Reading a Light Meter: Tips and Tricks

Sekonic_L758C

 
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.

“Mental Snapshots”

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.
 
Lighting snapshots
 

“Matching”

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.
 
turndial incident
spot
 
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.
 
turndial spot
Incident 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.
 
Setting ISO 320
Setting ISO 500
FPS
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.
 
Reading Sky Light
Cupping Sky
 
Then I cup my hand around the ball.
 
opposite sun
 
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.
 
cup
 
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.
 
light bouncing
 
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.
 
sun reading
 
I cup the ball slightly to take out any unnecessary bounce light and sky top light.
 
cupping outside
 
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
 
demo set-up
 
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.
 
ball reflections
 
Our backlight is one of my baton lights and this will reflect 12 bulbs in the ball.
 
backlight demo
 
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.
 
reading key
 
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.
 
blocking reflection
 
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.
 
cupping the ball
 
This is another way to cup the ball, surrounding it a little more.
 
Cupping
 

“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.
 
fill light reflection
Fill Reading
 
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.

The Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster Light Meter is my choice, but there are other Sekonic light meters at different price points to get you started. Links to B&H are provided below.
 

Sekonic L-398A Studio Deluxe III Meter
Sekonic L-398A Studio Deluxe III Meter
 
Sekonic Illuminometer i-346 Light Meter
Sekonic Illuminometer i-346 Light Meter
 
Sekonic L-308DC DigiCineMate
Sekonic L-308DC DigiCineMate
 
Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478D Light Meter
Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478D and L-478DR Light Meter
 
Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster Light Meter
Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster Light Meter

 

Thanks to Filmtools Rentals for supplying the Sekonic L758Cine Meter.
Shot at Revolution Cinema Rentals in San Fernando, CA.
Thanks to Paskal Lighting for donating all of lighting and grip equipment.

Model: Monette Moio

51 Comments
  1. Bill Hamell 1 year ago

    Great article! Having used light meters for many, many years I knew much of what was said, Still there was a tip I had not been using! Thank you!

    I have had a Sekonic L-398 Studio Deluxe since the seventies always ready never not out of batteries ;) Great piece of kit!

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Bill Hamell, sorry it has taken me so long to get back with you. I have had some tech issues with the comments on the blog. But here I am better late than never. I am so glad I could help in some way and thank you so much for your support of our blog.

  2. Dragan 1 year ago

    fantastic! thnx for sharing.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Dragan, you are very welcome, thanks for the support

  3. Thanks Shane for the info. Wished I had this yesterday as I did my first lighting scene ever on a corporate. I had to balance 2 dedo’s and a softbox to tungsten lighting in a hospital office but somehow it was nicely lit but lacking depth, if that makes sense. I think I will try and find a used light meter if that’s wise.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Gavin Bearfield-Boyd, that is a great start and you are very welcome. I am so sorry it has taken me so long to get back with you, Tech HELL!! I am glad I could help.

  4. Dave Dugdale 1 year ago

    Awesome stuff Shane, thanks for sharing. I have a Luxi that I use with my iphone for a cheap light meter.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Dave Dugdale, you are very welcome, thanks for sharing, have to check that out

  5. Kaiel E. 1 year ago

    Though I can light decently without a light meter I find my workflow is much more efficient with one. Having the light meter allows me to explore the set untethered to camera or monitor. If you depend solely on the monitor and waveform you are limited to where the camera is positioned at that moment. Something which (even though a lot is planned in advanced) unnecessarily limits room for creativity and adapting quickly on set. With a light meter I can relight or tweak while the camera is being repositioned or if there is some sort of technical difficulty.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Kaiel E., I could not agree more, thank you so much for sharing

  6. J. Graham 1 year ago

    Wow, I never knew there were so many ways to cup balls.

    All joking aside, thanks for providing everything you do on this site Shane. It’s been really helpful for someone like me who tries to absorb as much as I can while I get my feet in the industry.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      J. Graham, I am so sorry it has taken me so long to respond to you. I have had some tech issues but all settled now. HAHA HA!!!! You are very welcome and we will continue to deliver content that no one else does.

  7. Bob Demers 1 year ago

    Amen Brother! Love seeing this article. Ultimately a light meter is a tool that encourages previsualization as opposed to a kind of “plug ‘n chug” approach you may get by lighting to monitor; you end up with the look you want instead of a look that’s ok, but maybe not what you had imagined.

    Thanks again for the inspiration.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Bob Demers, ha ha, thank you for your kind words and support as always.

  8. ram shani 1 year ago

    one thing that is most impotent is how you calibrate the meter to specific camera ISO and specific gamma?
    i know that different gammas at different cameras put the 18% grey in different places at the scope.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      ram shank, yes they do and thank you for sharing

  9. Eli 1 year ago

    Hey Shane, thank, as usual for the great info!
    Question: I imagine you more-or-less know what kind of aperture and/or shutter speed you want going on for a scene before you shoot, and the ISO is usually a derivative of the other two factors(please correct me if I’m wrong)- is there a way for say just reading the meter at 100 ISO F2 180 shutter angle(example), and then plugging the resulting reading into a formula with the desired aperture or shutter speed to get correct exposure with those settings?
    Hope this wasn’t too confusing…..

    • Laurent Andrieux 1 year ago

      Mind when comparing both incident and reflected light on a 18% grey card, that its reflectance actually is still 18%. If the readings don’t match, it doesn’t necessarly means your meter is not properly calibrated. I’m posting this especially for students. Sometimes in schools, cards are old and their characteristics change in time. Compare light meters and ask the card to be changed if necessary.

      Also, when using a video camera with a built-in autoexposure system, mind that these systems are not necessarely calibrated for an 18% value so that checking the exposure on such a card won’t work (usually you can set this in the menus)

    • PStJTT 1 year ago

      Eli — If I understand your question, you’re asking about exposure values. Each f-stop number, for example, is the equivalent of doubling or halving your exposure depending on the direction you’re going. So if you wanted to open up your aperture one stop (more light coming in) you’d cut your exposure in half to keep the exposure value the same. You can do the same with ISO — each doubling or halving of an ISO number is the same as opening or closing one stop. So if you were one stop underexposed at ISO 100, f4, Shutter Angle 180, you could double the ISO and leave your f-stop and shutter angle alone. (This beautiful bit of mathematics, of course, fails in the face of noise at high ISO values, which will make your image fall apart.)

  10. Brian 1 year ago

    Shane, thanks for the info. I noticed the two shots of you turning the dial to the appropriate mode are inverted (1 and 3). The dial setting in image 1 doesn’t match the dial in image 2. The dial in image 3 doesn’t match the dial in image 4. They seemed to have been misnamed so they’re correct in sequence but incorrect as far as the images go.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Thanks for pointing that out, Brian. We’ve got them moved around correctly in the post now.

      • Stephen 1 year ago

        You cannot stop the sun from setting. I have tried all my life to achieve this, but have failed. hahaha

  11. benj 1 year ago

    Shane-

    Instead of cupping the meter ball, have you tried just leaving the lumisphere retracted and aiming towards the light source you are trying to meter. What are you thoughts on that method?

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      benj, I am fairly old school with this. I have trusted my readings the way I have been doing it for over 20 years and I expose based on that. These are the things that if the wheel is not broken don’t fix it kind of things

  12. Jon 1 year ago

    Shane, thanks for the cool article. You pretty much validate my own methods. However, I basically get by very well with just pointing the ball at the brightest light source. Of course the dark areas will fall off. But I like that effect.

    Also in moving to digital, I find the camera ASA setting problematic on DSLR. I assume you need to pick a setting as low as possible; and the auto ASA settings don’t work with metering manually. Any comments? Thanks much.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Jon, you are very welcome, and thank you for your kind words. I feel that my metering is done mainly for matching and getting my bearings. I have really fell in love with the Flanders CM250 OLED for lighting.

  13. Victor 1 year ago

    Hi Shane, just came across your website couple of days ago and must say this is the biggest goldmine I’ve found for upcoming cinematographers like my self, really love the work you put in to share your knowledge that have taken you all of your time and passion to achieve, so thank you!

    I had one question about the light meters.

    Are the light meters accurate towards digital cameras for setting exposure?
    Because in my mind most of them (lightmeters) are set to the ISO we all knew on the filmstock, but is a 500T stock “the same” as 500ISO on your digital camera?
    Or maybe my approach towards this is wrong, but would be grateful for an answer.

    Thank you for all the awesomeness!

    • Author
      Shane 12 months ago

      Light meters are still finding their way with digital sensors I have to say. I use my meter mainly for matching a scene if we have to go back and do re-shoots because my meter will never match what the C500 sees and wants to be exposed at. The field lighting monitor has become the eyes into your creation. A Light meter is essential when you are learning for all of you to understand lighting ratio. So, light a scene that looks good on your monitor, then go over there and read the values. Seeing what the key light is in relationship to the fill light, then you see what kind of contrast range you like to work with.

  14. Jonathan 11 months ago

    Hi Shane,
    Great article! I have some questions: Does it make a difference if you use a spot meter or a incident meter? Do you have to use them both when filming? And if I could only afford one of them, which one would you suggest for my learning?

    • Author
      Shane 11 months ago

      Jonathan,
      A spot meter and incident meter both have their place. Take a look at this post from January: http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2014/01/reading-a-light-meter/. You should learn how both a spot and incident meter will aid your filmmaking, I would take a look at the Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster that is listed in the post. It combines both a spot and an incident meter, giving you the most bang for your buck. Sekonic’s other light meters are also solid choices. Make the investment now at the early stage of your career so that you can grow and develop with the right tools.

    • Ryan 8 months ago

      Obviously I would defer to Shane on this, but an affordable light meter that can take both styles of readings is the Gossen Digisix II (as far as I know, the original is the same, so get whichever is cheapest). It doesn’t have all the features of a high end Sekonic, but mine hasn’t let me down yet.

      That said, the spot meter covers 25 degrees. That’s pretty wide by most standards (Shane’s is just 1 degree for a frame of reference). I mostly use mine for incident readings and then I have the spot if I need it. Just keep that angle in mind.

  15. Vadim 9 months ago

    For me as learning cinematographer this is the most important post on whole blog. Thank you Shane!

  16. Tashi 7 months ago

    Great article. It really helped me understand light meters better. so thanks

  17. Robert B. 7 months ago

    Shane thanks for this great article. I always loved my light meter, but now I love it even more :)

    Btw, I imagine that Roger doesn’t judge his setups by looking at 7″ monitor worth a few hundreds. I think that productions he is involved in utilize high quality calibrated reference monitors that sell for thousands and thousands of $$$. He kinda really gets what he sees :)

  18. Rana Pratap 7 months ago

    thank you Shane for your post. this article and all these comments are of immense help. i have a question. If i have to choose between sekonic L398 A and Sekonic L308 DC Digicinemate which one will you suggest? i cant afford other meters right now due to lack of budget.

    • Author
      Shane 7 months ago

      Hi Rana,

      They’re both great meters. I would have to say that it would all depend on what you feel comfortable with. If you think you will feel comfortable working with an analog meter, I’d go for it. The L308 DC has your basics as far as options and controls and it is very simple to operate.

  19. Rana Pratap 6 months ago

    thank you Shane for your advice

  20. Robert 6 months ago

    Thank you very much for your helpful article.
    I would like to just suggest an alternative and cost effective way to get a light/flash meter. You can use your own Android smartphone and the LxMeter app from Google Play.

  21. Brandon Tompkins 5 months ago

    I was wondering what meter do you use now? Spectra Professional IV-A Light Meter System
    or the Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster Light Meter ? I am in a cinematography class right now at my local community college and now have an interest in cinematography as a career. What would you recomend at my level in the game??

    • Author
      Shane 5 months ago

      Hi Brandon
      I have been using the Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478D Light Meter ( http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/Sekonic_Litemaster_Pro_Light_Meter/Ntt/Sekonic+Litemaster+Pro+Light+Meter/N/0/kw/search/BI/8721/KBID/9934/DFF/d10-v1-t12 ). For a long time I was using a Spectra II and when Sekonic put this in my hands on the Illumination Experience Tour, I thought I would give it a try. I have really come to like this meter a lot more than my Spectra. My favorite feature is the ability to store in ND, so you can plug in that you are using an ND 0.3, ND 0.6, etc. It keeps you from having to do the calculation, which is still important but for myself these days I am looking to be quicker and faster! The battery life is much better than my previous meter and this baby is under $400! Sekonic makes a smaller and much cheaper meter that is around $250 but for this price of the L-478D, it’s an investment in your future. You will buy this meter and have it for the rest of your life.

      • Brandon Tompkins 5 months ago

        Shane,
        Thank you so much for your speedy reply. I know how busy you are and I am blown away by how fast you respond. I am worried about the construction of the L-478D lasting me for a long time also would having that info at my finger tips starting out into cinematography and not learning the math behind metering hurt me? ( I guess I can still learn the math and check with the meter if i did it right I guess). I do love the price point and I can add 35mm and 50mm Cine lens for my 5D mk2 (I love Tax time ;) )
        I have been a big fan of your work and this Blog for a long time. I am glade I revisited your page after going in the wrong direction with my career for the past year and I will for be joining your Inner Circle!!
        Thank you and your wife so much for the time you spend helping us!!!

  22. Jalal J 5 months ago

    Shane, thanks for sharing your experience. You are an inspiration and a great teacher!

    Question: How can I manually calibrate my meter? I did the calibration test on an 18% grey card but my meter readings are not the same. In my case the incident meter reads 11.9 while the spot meter reads little over 22. Am I doing something wrong?

    Appreciate any help!

  23. Kevin 5 months ago

    This is a really fantastic article, and thank you so much for posting it. I don’t know if you discuss this elsewhere, but at what point, if ever, would you take spot meter readings of a scene. And what would you do with that information—just average out the readings???

  24. David 5 months ago

    Thanks for this article. The only thing that confuses me still is the aperture readings. If it gives you an aperture reading of 4.04 , do you stay at f4? And anything above 5 you round up like normal or is there some other way of doing it?

    Also, is the reading just giving you middle grey? So if you have a portrait session in front of a black background, should you underexpose based on the reading?

  25. Vance K 5 months ago

    Shane, I was wondering how to deal with in putting information into a light meter when the camera lens has a variable ND filter attached? Do markings on such a filter allow you to precisely read how many stops you are cutting so that you can interpret the light meter reading correctly? Also I have heard that such variable ND filters do not render skin tones so nicely as a fixed ND filter due to the polarization effect. In your work do you have any use for these variable ND filters or do you stick to fixed versions?

  26. Remco H 5 months ago

    Hi Shane, Thank you for all the great posts.
    I am really happy to see more and more light meters on set and more people interested in learning how to Them. Thank you for being a part of that!

    Quick question: In you post you mention “I find it absolutely essential to calculate in my head what the stop difference is between…” is there any particular reason you prefer this over using the AVE button on the meter that shows you the stop difference?

    Look forward to all your great content this year.

  27. Rana Pratap 3 months ago

    Shane
    you wrote in your comment that you are currently using a Sekonic L478D model. now in various internet forums and reviews we can see a mixed review about this model. specially about its touchscreen and battery life.even some experts have negative views about these issues though they have said that its a good one.now as you are using L478 D can you please elaborate on these issues? how is the touchscreen? how is it’s battery life and how is the LCD screen visibility? it will be much better for me to asses this model as i sincerely follow you and your advises.
    thanks for this website.

  28. pramit Ku senapati 2 weeks ago

    Excellent article and will help videographers .

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