How To Use A Light Meter For Photography

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how to use a light meter

Photography is a wonderful form of art that anyone can get started with.

I have always found myself encouraging people to just pick up their cameras and start taking photos because the results have always been fantastic, and the more you take pictures, the more you learn.

No one is born a great photographer, as it is always something that you have to love.

However, when you finally become a part of the world of photography, you are going to find yourself surrounded by a lot of equipment aside from just a camera, and a light meter is one of them. When I first looked at one, I asked myself how to use a light meter.

A seemingly small and unassuming device looked a lot difficult to understand and operate, but to be honest, it was not that difficult once I got a hold of it, and that is how this article was conceived.

What Is A Light Meter?

I think it is safe to say that you are well aware of what the name “light meter” is suggesting here. It is a device that is used to measure the intensity of the light during photography. This helps the photographer in making sure how the light should be and whether there needs to be more light or lesser light in the scene.

image of a Light meter

In the past, light meters used to be small, handheld devices that photographer would use to measure the light, but almost all the modern cameras that you see these days have light meters built into them and can detect the intensity of light.

Additionally, the cameras have different ways to measure the light called the metering modes, and I have talked about them before.

So, why do you need a light meter to begin with?

Well, the thing is that, unlike smartphone cameras, most professional cameras don’t have a lot of software processing in the background.

This means that the shot that you visualize and take is going to be the final shot, and in many cases, the shots can be over or underexposed.

A light meter helps the photographer determine the right exposure and make quick, on-the-fly adjustments to the exposure and other settings to either underexpose or overexpose the photo and make it look the way the photographer had intended in the first place.

These light meters can be used in almost all photography applications and are easy to read thanks to monochrome displays with large fonts.

Incident Vs. Reflected Light Meters

Now, when we are discussing light meters, it is important to understand that we have two types of common options that are available in the market.

You get to choose from an incident light meter, and then there is another option called reflected light meters. Although they have the same goal, they both work differently.

image of a person holding light meter

Starting with the incident light meters, these meters are used to measure the light falling on the subject and will remain the same no matter the situation until you change the intensity of the light.

On the other hand, a reflective light meter, as the name suggests, will measure the intensity of light from 1,000-watt light after it has been reflected off the subject. The light can be of lower intensity, too.

This means that if a subject is holding a mirror or wearing something highly reflective, the intensity of light being measured would be a lot greater than if the subject is wearing something that absorbs more light.

This is the main difference between both of these light meters and how they work.

How To Use A Light Meter For Photography: How It Works

Now, when you are talking about using the light meter, I will be honest, the process is not that difficult to begin with.

However, a lot of the time, people get confused as to how to effectively use a light meter to get the perfect result, and once they can do that, they can go ahead and take the photos that they want.

image of a person using the light meter

Using the light meter the right way is not going to be that difficult. Still, I have a few steps for you that you can use to make use you do not have any issues in measuring the light.

  • Start by setting the ISO on the light meter you have and match it with the ISO that you have set on your camera. This means that you will have to manually use an ISO value rather than going for an automated value that most people go for.
  • Once you have set the same ISO on both your camera and your light meter, the next step is to take a reading. For that, you have to hold the meter in front of the subject and point towards the light that is measuring them, which means not towards the camera.

    Simply press the metering button to read the light measurement. If there are multiple light sources, you can measure them individually by pointing the meter towards them one by one.
  • Now that you are done, just set the metered reading on your camera’s exposure setting. However, if you want to take a meter reading for specific apertures, you will have to enter the desired aperture on the light meter, and it will calculate the required shutter speed.

To make all of this happen, your camera should be in manual mode, as you cannot make these adjustments otherwise. With that said, the reason why I still believe in using light meters separately is that these meters are going to give you a more accurate reading as opposed to what you are going to get directly from the camera.

Portrait Vs. Landscape: Which Light Meter Is Good?

Now, one of the questions that people ask us all the time is what light meter or type of metering should be used for portraits or landscapes. This is a tricky question for many because it all has to do with the light, and in most situations, you cannot control the lighting.

image of a camera standing beside lake

For portraits, my testing and experience have made us believe that the incident light metering is best because it works best, and there are not a lot of elements in the picture, either. This means you can easily take the shot without having to make a lot of changes.

However, when you are moving over to landscapes, you can experiment between both, but the reflective light metering works best in most of the cases when you are talking about landscape photography since it measures light differently.

Still, I urge all photographers to measure the light their way and see which one works best because, at the end of the day, the shot has to look good to you. After all, if that is not happening, then you will not be satisfied with the picture.

How Do Handheld Light Meters Differ From The Camera Meter?

For a lot of people, the question comes down to “why we should use a handheld light metering tool when we already have light meters in our camera?” and honestly, I used to think the same until I had the chance to use a dedicated light meter, and I finally realized the difference.

image of a handheld light meter

The handheld light meters are essentially better for incident light metering. This light metering measures the amount of light that is falling onto a subject rather than the light that is reflecting off a subject. Handheld light meters work great for taking portraits and close up shots.

In addition to that, it is almost impossible to trick a handheld light meter into displaying a wrong rating, whereas the same cannot be said with the built-in light meters. This makes these light meters are a lot better when you are determining exposure rates along with other values.

Just as an external flash is better than an internal flash of a camera, the same goes for light meters, and that is why I urge all aspiring and professional photographers to learn how to use a light meter because their pictures are going to see a huge difference.

How Does The Camera Light Meter Works

By now we are all aware of the fact that cameras do come with their light meters built into them. Most of the cameras that you are going to see in the market use a process called TTL metering, and it means “through the lens metering,” which means that your camera sensor is going to examine the light coming through the lens and then evaluate the brightness of the scene.

Image of Mike Browne showing built in light meter
@Mike Browne Youtube.

Then the user will adjust the settings to make sure that the photo is exposed the way they want to expose it. The reason why sometimes this ends up becoming inaccurate is that the lens does not have a good grouping of high-quality elements, and therefore, by the time the light reaches the sensor, it no longer is the same as it actually should have been.

That is why handheld light meters are considered superior, because they allow you to get the most accurate reading there is, and that helps with the overall shooting.

Flash Readings & Low-Light Capability

Now, it is no surprise that when you are looking at light meters, they cannot be rivaled. However, that does not mean that they don’t have their shortcomings. You see, light meters are going to perform poorly in low light situations because, well, there is not a light to begin with.

image of a camera showing some settings

Light meters are great under normal daylight situations or bright areas, but low light photography is not considered normal, to begin with. That is why you will have to take some help with flash, and in most cases, you will have to rely on your camera’s settings too.

If you are looking forward to being critical here, using spot metering in the camera or the handheld light meter is the right way. This will help you read mid-tones and use those to adjust the settings on your camera.

You can also use flash if things are on the darker side and you want to create some highlighting situations. The thing that I’m trying to prove here is that when you are dealing with low-light situations, the use of a light meter is going to be different for you.

Dynamic Range And Light Meters

The thing that I love about photography the most is how everything works in tandem to give you the best possible results, and in most cases, you are going to get excellent results once you are finally able to learn how these things work together.

Cameras are like finally made watches in this regard. Now, getting back to the light metering and dynamic range, both of these things work together, as well.

camera taking a portrait

Dynamic range is the range in f-stops between the brightest white, and the darkest black of the scene that you are photographing.

The middle point of a dynamic range is always going to be 18% grey, and this middle point is used by every light meter as a benchmark for an optimal exposure value.

The dynamic range is referred to as latitude, and most of the cameras we see have 7 or 8 f-stops of latitude, which means 4 stops above the natural grey, and 4 stops below.

This is important when you are using light meters because they can help you take great shots once you have finally mastered the art of using the light meters.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1- What is a light meter, and how does it work?

Answer: As the name suggests, a light meter is a handheld tool that is very commonly used in photography. This tool is used to measure the intensity of light at varying degrees and then helps the photographer dial in the right exposure, shutter speed, and aperture setting. You can measure the light by pointing the light measure to the light source.

Q2- How do you use a light meter and get the desired results in photography?

Answer: Using the light meter is one of the easiest things that you can do, to be honest. You just have to point the light meter towards the light source, get the reading, dial those settings in your camera, and you will always get great results. Just be sure that your camera is in manual mode because otherwise, it will not work.

Q3- Is a light meter worth it?

Answer: I have said this time and again that a light meter is something that every photographer should be using; it does not matter if you are a professional photographer or an aspiring photographer; having a light meter can significantly improve your photography, to be honest. Granted, it is hard to master at first, but you will do just fine once you have worked out all the aspects of it.

Q4- How does a light meter work on a camera?

Answer: The built-in light meter on the camera works using TTL metering or through the lens metering. As the name suggests, the camera sensor estimates the light that hits the sensor after it passes through the lens. In most cases, if the lens is made out of higher quality glass and elements, the results are accurate, but cheaper lenses often cause discrepancies.

Q5- Do I need a light meter with a DSLR?

Answer: It does not matter whether you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera system. A light meter is absolutely important if you are looking to have a proper measurement of light entering your camera. Without one, you might not be able to get things sorted out, to begin with, and that is not what we want in the first place.


I understand that using a light meter is not something that a lot of people are looking to get done because things can be technical in many ways, but if you are genuinely looking to get great photos out of your camera with a spot-on exposure, every single time, then using a light meter is the right way to go.

You can use the light meter in your camera, too. Especially if you are still a beginner but for anything that is on the professional scale, having a light meter gets the job done.

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