Using a Hand-Held Light Meter for Landscape Photography

By David Saffir Back to


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.

The meters shown here are the Sekonic 358 and 458; the 358 is one of the best known and widely used meters available today. There are other meters available that can get the job done, and of course newer ones−but this is the model I use most frequently. It’s still available, and it has stood the test of time!

The meter can function in incident or reflective (spot metering mode, using an attachment). It can make single-measurement exposure evaluations, or it can be used to take multiple samples across the dynamic range of a scene and average them to a correct exposure. The meter in this image shows an exposure of f/16.0 at 125/sec @ ISO 100 (Figure 2).

Incident Metering

This is the simplest form of metering in many ways. It is very useful in general landscape work particularly in landscapes that are more or less evenly lit−for example, on a cloudy or overcast day or lit from a relatively gentle angle.

Incident metering can also be used as a starting point for evaluating exposure, supplemented by reflective/ spot metering. Generally, you would set this meter by holding down the “Mode” button, and turning the jog/dial control until the sunburst/ambient light icon is outlined at top left on the LCD screen. This puts the meter in “incident” mode.

The meter can be set up to operate in shutter priority or aperture priority mode, depending on your prefer- ence. In general, I shoot landscapes/scenics in aperture priority−I’m working from a tripod, and I use aperture priority settings to control depth of field and in part, exposure. The meter will calculate shutter speed for you. The camera is operated in manual mode, shutter and aperture set according to the meter.

At this point, you would set the meter up with the white sensor cover in the extended position (Sekonic calls this the “Lumisphere”) and point the Lumisphere in the general direction of the camera lens. Depress the measurement button, and take the reading. Keep in mind that tilting the meter toward the sky or other light source will generally result in a higher meter reading, and a darker exposure. Some people use this technique (with care), to adjust metered results.

The sphere can be retracted flush with the housing to facilitate readings of more localized light sources−I think of it as a tool that operates in between general incident reading and spot metering.

Spot Metering

This meter, when used with a spot metering attachment, can be used to measure reflected light, rather than incident light. The spot metering attachment operates like a viewfinder−it is attached to the meter by removing the Lumisphere and substituting the attachment. You look through the attachment at the subject in question. This meter accepts attachments that offer a 1, 5, or 10 degree width of measurement (Figure 3). The 458 meter offers a 5 degree attachment.

The simplest way to use spot metering is to identify an element in a scene that is closest to middle gray, or that tonal value. You can also find a reasonable exposure for a backlit subject by using the spot meter on the subject (on a model’s face for example) and setting exposure based on the results. The metered subject should be exposed fairly accurately, and the background will be much brighter−and in many cases, overexposed.

Another, more accurate way to use spot metering is to try to measure the midpoint, plus the highlight, and the shadow areas that are important to the details of the image. This meter will allow you to measure each in turn, save the results and average them.

Figure 5: The red dots indicate examples of sampling points for metering (high, medium, and low). Multiple metering points can also be averaged in setting exposure.

Using the spot attachment, find the brightest area in the image that is meaningful and measure it. Press the memory key, and the meter will remember this value. Repeat this for the darkest meaningful area, and the midtones. Each time you press the Memory key, a black dot will appear above the exposure scale at the bottom of the LCD screen. Next, press the “AVG” key, and the meter will calculate a result (Figure 4). The 458 works in a similar manner, and also offers tools for working with dynamic range.

In some cases, you may question whether the dynamic range inherent to the image is within the capability of your camera sensor. Before you press the “AVG” key, you may want to take note of the number of stops measured from low to high−in this case, it is about five stops. Most digital cameras will handle this.

Digital camera technology has improved greatly over the years, and yet 1/10 of a stop in exposure can in many cases make a difference in shadow/highlight detail, or in overall image quality. A hand-held meter is a great tool for photographers who want the greatest control over exposure, and those who want to improve the quality of their images.


About the Author

David Saffir
David Saffir is an internationally recognized, award-winning portrait, commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker. He teaches workshops and seminars in photography, printmaking and color management. He lives in Santa Clarita, California. He is the author of Mastering Digital Color: A Photographer’s and Artist’s Guide to Controlling Color, published by Thomson/Cengage and a photography book, The Joy of Discovery.