I was talking with a friend about how some technologies change so quickly and drastically while others seem to survive the rapid pace of “progress”.
On the topic of photography, the lightmeter comes to mind. I purchased my first Sekonic lightmeter when I was getting started in photography. Right after school I did a lot of architectural photography (shooting 4×5 film, believe it or not), and the lightmeter became one of my most essential tools. As I started incorporating more digital tools into my workflow, including the first DSLRs, the lightmeter fell a few positions on my priority list. Eventually I stopped adding it to my photo bag.
Several years went by and, depending on a myriad of factors, I determined my exposure by using histograms, external monitors, or the camera’s LCD monitor. Now that our shooting assignments consist almost entirely of video, the once-abandoned lightmeter has now found its place back on my list of essential tools.
Why? Six reasons:
- Storytelling. Light is the most important element in cinematography.We can tell stories without sound or color or movement, but we can’t shoot without light. Even if we have unbelievable cameras that shoot in the dark. We tell stories with light.
- Location Scouting. Before buying or renting any lighting, cameras, or lenses I need to know exactly what I will encounter. A lightmeter comes in handy with choosing a location for a shoot. It’s light weight and small size make it a very convenient tool in this case.
- Consistency. From day one to day thirty, I need to ensure that the captured footage is consistent. There are occasions where you may be using more than one camera on a job. Each camera might have slight differences in the way their internal lightmeters read the subject. A lightmeter will help unify the look of your finished project.
- Time and Money. Most of the work should be done in camera, not in post-production. Perhaps this is because I learned photography by shooting film, but the “we’ll fix it in post” approach doesn’t cut it for me. If your footage is inconsistent (see point #3) your post-production will take even longer and will eat away at your budget. Make your editor’s job easier by taking the extra time to get it right the first time.
- Objectivity. Unlike our eyes, the lightmeter is objective. With today’s wide variety of lens options and great flexibility to use a manufacturer’s lens with another manufacturer’s camera, truly understanding how a specific lens and camera combination capture light is key. I use lightmeters as a “confirmation” of that what my eyes see is correct.
- Timeless Technology. It used to be the case that one would own two or three camera bodies and a few lenses. After a while photographers would become familiarized with the camera, lens, and film combination (typically 100, 200, 400, and 800 ISO), and closely guessing an exposure became second nature. Now, different projects demand different systems, and we have the ability to constantly mix sensor sizes, enhance “native” sensitivities via firmware updates and “hacks”, and easily vary frame rates. We need a tool that can help us navigate through this wonderful but ever expanding world of options. I believe the lightmeter is that tool.
So, time to find that dusty lightmeter in your drawer, change its batteries, and begin using it again. It will make your life much easier.
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.