With the introduction of digital exposure tools such as waveforms, RGB parades, and false color, light meters are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Many rising cinematographers rarely use light meters and would argue that there isn’t a need to have one. However, no matter how advanced digital cameras have become, light meters are still incredibly essential to have on a set. Exposure tools are great for setting your exposure but not for lighting in general. In this blog post, we are going through the 5 benefits of using a light meter today.
In some productions, one scene can take anywhere from one day to one month to shoot. Eyeballing the lighting for a scene and trying to replicate the same lighting on a different day is difficult. There will most likely be lighting inconsistencies somewhere that the colorist will have to fix. This is where a light meter comes in handy. Light meters allow you to accurately capture the output of each light being used and the contrast ratios on your subjects.
In-camera exposure tools are amazing advancements in technology but they come with a few caveats. The main one being you need the camera itself in order to use them. When scouting locations, you probably won’t have the camera with you on hand. A light meter can capture how much available light is at the location. Also, during pre-lights, the camera may be unavailable to test the lighting. With a light meter, the lighting department can work ahead and set up lights to create the desired contrast ratios and exposure.
When you are just using 2 or 3 lights, you’ll be able to keep track of what each light is doing pretty easily but if you are working with tens of lights, it can become a hassle to make sure each light is creating the desired look. It is possible to use a waveform to make sure the scene is properly exposed and meeting your expectations, but it is much easier to correctly set the brightness of a light as the light is being set up instead of having to make several adjustments based on what the camera shows. With light meters, you have full control over what each and every light is set up to do.
Using in-camera exposure tools is great but how one camera measures exposure may be different from another camera. Especially if the cameras are from different manufacturers. Digital cameras today have the latitude and dynamic range to give you some room for error when it comes to exposure but in practice, it’s good to use a light meter to avoid underexposure or overexposure. Your colorist will like you a lot more if you do.
Like most things in life, effective communication is essential to being a cinematographer. You can handle most of the lighting and cinematography yourself on smaller sets, but if you’re on a bigger set where you are working with 50 people, communication is key. But, how do you communicate how bright you want the key light, fill light, etc.? A light meter gives you a common language with your lighting team. You can tell your gaffer what footcandles or lux you want each light at and the gaffer can set up the lights to your exact expectations. Then, once you become ready to shoot, the adjustments to the lighting will be minimal. This saves you time and makes communication seamless with your lighting team.
On top of that, after using light meters for a while, your instincts about lighting will become fine-tuned. You’ll start to get a sense of an output of a light before checking it with a light meter and you’ll also understand foot-candles or lux and how it relates to your camera’s exposure naturally.
When film was predominantly used in the film industry, light meters were essential. Without them, film would’ve been improperly exposed and unusable. It was not optional to use a light meter. Now, there are several options cinematographers can use for exposure. It may look like the old ways are outdated and that the new ways are better but a light meter can save you time, money, and make you a better cinematographer overall.