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Why I do not use flash meter.. Do you?

Well, I did not have flash meter back 10 years ago, while was shooting on film.  But I was not a professional photographer that time, and camera exposure meter plus  my prediction  along with experience was working well for me.

When I start asking money for my photography, I start feeling  that I really need to have a flash meter! Every pro has it, so how could I be a pro without it?

Bought Sekonic L-358. Not the most expensive and advanced, but I felt like it was just right for me: It measures flash and ambient light, separately and combined, small and not expansive.

sekonic L-358 flash meter
Sekonic L-358 Flash Master Light Meter

After I’ve got it in hands and played   in studio and out, I found that I do not  need it at all.. It was completely useless  in a studio, as I always connect camera to a computer, and after first test shot I can clearly see where I need more or less light. And, looking on the image directly I do have much more info where and how much I need to change lights comparing to dry numbers  flash meter tells me. I know, to get correct exposure you have to measure lights from every direction, calculating the final exposure settings. But for me it sounds the same   as if I would use  calculator to count my taxes. I prefer to use turbotax or  similar software instead :-)
Also, how about this: What the use of exposure   for a given light intensity flash meter provides you  if it does not take into consideration surface which will be reflecting the light? A bright one could be overexposed, dark may be underexposed, both with the same light output from the light source.

The only use for a flash meter I can see is to get first test shot to look close to the final result.  But do you really need to spend all this time measuring  light all around, instead of just shoot and see the result on a monitor or camera LCD? I do not know how fast others work , but usually, on assignment, I do not have such time. Have your assistant to play as a model for  and  get lights ready in a few minutes. Fast and simple:-)

And to illustrate my thoughts and feelings, below is the photo I did 8 years ago, on a film (that was Fujifilm Velvia 50, if  not mistaken). This is a composite image, 2 exposures on the same frame, no photoshop at all, the image was only re-sized  after a scanner.
I have used colored  light brush  (light painting technique), orange color for the orange and   blue ( I was using LED flashlight with interchangeable filters) on the knife.. You can even see bluish reflection on the orange, where I’ve must accidentally hit it with blue light beam.
The total exposure was about 1 minute, 30 second for each object.The shoot  was done without any metering devices, except camera meter (EOS Elan 7E). And remember, that was a film, I had the first results next day after film was processed at the lab. Now, what meter do you need while shooting digitally?

orange with knife lightbrush technique example
orange with knife lightbrush technique example

Obviously,  I do not know everything about photography, nor I had experience in every possible type and task exists  for a photographer. Would be glad to hear your opinion, especially how and where you  do use a flash meter, and what disadvantages is not to have it.

19 responses on "Why I do not use flash meter.. Do you?"

  1. I personally think everyone should own one, even a simple vintage analogue meter.
    They make a great learning tool, learning to understand the lighting range with in a picture.

  2. I think that a light meter is a tool for those that envision the shot exactly as they want to see it before they pick up the camera. Knowing what light ratios the shooter wants, where the light is supposed to fall, and what the final product is to appear as. For those that shoot on the fly, a light meter would not be the most useful tool in their arsenal. A light meter is essential if you want to rapidly setup a very specific shot. The setup does not require a light meter, but helps to make repeatable shots. That being said, a light meter can make things much more difficult if one does not know how to use it and understand light. I am by no means at this level yet, but someday hope to have this complete understanding.

  3. Did a lot of arena photography for several years. Multiple strobes in covered or indoor arenas. Horse shows, rodeos, ropings, barrel racing, gymkhanas etc. Every weekend was a different arena.

    When setting up and balancing strobes the flash meter (Sekonic, same as yours) was invaluable. Once the action starts, you are shooting for 8 to 12 hours, non-stop. Can’t afford to walk across an arena to change the lighting.

    It seems to me that if you are in a studio, and wired into a PC, you don’t really need one. As everything you need is right next to you.

    Hope your business is going well.

    Ivan

  4. I am rather new to studio photography with strobes. So far I managed with “the carboard flashmeter”, ie using the 18% grey card in place of the subject, with a long lens to meter only my carboard, and try till the histogram is centered. No bad, not perfect either (I can made slight ajustements aterward since I shoot raw). But with people posing, and the want to try different settings, it is not really practical. I manage more or less, on the whole. But was has driven me crazy was trying to use a ttl flash (i-ttl indeed) with my camera. Yes it does balance ambient and flash to a “correct” exposure but that was never my own taste, and I was not able to predict the behaviour of this too clever system. I ended going manual like some neanderthal cavewoman…So now I am looking for a flashmeter, first to manage the ambiant/flash ratio on the fly, then to be more efficient in the studio.

  5. I’m glad that I came here, the discussions here are very informative. I don’t own a light meter at all, I have an Expodisc ( If you haven’t seen them, they’re a form of light metering used on the front of your lens. You use it to get a reading and go from there ). So I guess in a way I kinda have a light meter, but not like the ones you’re talking about here. I only use it when shooting in JPG or TIFF formats. I have been considering getting one however, this discussion has shed some extra light on it, no pun in intended here. My best friend is a professional wedding / portrait photographer and never leaves home without his trusty meter. So I’ll have to think about this.

    As far as the Mac discussion goes. I have never once owned a Mac for personal use, I build my own. As you pointed out, they are very overpriced and are nothing more than a PC with the Mac OS on it, which is a Unix based OS. Since you’re pretty locked into the Mac UI, there is very little to do with working with the Unix side of it at all really. But I still don’t like the UI. My computers that I build, at the time I put them together are top of the line from the inside and out. I do not skimp on quality as if something does go wrong, I want to know that the parts manufactures have me covered with their warranties. I started building them in 1998, I have no reason to buy anything prebuilt from anyone especially a Mac.

    I do my own color calibration on my monitor, I don’t worry to much about my printer as I do not offer in-house printing on my end. I send the images out for printing. So I make sure I get color profiles for the hardware of the company I’m sending the files to. I’m like you, I have a great many years experience with Windows, but I’ve also used everything from Linux, Unix, BeOS, OS8 and X and as well the Amiga OS ( Forgot what they called it ). I’ve been a graphic designer for over 20 years as well and never once used a Mac for that either. It’s all about the user in my opinion, if you know what you’re doing you can do anything!

  6. I own a flash meter but I’m not really a professional photographer and only takes photo on occasions or when attending friends’ weddings. I just use the flash meter for objects or decorations where I want to adjust the lighting. :)

  7. Hi! I think there’s one sole reason why you should use a flashmeter and that is because your camera’s own built-in lightmeter cannot be used to meter studio flash exposures. Reality check, you really need a separate flashmeter in order for you to measure the exposure.

  8. Right on! I did the same exact thing. After being self-taught for so many years and knowing how to make the appropriate adjustments after viewing the image on my computer screen, I found my light meter useless. That is what I love about digital and being a Canon 1Ds Mrk 2 owner, I feel empowered to keep doing things MY way. The bottle line is how the shot comes out right? Like your trash can idea. Brilliant! I prefer life outside the box- especially when I’m shooting food photography. Great post mate:)

    • Alan,
      Thank you. Love your work: you’ve got an amazing portfolio (both of them :-)
      Regarding light meter: a year after my original article I still can say this: it is useless for the food, products, etc: anything small enough. However, it might be quite handy in people photography, especially if you do not have much time and assistant to test the lighting setup. With the meter initial setup can be done faster.

  9. Great discussion. I am relatively new to studio lighting. This has gone a long way in furthering my education. I use the Sekonic 358 often to meter natural ambient light, but looking to use it in-studio. This has given me alot of possibilities to think over.

    Carl

    • Carl,
      Now, about a year after this article I think that flash-meter can help a lot when you shoot people, especially outside with combined lighting: it helps to set the lighting before the model came into stage. I can’t imagine playing with the ratios when celebrity sitting in front of you: meaning you should have it all ready, and flashmeter will help you a lot.
      I do not shot people, and have no problem doing few test shots with product sitting in front of me in a studio:-) Also, I can’t imagine flashmeter use for a small product photography: there are too many light sources pointed at such small place that you can’t use your flash-meter there. You really do not need it if you shoot tethered as well.

  10. Well thanks for this blog it is very interesting and relevant to me. I am interested in photography but need to take clothing pictures for my website and have decided to invest on a home studio lighting kit. I am unsure as to whether I will need a flash meter as I will use friends and family for the shots… May be I can start without it and see how I get on! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Alexis. I wish you the best luck for the business:-)
      I think it will be easy to understand the light without a flash meter.. you may need it later, when will be needed to do repeatable setups..
      I still do not use it, probably never will.
      Alex

  11. I suppose it all depends on what you shoot. Obviously a “dead” object doesn’t mind spending more time while you adjust your lighting, but when you have an (expensive) model for a fashion shoot or a time pressured executive you set up your basic lighting before that person arrives or while the model changes clothes or has her or his hair/make up adjusted and you want it to be as close as possible to perfect.
    I cannot imagine working without a meter

  12. I know what you mean about shooting tethered, I wanted to do this and bought a laptop to do this but sadly my model is too old to be recognized by windows 7 and canon isn’t updating the drivers for it. So I have to take the photo connect the camera in a different mode, download, check the photo and redo again.

  13. Great point and counterpoint.

    I have a meter. I like it enough to pack with me on every “job”(wedding) and I use it frequently when on my personal projects.

    I agree that anyone can work without a meter, but when shooting families (kids are the worst) I like to set my lights, get my aperture, get my ambient and shoot.

    Perhaps one could look at a flash meter like a tripod. Some photographers use it when it’s not needed (think soccer moms with their point and shoots), some never use it, and others have one just in case they need it, and others use it for all of their work.

    And what is wrong with Macs? I just replaced my PC with a Mac after the hard drive failed on me twice in one year. It wasn’t the eureeka moment everyone chalks it up to being, but I do like the operating system for it’s face value.

    • Mark,
      I agree with you, with or without flash meter you need to feel comfortable and get job done well. I mostly shoot in a studio, so it was easier for me not to use it.
      And regarding mac.. This is personal, but I do not really know Linux (latest Mac OS based on unix) that well, so it is hard for me to dig in it when I need tune up my system like I do on windows. Was on Windows for such a long time, and I am really experienced user I will say.
      But the most I dislike about Mac is it’s price. You pay 30-50% more for what? For the logo? Now It has exactly the same hardware as any PC, but it cost a more.. Why? Apple laptops, for example… The flagman cost around $3K. I can get more professional (for photography) laptop, like Lenovo W700 series, for example. Better LCD matrix, faster CPU, built-in dual display (!), and cost around $2 K max.
      I agree to pay for the performance, but not for the logo or nice look. This is a business, not a personal toy:-)

  14. The light meter topic always becomes controversial. Because in the end it depends on the taste of the photographer, and the necessities he/she needs to fulfill.
    I started without working with a meter I chimped (looked at the camera’s LCD) and I still do. But if you want to get the right light ratios time and time again you need a meter. Also your line “if it does not take into consideration surface which will be reflecting the light? A bright one could be overexposed, dark may be underexposed, both with the same light output from the light source.” Is not completely accurate. The light meter will give you a correctly exposed shot if you’re photographing dark chocolate on a black background or white chocolate on a white one without over or under exposing. You do have to take into account the placement of the meter. Because you can have different readings depending on where you place it. The meter isn’t the “know it all” of tools, its just a meter, like the one on your camera its not “smart” so it’s dependent on the user, if there is user error the meter will not compensate for that.

    Now talking about light ratios. For example let’s say you have to take 3 photos of a line of products but 2 of them you have to take them in the client’s place and only one of them is delivered to your studio. Let’s also say you’re doing a 3 light setup that has to be the same on all the products (key light, accent, and fill). You start in your studio and you do everything by eye. Then you go to your clients place and do the same, you either have to do it by the results you see when shooting tethered, or you record the different distances and use that to see if it looks the same. With a light meter you take a reading of each of the lights of the original setup and then on the clients place you only put the lights on the same position take a reading of each and then adjust the power settings so it has the same readings as your original one had, no need to chimp all that much nor do you need to position your lights to a certain distance.

    There are also times that one chimps too much if you don’t have a meter, I’ve done it myself when I didn’t have a meter, I positioned my key light took a picture and then adjusted the settings until I saw that it was exposed to my liking, then I turned my second light and did the same until I had what I wanted. Now all I have to do is turn the light on take a reading of the key light and if I’m not looking for a particular Fstop I get then and there the fstop to correctly expose my subject. Then using the Sekonic 358 evaluative mode I can then take a reading of the other lights and adjust the light ratio to what I want, it won’t matter if I’m in the studio or If I’m on location.

    As I said for me I do see the use of a light meter when I want to replicate light ratios, also I don’t usually shoot tethered so I can’t see the RAW histogram each time I take a photo. Since the histogram you see on the camera’s LCD isn’t from a RAW but from a JPEG tumbnail I can’t rely too much on that, so I rely on my meter. And I have found out that you need to experiment with it as well to get the results you want.

    • Javier,
      Thank you, you’ve made really good points. I would agree, that flash meter will help to replicate the result for each photo session. However, I found that I adjust lights during the same product line shoot, because of darker and brighter products (like pens I did recently) requires light power to be changed to look good every time. I still relay on the end look of the product. Not sure if flash meter will help me in such situation.
      And again, I always have each image reviewed on a laptop screen, never relay on a camera preview screen. I always (well, 99% of time) shoot products remotely with camera connected to a PC. (yes, I do not like Mac, and would never use it. There are more professional and photographer oriented laptops and monitor on the market, most of them cost less then Mac:-)

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