Learning to use a light meter

Modern SLR cameras are amazing. Each one has a micro-chip that analyses the light conditions, compares them to the ones stored in their memory, and suggests the best exposure based on that.

Older meters, whether inbuilt or hand held, see the world in shades of grey. And 9 times out of 10, that works because if you look at the world as a set of averages more often than not it’s grey. The light summer sky is averaged out by the strong shadows cast by the sun, and everyone knows that a rainy day is grey.

But what about the 1 time in 10 when the world isn’t grey?

If it’s snowy, no problem, a modern camera sees snow and remembers to compensate to stop the snow turning to slush as it’s captured on the sensor or the film. It’s got a whole range of scenarios stored there ready to be flipped through and compared with what you see in the viewfinder. But things get even more complicated because our eyes are better at seeing than the camera, so while we can take in the detail the roof of the tunnel and what’s out in the light beyond it, the camera can’t. So it decides for you.

At the end of the tunnel

But there is another way – you can choose to take control.

You can have your own microchip, your own series of images that you carry around inside your head and flip through to compare. It’s called experience and anyone can get it, but there is a price to pay.

It takes time.

After a year with Vlad it’s only just coming to me, not exactly naturally, not yet, but with a little conscious effort to remind myself to examine the light, it’s getting there. So before I stepped into this tunnel, I imagined the scene I wanted to capture, thought about the light, and made a choice. I wanted the detail in that light at the end of the tunnel, so I took my meter reading before I stepped inside.

I scare myself to think that I only made one exposure, and with Vlad, there’s no checking until the film is developed. But I was as sure as I could be that I’d got what I wanted, and if I hadn’t I’d remember that lesson and file it away for next time.

Experience. That’s all it takes. And it’s true that you learn more from the one mistake than the other 11 on the roll that came out as intended.

I still think that modern cameras are amazing. They can look at the scene, and make decisions based on what they see. But how much sweeter is the feeling when you can say you made those decisions yourself?



  1. Thanks Debra. Great post. I’m still learning, I wish I had the time and resources to practice more with my TLR. Although I have found myself over riding by DSLR recently and actually getting it right.

  2. YAY I’m so glad you posted this. I didn’t even think of that option: meter outside, the end of the tunnel is outside so it should be right for that, and the inside of the tunnel isn’t completely dark so hopefully some details will come (and they did)… I love how you talked about this! great post 🙂

  3. I enjoy the feeling that you describe and experience it when I am able to go out with a film SLR. I still don’t use an external meter, but with mainly manual controls and the wait to see the results there is a very different feeling to photography.

    The camera feels more of an extension within the process rather than a separate tool with a mind of its own.

    My own time poverty that means I still mainly use digital, but I really enjoy the time and feelings evoked when using film in a ‘proper’ camera.

    Well described and well taken!

  4. Justin – in many ways I envy you your digital SLR – with the instant feedback it’s the best way of learning about exposure and I’m sure it will help when you use the TLR.

    carolyn – I’ve had my share of failures of this type of subject. Trial and error, and the fact that I was wasting film, made me determined to try a different way this time.

    Sam – I’m sure it already exists. I love the work of Ansel Adamas, but I still can’t get my head around the zone system. It’s on the list to be tackled at some point.

    rashbre – film cameras are more time consuming, but you can do like Justin and switch it to manual when you have a spare moment. I tend to use my film SLR on fully automatic, but sometimes it’s fun to turn it to manual and see what you can do.

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