Pedrosa: Using the Light Meter

Albert Pedrosa

Photo mania

AS THE technology in digital photography gets sophisticated, there is just one basic element in photography that cannot be dealt differently whether you are shooting using an analog or a digital camera. The basic characteristic of light is still the same and the only way to measure it is through a hand-held light meter or the light meter in your camera.

Recently, I’m teaching a student who flew from Malaysia to learn photography. It was a little bit intimidating to know that he owns a Nikon D3s and a Hasselblad H2. During our studio lighting lecture, I pulled out a 15-year old sekonic light meter as I explain the lighting ratio. He was surprised to see the device and didn’t even know that it existed.

Most, if not all of the photographers who started using digital cameras didn’t know that a hand-held meter even existed. You can’t actually blame them because unlike in the film days, DSLR camera has a preview where you can assess how the image was captured. Back then, it was close to impossible to shoot in studio especially using strobe without a hand-held meter.

Nowadays, you can actually get away without using a light meter but using one would actually save time and will ensure consistent lighting ratio. When you’re working with your model and their pose plus ensuring that you’re getting the right exposure and lighting setup, you tend to have too much things in your mind happening all at the same time. Using a light meter will help you put things in perspective.

When setting up your lights particularly strobes, you cannot use the meter in your camera since strobes last only in a fraction of a second. The only way to measure the light is through a hand-held light meter. Start metering your main light or key light then set your fill light to read at 1-stop lower or more. Back lights are normally set to 1-stop higher than the main light.

Example: Key light - f/8, Fill light - f/5.6, Back light - f/11

In many different lighting setup, you can play around with the ratio between different light sources. The method of setting up your lights using a hand-held meter is far more accurate than basing it on your LCD preview. It is also faster and would save you a lot of test shots. Using hand-held meter would also make you work with numbers which is advantageous in replicating your light setup.

When you’re working with a lightsman, it’s also easier to communicate with figures. This way your lightsman can setup the lights for you based on your lighting plan while you attend to other preparations before the shoot.

My student eventually purchased a Sekonic meter from a local camera store for 9k. It was worth it, after all he has an Elinchrom studio lights back home. Keep on shooting everyone! For comments and suggestion, you may email me at


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