Many of you have asked me, why in this new digital age is a light meter necessary? When everything is immediate, as well as right there on an HD monitor for your review, WHY the light meter? I have mentioned in the past that Roger Deakins feels like he can be much more of a risk taker with digital. What you see is what you get. RIGHT! He has a point. When you are infusing LUTs (look up tables) on your monitor and lighting to those specs, why would you need that old light meter that reads the values of illumination?
“Building Light Memory”
The light meter is essential for matching and to get your head around light ratios as a young cinematographer. If you look on the monitor and you like the way it looks, the mood and the color tone, then get in there and read those levels and read the color temperature. These are all building blocks of your memory of light.
From the time that I wake up till the time I rest my head on my pillow, I never stop looking at light. Inspiration is everywhere. I take snapshots, little instagram shots and store them in my mind. Now you have images to pull from when you are lighting a scene. Say you went to a really trendy bar and you loved the light and mood. Store that mental snapshot. When you are set to light a club/bar scene, use that mental snapshot if it fits the story and emotion of your creation. Download it into your lighting, levels, color and mood.
Training your eye to all the ratios that you like and want to deploy comes with experience. But matching is a huge issue, especially when shooting a feature or a short film. Why? Well, so many times you are asked to go back and do pickups. Maybe you missed a shot, or you screened the movie to an audience and they were confused on some things. You need to go back to the location or the set and duplicate the light. If you did not take light meter readings or mark down the color temp of your camera, you are flying blind. I go in there once I have lit the original scene and grab as many readings as possible to help in this process. Now you have your edit, so you can go back and look at the levels and try to match what you originally shot off a monitor. Why not have this as a tool to help in this process?
“Light Meter Calibration”
Before setting off on a project, I always make sure that my light meter is accurate. The best way to simply do this is to send it to Quality Light and Metric in Los Angeles. HA HA!!! Or if this option is not available, then the tried and true spot meter test will suffice. The Sekonic L-758C is the ultimate meter because it is two meters in one. You are able to read the incident light levels with the ball and the spot meter function gives you the ability to read points of light, the wall and buildings in the deep background to make sure there is enough fill level, grey cards, etc.
Let’s try this. Take one light and aim it at an 18% grey card. Once you have done this, you can now read the grey card with the spot meter. Turn your incident spot selector dial to spot meter mode and fire it at the center of the grey card.
Once that level is acquired (we got a 5.6), you now turn the incident spot selector dial to incident meter mode and now read the key light that is aiming at the grey card.
Our reading came up 4.0 9 10ths, which is basically a 5.6. So we now know that our meter is calibrated perfectly.
“The Process of Reading Light”
There are many tried and true ways to read a light meter. Let’s first set up your meter so that it matches the ISO to your camera’s ISO, the frame rate you are shooting and your shutter speed.
Ok, we have our meter set to the correct ISO, shutter speed and frame rate. Now we are going to discuss how to read light. I have tried to include everything you will need to know on how you aim your meter and how you position your hand.
“Day Exterior Work”
Reading Sky Light
To read ambient sky light, I hold my meter straight up at the sky.
Then I cup my hand around the ball.
This is how I keep my balance when the sun is dropping and I need to manicure the top light fill levels. This is so essential when you have lost the sun. Say you run out of time and you now have to cheat a close-up or an insert. This will give you that level to be able to create it with artificial light.
The other reading you have to grab before the sun escapes and pounds itself into the horizon is your ambient fill light level that is opposite the sun. You need to capture this level to again match all the sunlight that is bouncing off walls, trees, etc. while the sun is setting and to also use if you have run out of light.
To do this reading you turn your meter opposite to the sun. Then shade the sun off the top of the ball and cup your hand around it slightly. The final reading to achieve is what the sunlight is reading. Turn your meter towards the sun and hit the button to get this reading.
I cup the ball slightly to take out any unnecessary bounce light and sky top light.
I find it absolutely essential to calculate in my head what the stop difference is between the sunlight and the ambient fill light. This ratio between the two exposures will be how you balance the light as the sun sets as well as using this ratio to light any close-ups or inserts that you might not have had the time to grab while the sun was up. Trust me. This will happen to you because it has happened to me about a thousand times. You cannot stop the sun from setting. I have tried all my life to achieve this, but have failed.
“Interior Stage Work”
Reading a Key Light
We have designed a lighting set up to help you see the subtle nuances that the light reflects into the incident ball. Our fill light is slightly cooler and a circle bounce which will be easier to see. The key light is a rectangle source and slightly warmer in tone.
Our backlight is one of my baton lights and this will reflect 12 bulbs in the ball.
When reading a key light, you aim the light meter directly at the source. Put your meter right next to your actor or stand in’s face and cup your hands around the ball so that it is not getting influenced by your fill light or backlight. I look into the ball to see if I am seeing the fill light reflected in it. If I do, I cup my hand in a way that blocks this so that my reading of the key light is accurate.
Cupping your hand around the light ball is an art in itself. If you cup your hand too much, it restricts the light meter reading.
Sometimes I just put my hand up to block the other light that I do not want to influence the meter, so that I can take in as much of the key, back or fill light as possible for an accurate reading.
This is one way to cup your meter.This is cupping your ball to read only the key light and taking the fill light and the backlight off the ball.
This is another way to cup the ball, surrounding it a little more.
“Reading a Fill Light”
Reading a fill light is just like the key light. Look at the reflection in your meter and make sure the only light that you see reflected is the fill source. I have made it a little easier by making the key light warmer than the fill light. That way we can show the coolness is all that is hitting the incident meter’s ball, as well as the shape being round, not a rectangle.
Now you have the basics of reading light and my technique. Reading light is so essential to your creation as a cinematographer. Now get out there, read light, and take those mental snapshots. Stay tuned for a post on how to read a color temperature meter.
Sekonic L-398A Studio Deluxe III Meter
Sekonic Illuminometer i-346 Light Meter
Sekonic L-308DC DigiCineMate
Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478D and L-478DR Light Meter
Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster Light Meter
Model: Monette Moio