Light meters: Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?

I’ve known about light (technically, exposure) meters for a very long time. They seemed — and still seem  — like some old-skool relic from a bygone age. And yet companies like Sekonic and Gossen still make them, which sort of implies that someone still uses and buys them. Count me now among those people. Why on Earth would I choose to buy a light meter? Well, it’s complicated.

My reasons for buying a light meter were based on a naive assumption that I find myself too embarrassed to relate here in detail. It stems from a desire to get into night film photography, which is complicated to do, and to do well. Among the myriad factors like reciprocity failure is the metering of available light. And while my assumptions were wrong, I didn’t find out until after my new Gossen Sixtomat F2 arrived from B&H Photo and Video.

In doing some tests, in short, I discovered that the Sixtomat can’t really read as low a level of light as I expected it could. Specs on paper can be deceiving, especially when you really don’t know the subject matter at-hand. In truth, I made a good choice in the Sixtomat, as it’s capable of reading across a very wide range. And while it wouldn’t go as low as I thought, I decided to just do some shooting with it and see how I liked the functionality, and the experience.

In short, I’m a convert, and there are a few reasons why.

First, part of my frustration with the Pentax 645 — probably my only frustration with it — is that it doesn’t do aperture-priority shooting in challenging conditions quite as easily as I’m used to with my Minolta XG 1. Well, that’s not fair; it does it the same way, but the adjustments are more cumbersome.

On the Minolta, when I’m shooting backlit shots or in other situations where there’s a lot of light variation, I point the camera at the area I want to meter, touch the shutter button, read the shutter speed from inside the viewfinder LEDs, then quickly turn the shutter speed wheel to the reading. Then, I recompose the shot and take it. Easy, and fast.

On the Pentax, that’s pretty much the same technique. But to adjust the shutter speed, you have to move from aperture-priority to manual mode, change the speed, compose the shot, take it, then go back to aperture-priority to meter the next shot. It’s not a big difference, except that the method of moving back and forth between modes is sort of painful. The Minolta’s dial makes it fast, easy, and intuitive — the Pentax is neither fast, nor intuitive.

The problem with both cameras, however, is that this approach sometimes simply doesn’t work that well. They both have center-weighted metering, and the technique I use does in fact usually work. But things can still go wrong, especially in shots with that have complex variation in light intensity where the exposure meter in the cameras aren’t reading the exact spot I’m wanting, or the weighting gives weird results.

The other shortcoming with in-camera metering is that it’s limited to ambient readings. You point it at something, it reads the light level. A more accurate method of metering is incident metering. The Sixtomat (and virtually all other light meters) can do both.

With the Sixtomat, to measure ambient light, you move the diffuser on the front of the unit out of the way, and from camera position, you point it at the subject, and press a button — much as a camera would do it. With the Sixtomat, you can point it around while measuring and get a range. For many shots, ambient measurement works fine.

For incident measurement, you put the diffuser in its center position, walk to the subject, point the meter towards the camera position, and press the button. You’re getting a reading of exactly the light level at the desired part of the subject, and it’s a nice way to ensure that the part of the shot you’re most interested in gets exposed properly.

I’ve been doing some tests comparing incident metering with the Gossen, ambient with the Gossen, and ambient with the camera, to compare the readings. As one might expect, they’re usually close, and frequently identical. But there are often differences between the readings, especially when the lighting gets complicated in the shot. Provided you have direct access to the subject or scene, it’s quite simple to meter precisely the area of interest, or the exact portion of the scene (shadow, etc.) on which you want to base the exposure.

To be honest, I simply trust the Gossen more to get me the result I want.

One of the main reasons to seek-out a trustworthy light reading is endemic to film photography: You can’t see the results right away and correct them on-the-spot. To get a good shot, you have to get it right the first time, and using a light meter helps me ensure that I do.

But there’s one final, and very unexpected reason I love my Sixtomat… After you do a reading, you can change the variables. With the reading taken, I can change the f-stop, or change the shutter speed, and see the impact of one on the other instantly without re-reading. It gives me the information I need to make an informed exposure decision before I commit, and I like that.

One does need to be aware of one thing when using a meter: Make sure you set the ISO properly. The first roll I shot with the meter, I ended-up setting exposure based on the wrong film speed. That roll isn’t back from the lab yet, but I fully anticipate that at least two shots are going to be spoiled as a result. If you use multiple cameras in parallel as I do, you may end-up needing to remember to shuffle the ISO with each shot — or at least double-check it.

In closing, the Sixtomat will also provide a lot of assistance with flash/strobe shots too — something I intend to get more into over time, so it’ll have more utility in the future.

But the greater level of confidence, the ease of playing with the settings before the shot, and the ability to make things easier by keeping my Pentax in manual most has me wishing I’d “gone meter” before. While I don’t have to have it to take photos, the Gossen Sixtomat will be a fixture in my camera bag for a long time to come.