Why you should still consider buying a handheld meter for your photography

Pinning your exposure to get the most from your RAW or JPEG file is fundamental to post processing your images

In a previous post, Thinking about Exposure, I talked about how using a handheld light meter can help you determine the optimal exposure in order to capture the maximum amount of data to be saved to your digital file, RAW or JPEG.

Back in the days of analogue film and when I worked in portrait and wedding photography, the first thing we did after a days photo shoot and after having our technicians process are negatives, was to check the negatives to ensure that a) they had been processed correctly and b) that the negatives contained all the detail necessary to create a print. Getting correctly exposed negatives always involved using a handheld meter in incident light mode, to set an initial exposure. And then, we would measure other important areas of the scene to ensure that the lighting was balanced.

Determining the correct exposure for a digital file is no different, except that we don’t have a negative to check. We rely on our digital cameras histogram, live view or playback mode to check exposure. All of these things only guide us, none of them tell us exactly where the scenes tones fall and reflected light meters, such as those build into your camera are not as accurate as using a handheld light meter in incident light metering mode.

Below I have listed my recommended meters.

Gossen Digisix 2

Buy from amazon

The Gossen Digisix 2 is an incident and reflected light meter with integrated contrast measurement, which indicates whether or not subjects brightest and darkest part of the can be managed by the sensor or the film.

Digipro F2

Buy from amazon

The Digipro F2 takes light measurements for flash and ambient light, displays mixed lighting conditions as well as required multiple flashes, and performs contrast measurements too.

Gossen Starlight 2

Buy from amazon


The Starlite 2 is Gossens flagship lightmeter. It is capable of taking ambient and flash readings in incident and reflected modes. The Starlite 2 also functions as a spot-meter and can make use of the zone system and average out up to nine measurements.

Check out the exposures in the three pictures below, before any post processing:

The first is underexposed, the exposure for the middle picture was derived from an incident light reading taken next to the cat’s face and the last image is overexposed.

Now watch the slide show below after post processing these images.

The first slide has been recovered from an under exposure but it its dull and the cats eyes lack shine, I could work more on the image in post processing, dodging burning etc… but that is more work and time.

The second slide has needed hardly any post processing, in fact, it took me two seconds to post process this image as it was correctly metered using an incident light meter, all the tones fell into their natural places.

The third slide was an overexposed image, it too lacks the richness of colour of the correctly exposed image. Also note how the detail in the cats fur has been lost.

In summary

  • Under exposure has led to a duller looking final image and needs more work to recover it.
  • The correct exposure has lead to a pleasing image with little post processing needed.
  • Over exposure has led to losing detail in the cats fur and was not recoverable.

As good as digital cameras are and even though we have powerful post processing tools at our disposal, it is still important to meter correctly for your subject. And in my biew there is still a place for handheld meters.

PS: The cat’s name is Pistache 🙂



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