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handheld Light Meters - questions!


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#1 Danny Lachman

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 01:37 PM

My question pertains to light meters.

I was working as a stand in on a christmas movie this summer and I got to work up close with the DP. I noticed his extensive (and understandable) use of the handheld light meter.

I was wondering about the effectiveness of these meters and exactly where do you point them to gather the light your reading. (the wight semi sphere?)

I do lots of 35mm photography in order to learn about motion film, but I notice that my cameras built in light meter gives a vague reading and in turn it's hard to get the perfect exposure. That coupled with the fact that my camera does not read my lenses F-stops. (all for the better!)

anyways - could someone give an basic explanation of how to properly use a handheld meter? I want to use one but they look kind of tricky to use.

-also don't be afraid to get technical.
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#2 Dan Horstman

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 04:24 PM

There are two kinds of light meters, Incident and Spot.

The incident meter is the one with the white globe you describe. You hold the meter so the globe faces the camera. This will read the amount of light falling on your subject from the angle that your camera is facing. Use this for taking a general reading.

To take a meter reading with a spot meter, you point the meter at the subject. This measures the amount of light reflecting off the subject. Use this to check your highlights and shadows to see what will be exposed. The spot meter can also be used to take a general reading by placing an 18% gray card in the scene and spot reading the card.

If you are new to filmmaking use the Incident meter and forget about the spot meter right now.
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#3 Drew Hoffman

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 03:39 AM

My question pertains to light meters.

I was working as a stand in on a christmas movie this summer and I got to work up close with the DP. I noticed his extensive (and understandable) use of the handheld light meter.

I was wondering about the effectiveness of these meters and exactly where do you point them to gather the light your reading. (the wight semi sphere?)

I do lots of 35mm photography in order to learn about motion film, but I notice that my cameras built in light meter gives a vague reading and in turn it's hard to get the perfect exposure. That coupled with the fact that my camera does not read my lenses F-stops. (all for the better!)

anyways - could someone give an basic explanation of how to properly use a handheld meter? I want to use one but they look kind of tricky to use.

-also don't be afraid to get technical.


Probably the main reason you have trouble getting the right exposure on your still camera is that you have to understand the nature of what it's telling you. Reflective light meters, like the one in your camera, have no idea what you're pointing them at, so they assume. A reading from a reflective meter gives you a reading assuming that you're pointing it something that is a middle grey (or reflects 18% of the light that hits it) so if what you're pointing it at is white, it will tell you to expose it like it's grey and your image will be underexposed. If what you're point it at is black, your image will be overexposed. The trick is to think about what your pointing it at and adjust to compensate for it and that will come with practice.

The white semisphere of an incident measures the light falling on the subject (as opposed to the light being reflected like your still camera). There are times where it's better to use an incident meter and there are times where a reflective meter is more useful. The only real trick with an incident meter is knowing how to position it so the light is accurately hitting it. The way that I was first taught how to take an incident reading is to position the bulb in front of your subject and point it toward the camera so the light hitting the bulb is similar to the light hitting the subject's face... this will give you a pretty good general idea of an exposure.
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#4 Thomas Worth

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 07:40 AM

The incident meter is the one with the white globe you describe. You hold the meter so the globe faces the camera. This will read the amount of light falling on your subject from the angle that your camera is facing.

There seems to be two schools of thought on this. The first is to point the incident meter's globe at the camera, taking an overall reading of all light in the scene. The second is to point the globe at the light source. I tend to favor the latter, but this requires you to use some more thought since you will be reading light sources separately and must use that information to determine exposure. This affords you more control because it will allow you to determine the lighting ratio. For example, if you want your key exactly 1 stop over your fill, you have to meter each light separately and make lighting adjustments based on those readings. Just sticking the incident meter in front of the actor and pointing it at the camera won't tell you how bright your key is in relation to any other light in the scene.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 10:34 AM

The white semisphere of an incident measures the light falling on the subject (as opposed to the light being reflected like your still camera). There are times where it's better to use an incident meter and there are times where a reflective meter is more useful. The only real trick with an incident meter is knowing how to position it so the light is accurately hitting it. The way that I was first taught how to take an incident reading is to position the bulb in front of your subject and point it toward the camera so the light hitting the bulb is similar to the light hitting the subject's face... this will give you a pretty good general idea of an exposure.


That actually averages the exposure between the key and fill. If you want to read the key seperately, you need to point it at the light, not the camera. Imagine a situation of a single side-light on a face but then the camera moves 360 degrees around the face. There is no single camera position to point the meter at.

Now pointing the dome at the camera may give you the exposure you want because it slightly overexposes a side key, but I'd rather measure the light and then decide how to expose it creatively. But whatever works for you.
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#6 Danny Lachman

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Posted 20 August 2006 - 03:20 PM

wow thank you so much for this helpful advice everyone!!! I've noticed how great film looks when you expose it correctly. ( I usually can get away with being a few stops off - but it's never as good as getting the right stop) This will most certainly help me get up to running on how to use a light meter and get the film exposed properly. I read all the comments with much thought and I believe that they give me the answer I needed - especially info about the grey card. Thank you all very much!
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#7 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 20 August 2006 - 05:31 PM

Probably the main reason you have trouble getting the right exposure on your still camera is that you have to understand the nature of what it's telling you. Reflective light meters, like the one in your camera, have no idea what you're pointing them at, so they assume. A reading from a reflective meter gives you a reading assuming that you're pointing it something that is a middle grey (or reflects 18% of the light that hits it) so if what you're pointing it at is white, it will tell you to expose it like it's grey and your image will be underexposed.


Reflective meters do not have to be pointed at 18% gray. That is just one method to get average exposure. Reflective meters can be pointed directly at a subject to see how much light is reflecting off of them.
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Ritter Battery

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Wooden Camera

Metropolis Post

Abel Cine

Broadcast Solutions Inc

FJS International, LLC

The Slider

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

Rig Wheels Passport

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Aerial Filmworks

Visual Products