Photographer and educator Frank Doorhof has done it all. Starting out as a young photo hobbyist, he then started a computer company, dove into video, gave that up to shoot for magazines, and then started over again as a photo educator, giving seminars, teaching, and releasing books.
He has been advocating the use of light meters for some time. We were shocked we hadn’t featured him here before. Below, Frank shares his philosophy behind metering light and shares a couple chosen photos.
As far back as I can remember, I have always associated photography with metering light. Let’s be honest, we, as photographers, are painting with light or, if you want a less cliché saying, we tell our stories with light.
When I think back, I can still see my grandfather metering the available light with an old meter and setting his camera accordingly. Back then there were not many fancy cameras that could nail the exposure right away.
Nowadays, we have cameras with auto everything: auto ISO, P(anic) modes, and digital Polaroids on the back of the camera. I always say, when you buy a violin, you’re just someone who owns a violin; however, when you buy a camera, you’re a photographer. It’s true and it’s awesome; learning photography has never ever been so easy, however….
Getting the correct exposure is, indeed, not a real problem anymore. The moment you pick up your camera, you can see what you’re doing and get instant results. You know immediately if you did well or not. However, this is only the beginning.
What people sometimes forget is that photography is much, much more than a correctly exposed image, photography is telling stories, freezing moments in time that are important for news, yourself or even for history.
If I had to give advice to people just starting out (or even to those who have already been shooting for a long time), it would be to find that story. I mainly shoot fashion and celebrities, so one might think the story is less important with those shoots, however that is not true. In my (personal) opinion, anyone with basic photographic knowledge can take a good portrait; however, to capture someone’s essence, someone’s character — now that’s a totally different story. We need to dive deeper to really make a connection during the shoot. There has to be that little bit extra, that sparkle, that feeling of “wow, it looks like he/she is really present.”
Over the years I’ve been teaching people to shoot with light meters and colorcheckers and getting their workflow in order they can take accurate exposures. Sometimes people even refer to me as “the light meter guy.” Some people think that as soon as they start using a meter they will get images the pros (or me) get and, trust me, that’s missing the point.
I strongly believe it’s of vital importance one should learn how light behaves, how to manipulate it, and, most importantly, how to tell a story with it.
For me, the light meter and colorchecker are just the foundations onto which I build my art. Without them, I could make the same shots but it would take me longer, I would make more mistakes and lose more images. Using a meter is just quicker.
There are loads of people who will claim using a meter is old-fashioned, a relic from another era. For these people, I always relate the following example, which is often all it takes to convince them.
Imagine you’re shooting a model without a meter. You have to realize that digital polaroid on the back of your camera (you know that thing that emits light and shows the image you just took?) is very unreliable, especially when you’re shooting RAW (which you are doing of course :D). It’s showing you a JPEG thumbnail with the settings and the curves connected to the colorspace you have set in your camera. This means, for example, middle gray can be in a totally different location on your display than it will be in your workflow.
But that’s not all. Now let’s say we are shooting a dark skinned model. You take a photo and look at the histogram. Where should her skin be? Do you know the numbers of your skin? I would guess not. The histogram is not a good tool to rely on to get accurate exposures.
I’ll admit, the histogram is pretty cool; however, it only shows you the distribution of tones from black to white. If you shoot a snowman in a snowstorm all your tones will be close to the right, if you shoot a black cat in a coal mine they will all be to the left. But where should they be exactly? Well, for that, we have to know the proper values of the area you are metering for and, you feel it coming, you need a meter for that. :D
Shooting with a meter can seem confusing at first, but once you learn to use it properly, it will be the simplest tool in your bag.
Ready? Here’s how easy using a light meter is.
Point your meter towards the light source and set the meter on FULL F-STOPS. It will show you, for example, F8.3 meaning it meters F8 + 3/10 of an F-stop. Now you have to know your camera works in 1/3rd stops. This means if your meter reads F8.3, set your camera to F8 and dial one step up on the camera.
For starters that’s all you need to know.
Once you start getting the hang of it, you can start experimenting with reflective metering, which will give you a very quick idea about which details in a scene will show in the shadow areas, if whites will blow out, etc. Take a look at my blog to see some of the articles I’ve written about this.
Using a meter doesn’t make you old-fashioned but it will give you confidence about what you’re doing. Trust me, it’s much more professional if you meter the light and your first image is spot on, instead of first struggling with your light to get it to be decent and delivering a series to a client that has a different skin brightness’ in every light setup.
Think about it this way, if you play a musical instrument in a band, you start out playing in tune. It would be a bit weird if the first 10-20 seconds of every song were totally out of tune :D It’s the same for photography.
Now, what meter should I buy? For me, personally. I would advise you to get a meter with a spotmeter option, such as the awesome Sekonic L-758, L-558 or L-358 with the spot attachment. They’re not cheap, but they will speed up your workflow, make you more confident (meaning you can experiment more freely), and make you look good in front of your clients. Nailing the exposure the first time is, shockingly, something not seen that much anymore.
Plus, your meter will be with you for a long time, much longer than your camera or even your lenses.