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Do I need a handheld light meter?

A partial review of Sekonic L-308S light meter


It's a common question. Not everyone does, point&shooters won't bother with it, but many photographers clearly can use a meter. It still depends... The camera meter generally cannot meter flash (excepting one hot shoe TTL flash). To meter multiple flash in a studio situation, yes, the handheld meter is the necessary norm, to know what your lights are doing. Photos outdoors without flash, it becomes greatly more optional. We all already use a light meter, a very good one is in the camera. However, it is a reflected meter, and it does not meter flash (not most flash). These are limitations. We can learn compensation to use the reflected meter in the camera, and then it does a lot. But a better handheld meter normally can meter incident or reflected light, and can meter flash or continuous light. An incident meter certainly has strong advantages.

Reflected meters are aimed at the subject from the camera, and meters the light that the subject's colors reflect.
The white dress or background reflects a lot of light, and reads high, so the meter underexposes the picture.
The black dress or background reflects little light, and reads low, so the meter overexposes the picture.
The expected reflected goal is that all results come out middle gray brightness, not too dark, not too bright. This is all the meter can do. Fortunately, many typical scenes contain a random mix of dark and light colors that will probably average out about middle gray, then the middle gray result can often be about correct. When otherwise, we can compensate it, to correct it to come out as as we want, brighter or darker, as needed.

Incident meters are the reverse, aimed at the camera from the subject, which reads the incident light from the light source directly (is never influenced by the "subject").
So then any subject tone, be its colors light, dark, or middle, is shown as it is. Kind of a big deal. Point&shoot where it counts. :) Incident meters have the accuracy that newbies imagine their reflected meters ought to have (but can't). Of course this is not possible at the camera, incident meters meter the light incident on the subject (from the subjects position).

IMO, the subject of handheld meters is primarily about incident metering. The camera meter can do as well or better than any hand-held reflected meter, but incident meters have a practical accuracy only dreamed of by reflected meters. And incident meters can meter flash.

Incident metering, and/or Manual flash, are probably about the only reasons to choose a handheld meter. Very big reasons however. See a closer look at incident metering differences. Your style of metering at the camera has to change though.

Other than TTL flash, the camera meter does not meter manual flash. We can easily adjust one hot shoe flash in manual flash mode, done trial and error by eye on the rear LCD image, or histogram. So people might tell you "nah, you don't need no stinkin' meter", but they only know about their one flash. But what about multiple studio flash? Not everyone uses multiple studio lights, but if you do, you certainly will appreciate the handheld meter (you already know this, really no other way to do it consistently). Otherwise, how will you duplicate your last sessions lighting setup again? Lighting is really no longer merely about exposure, but is about ratio, the relative power of each flash. The handheld meter makes it be easy to set each light to an exact value, both easy to do it, and in particular, to know what you are doing. The camera commander becomes insufficient, it only controls two individual lights, but our setup may use four lights. And the handheld meter is incident, the commander is reflected. These are big differences, and a big deal.

This all seems pretty obvious, but usually none of it is ever mentioned in discussions about if hand-held meter is useful. Many people may not understand why a handheld meter might be used. The camera meter does reflective metering very well. This handheld meter purpose is normally about incident metering, and/or about metering flash. There may be other minor considerations, but if flash or incident metering advantages were your concerns, then the handheld meter is the solution. If you only want another reflected meter, I'd think about that longer. If you use reflected metering, the camera meter is hard to beat (but there is still flash). It has advantages (internal meter sees same angle of view as the lens), and it can do Spot too. But yes, other features are available, notably incident and flash metering.

This Sekonic L-308S meter, $160, is the simpler and less expensive Sekonic model, Sekonic L-308S Flashmate Light Meter Digital (Black). No frills, but all the basics, and it can meter incident or reflected light, and it can meter flash or continuous ambient. IMO for studio use, it will do all that needs to be done.

The new current model is the L-308S-U, $199. I don't detect any difference in the ad, other than a 3 year warranty, and the price on the older model dropped. New Sekonic L-308S-U Flashmate Lightmeter And Exclusive 3-Year Warranty

Incident and reflected metering results probably vary slightly, because incident is directly reading the light source, and reflected is reading the reflection of whatever 40 degree wide subject and colors that it sees. This is why we use incident.

I also have a Sekonic L-358 (no longer in production). The current replacement is the L-478D, which has a touch screen.

The L-358 is very nice, it's been a classic, and I like its wheel better than the up/down buttons. If I used it outdoors, I'd like its aperture preferred option too. To meter reflected light, you have to swap out its dome (which becomes a 54 degree field). Nothing is wrong with it, but I don't need its frills, which are simply wasted on me. I use the camera meter outdoors, and only use a handheld meter for multiple studio flash, and the L-308S is not missing anything for that.

For metering reflected light, this L-358 model replaces the dome with a flat disk provided instead. The L-308 model has a disk for flat subjects, but for reflected, it removes the dome, to use the bare sensor instead. But frankly, if we have incident metering, we use incident. And incident is ideal for metering flash (at the subject).


Use of a light meter:

I use the handheld incident meter mostly for multiple flash studio, used a few minutes each session to setup the lights. It's great to measure each flash individually, to set the power level of each light right, to know what they are doing, and that they are doing what we want them to do. And of course, then we can repeat the setup easily again next time. Incident meters are wonderful (better accuracy than reflected meters). However, I've also used reflected meters forever, so ambient exposure, or flash compensation, with the camera meter is no mystery, still convenient for everything else (other than multiple manual flash). However, beginners will need to learn that reflected meters are just a guide, affected by what you point them at, and which don't always indicate precise proper exposure. The L-308S is also an incident meter, so exposure accuracy is not much issue, but incident meters do have to meter from the subjects position. Experience with both types can teach a few things about metering exposure.

The L-308S has all the basics, and works great. Minimal in that it has none of the frills, but first class on the basics we actually need. There is no question about its accuracy (Specifications list slightly less extreme range, but same +/- 0.1 EV accuracy as top of the line). It just does not have any of the extras seen in more expensive models. It simply meters the lights, and does what it needs to do, and does it very well, but no frills. I call them added frills, of no use to me, but perhaps workaround is an experience/skill thing. Others may consider them more essential, but simplicity and ease of use are major features too.

Among these missing frills Not in this L-308S economy model are these features:


Perhaps that seems a long list, and your needs may be different, but none of it would help me to meter the lights. After using the L-308S several years, I don't feel I'm missing anything. What the meter does do is to meter the light, very well. The L-308S does exactly what I want it to do, no more, no less. Simplicity and ease of use also seems a major feature. However, the Sekonic L478D is about $100 more, about like the L358 except with a touch screen (said hard to read in bright light). It does include these other features, and more, you can study the user manuals, which are available on the Sekonic product pages.

The L-308S is simple to use, no complex menus or features. It just measures the light. The meter has a mode for continuous light (the sun icon), and it has two modes for flash, called corded and cordless. Corded means using a PC sync cord as described in the example next below. Or Cordless uses no PC cord, but instead after pushing its button, it waits 90 seconds to see a flash fire, any way you can trigger it, and then it meters that flash.

It meters incident light with the dome aimed at the camera from the subjects position, and it meters reflected light with the dome aimed at the subject from the camera position. The Lumisphere (dome shown) is used for normal 3D subjects, and there is a flat "Lumidisc" used for metering flat 2D copy (paper, paintings, etc). The dome slides away from its lens only for purpose of swapping these two. The meter does not necessarily meter the same view that the lens will see. The L-308S meter's reflected field of view is 40 degrees, which field width matches a 50mm FX lens, or a 32mm DX lens. The L-308S uses one AA battery, which seems handy.

A light meter is used for real actual old fashioned manual flash, like studio flash units, or the mode called M on the speedlight. Specifically, no commander, no TTL. We cannot meter TTL flash, which is pointless anyway (the camera controls it), then all we meter is the weak TTL preflash. And the Commander firing all its flashed commands is very bad news too (some ifs and buts on the AWL page here). The light meter is for real manual flash.


To illustrate the common way a hand-held meter would be used for multiple manual lights (like say studio lights, or could be speedlights):

I aim the meter directly at the flash being metered for ratio. I should replace the dome with the flat disk to meter this way (to exclude light from other angles), but it seems unimportant if only one light is on, and I don't bother. The dome definitely is aimed at the camera for any incident reading for camera exposure. The idea of the spherical dome is that it properly factors the cosine response of lights at other angles.

I use the Sekonic L-308S meter by connecting a 15 foot PC sync cord (cord comes with the studio light) between the meter and ONE flash (the only flash turned on). From under the subjects chin, a button on the meter triggers the flash and meters it. I start with the Main light, and set its power level to read 1/3 or 2/3 stop less than the fstop I want the camera to use (the fill light will add it back, depending on ratio). Then I move the cord to the next of four lights (and turn only it on), and repeat to set its level. This is to set each light to the power I want it to be, so I know what they are doing. Like maybe main f/8, fill 1.0 or 1.5 stops less than main, background often about same as main, and hair light depends on hair color, maybe 1 stop more than main for black hair, maybe 1 stop less than main for light hair. Then I know what I am doing, and I know what the lights are doing. And another overwhelming advantage, I can repeat this same setup quickly next time, no guessing. I can do all this (except hair) before my subject arrives. Incident meter is aimed at each light for this, from subjects position (which could be me, sitting there). Background light is metered at background surface, aimed at its light. Hair metered at hair, aimed at its light. Hair light is a starting point, can be close, but hair color may require some trial and error (how it shines in a test picture).

Then I turn on only the two main and fill lights (no background, no hair light, etc) and meter this exposure for the camera aperture. Meter under subjects chin, aimed at camera here.

Your subject may not have arrived yet, but you're done and ready now (except for seeing the hair light). Just turn all lights on, move sync cord from meter to camera, and go at it. This cord connects to the near light, which is the fill light, back near the camera, behind and above camera in my case. From the camera, fill light is aimed at the subject, but which is also towards the optical slaves on the other lights. This is so simple, and very reliable.

If you are using multiple manual flash, there are not many options... such an handheld meter is the way to meter flash, and KNOW what you are doing (and repeat it next time).

If you want to work in continuous light, the meter will do that too. As will the camera meter, but incident has strong advantages. So it may be optional, but the handheld metering subject is about incident or reflected. And incident means metering the actual light source directly, exposure independent of the subjects influence, but metered at the subjects location (with only minor exception, clear sky bright sun is mostly the same everywhere in sight).


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