Light meters versus manual exposures

I have the quintessential love/hate relationship with light meters. I usually get the best results when exposing manually, but on the other hand, I really like the idea of just taking it easy and to go with what ever the light meter tells me, thus I tend to do both according to the feels of the day. Manual exposures requires you to learn at least the sunny 16 rule + some compensation skills to go with it and I’d argue that after doing the home work, it is the most reliable way to go, because the light meter can never know your interpretation of the scene or what are you trying to meter from.

In black and white film photography, it is generally the best idea to expose for the shadows, but different rules of thumb apply to colour negative or slide film and your camera doesn’t know what film you’re using.

I found these wonderful golden rules from my camera’s manual:

  1. Expose color slide films for the highlights, and let the shadows fall where they may.
  2. Expose color negative films for the important middle-tone areas, and never fear over exposure.
  3. Expose B&W films for the shadows, and develop for the highlights.

Blindly trusting the light meter or using a automatic exposure mode, feels sometimes just heavenly, when you can’t be bothered to use your braincells. But, especially in high contrast scenes, light meters will fail very easily, unless you don’t remember to compensate. I usually don’t remember, because I’m in the mindset of letting the camera to do the work. This is why I get often pretty underexposed images with the light meter and ae-modes. The problem with the high contrast scenes is that you should be metering for the shadows and thus giving the film about a couple of stops more light than the meter is telling you to. The meter is being tricked because it is metering from the area that happens to have a lot of brightness sneaking into the frame as well. But as a seasoned black and white shooter, you should actually be ignoring the bright areas, and not to take them into count.

An example of a really challenging, high contrast lighting situation. I took the image by using exactly the reading my camera was telling me to be the correct, but actually the image is exposed for the floor. The correct way would have been to expose purely for the shadows, maybe a stop or two more light. The room was actually rather dark but it seemingly appears much lighter due to the single light beams coming through the window.

Low contrast situations are much more reliable scenarios to shoot with light meter and/or auto-exposure mode. (That should be rather easy to expose manually as well.) That’s because the scene is more constant in brightness values.

A nice, rather low contrast scene like this, is an easy thing to meter for. Constant, evenly distributed, soft light.

Only refer the meter

Most film cameras tend to have center weighted light meters, but I’ve noticed that even if there’s a single bright spot at the very edge of the frame, that can still fool the meter big time, and cause you underexposure, because the camera thinks there’s more light than there actually is. The trick is to take the reading first from the shadowed area and then to compose the image.

In my opinion, the best way is to learn the manual exposure rules, such as the sunny 16 rule thoroughly and to use the light meter as a backup. That way you can meter rather intuitively. When exposure skill is your second nature, you don’t have to waste so much time with fiddling with the settings. You’ll just know the exposures from the experience. It actually makes the shooting that much more enjoyable, because you can concentrate on the subject, composition, focusing, timing etc. If you have to keep looking at the meter needle, it draws your attention away from the other things. BUT in fast changing light that can really cause an overheating of your brain.

Backlit scenes are total traps for light meters. This image kind of works, but I relied too much on the meter, as I was in a hurry to make shot in time. A direct sunlight, right at the center of the frame makes the camera think there’s a very bright scene, even though the remainder of the frame is in much lesser light, that it should perhaps be metered from. A question of interpretation.

So yeah, I’d recommend sunny sixteeing firstly and using the light meter more like a backup, or as a reference point. I usually pre-meter in advance, as I walk about and if I happen to use a lightmetered camera, ask the meter for the second opinion to cross reference my own questimation. The key thing is to stay focused and really to pay attention to the lighting conditions. Fully manual camera kind of keeps you on your toes, because you’re on your own. Perhaps the most reliable approach is to use the best aspects of both methods, manual and metered, not relying solely on either one. Do the homework and learn the theory of manual exposure. Then shoot with your intuition and use the light meter to back you up when you’re in doubt.

A great example of a total metering disaster. As you can see there’s some spot light at the background, which completely fooled the light meter into thinking there’s more light than there actually was. This is an ancient image, from the times I was shooting with my Canon AE-1. I shot this image on shutter priority mode, but AE-1 is a machine, and it doesn’t have a clue on how I’m trying to construct the image. The correct way would have been to shoot manually by first taking the reading from the lower left corner of this frame, then set the exposure according to that and then compose the image, completely ignoring the lights at the background. AE-1 should have a center weighted metering, but as you can see, strong light from the edges of the frame still affects the reading heavily. And as a side note — this neg was developed and scanned by the shittiest lab in the world, before I was into home developing. As I said, this is a really old image.
Metering disaster #2. Even though this appears to be a brightly lit scene, you can see that I was trying to emphasise the group of three people on the left golden section and should have taken the reading from that area, pretty much ignoring the strong sunlight.


High contrast scene exposed somewhat right. I didn’t refer the light meter at all in this image and concentrated only on the face. The bright individual light beams could easily trick you or the light meter to mistake this for a brighter scene. But actually it’s a very dark situation none the less and the metering should be done accordingly.


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