How many photographers wrestle with exposure issues in landscape and scenic photography−whether it’s backlighting, wide dynamic range, or an uncooperative in-camera meter? And yet, how often is a hand-held meter overlooked?
A hand-held meter can be a wonderful tool in landscape photography. In this article I’ll cover some of the fundamentals involved in using one for primary exposure evaluation, or as a supplement to an in- camera meter. I’ll limit this discussion to working with digital photography, and not dive into metering with the Zone system (Figures 1 and 5 are examples of images made using a hand-held meter).
Light meters can be used in at least two ways: first, to measure incident light−in other words, light falling on a scene−and second, reflected light, light bouncing back to you from elements in a scene.
A hand-held meter, in most cases, can perform both functions. An in-camera meter can only measure reflected light; in the case of a DSLR, this means light coming through the lens. Generally the in-camera meter can be set to evaluate light from all or most of the scene, or it can be limited to regional or “spot” metering. They are reasonably on-target, but I have found that hand-held light meters can be more accurate than their in-camera cousins. In the digital world, 1/10 of a stop can in some cases, make or break your image exposure. The advantage of incident light measurement is that it gives one exposure measurement for light falling on an entire scene. It can’t necessarily compensate for backlighting, or for situations involving wide dynamic range−for example where elements of the scene are lit differently, include bright vibrant colors, are lit by multiple light sources, or otherwise have a wide range of reflective qualities. Ideally, photographers want a meter that can handle it all.