting. If I light with a meter and ignore the monitor until rehearsals, I find the image to have greater depth and be more interesting.

    • Nice. :) Some times that monitor can make us be more conservative, and take less risks by playing it more safe and create less interesting images for sure …

  • Is the meter you recommend in this article worth the extra $ over a Sekonic L-398A? That is one I’m familiar with from a short run at film school. This article along with another about exposing within 4 stops to maximize grade-ability out of DSLR footage has me wanting to be more intentional about my lighting. I don’t want to overspend on tools, however I do want something I don’t have to buy again.

    • Personally, I think the 478D or the 758Cine are worth the extra money over the 398A- but it is all about ease of use / convience & flexibility for me. The 398A is a solid meter and you can do many of the things with this meter that you can do with the 478D & 758Cine, however, you are going to do a lot more math in your head. For example, if you want to know what the contrast ratio of a scene is, with the 478D & 758Cine, it is just a matter or pressing a button and taking measurements. With the 398A, you have to take two readings, and then do the math yourself to figure out the contrast ratio. Another benifit of the two more expensive meters, is that you have a lot more options for shutter speed, and frame rate. The 398A is limited to 128 fps. And then there is the ability to store profiles, multiple exposure readings, as well as incorporate filter compensations that cannot be done in the 398A. So for these reasons, I think they are worth it- especially for someone just starting out.

      It sounds like you are familiar enough with the 389A and doing math in your head that the extra expense may not be worth it- at that point it is about ease of use. If you were looking for a good incident meter that will last you a long time, then I would go with the 478D. If spot metering is very important to you, then the 758Cine is going to be a better meter for you, as the 1 degree meter in the 758Cine is A LOT more precise then the 5 degree in the 478D.

  • Daniel Mimura on 12.27.12 @ 9:24PM

    I wish more non-film era filmmakers used light meters…

    …it sucks to be doing steadicam and you’re doing an extra rehearsal just for lighting because it takes too long to get the camera in and out of the rig. I’d take my own meter with me so they could use it…

    …but most younger DP’s don’t know how. (I have an old Gossen Luna Pro with a spot attachment and it’s like using a medium format camera where you look downwards and it’s all backwards and people can’t figure it out.) Been saving up for a 758c.

  • I just purchased a 478D plus the spot viewfinder attachment. i’m very curious. thanks for pointing this one out, Ryan.

  • Clayton Arnall on 01.2.13 @ 3:22PM

    Thanks for the post… I love any type of lighting info I can get. I’ve never used a 5 degree spot meter. Is it just a matter of taking a few steps forward to get a similar reading as the 1 degree? From 15′ back, how big is the area you’d be metering?

  • Ryan Farner on 01.4.13 @ 12:09AM

    Great article, I’ve been wanting to pick up a meter for a long time now. I think this article has just made it a priority for me. Any meters you would recommend on a budget? Or is it worth it to just stick with the 2 you’ve been mentioning. Thanks alot!

  • hi Ryan,

    Thanks for your post.
    On every shoot I start to take a reading with my meter but lots of times I put it back. It’s confusing me when I look at scope’s, monitor’s in diferent LUT’s and LOG and ISO values. Do you have any tips on how to test each different camera to find out how to expose.

    Canon C300 for example puts middle grey on 30% at the scope, what ISO do you chose than on your meter? With Sony F3 and Alexa my readings are closer to what I expect from the camera. But I’m still not confident with it.

    I still use a Minolta meter but consider to buy a Sekonic so I can use the different camera profiles. Will that help finding out how which ISO to chose?

    Thanks again for your help

  • Barri Hitchin on 04.8.13 @ 11:58AM

    Absolutely !