Everything You Need to Know About Metering In Film Photography


Metering is one of the fundamental aspects of film photography as without an understanding of it you will not be able to achieve the correct exposure in your photos.

Put simply, metering is the act of figuring out how much light the scene you’re shooting needs, and then setting your camera’s functions accordingly. You do this by using a light meter.

The first question many people have is, what kind of light meter should I use? And the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. You can use your camera’s in-built light meter, a handheld incidence or reflective meter, or a mobile app. Each photographer has their preference but the only important thing is that it does its job of measuring light.

Photos by Photos by Alex Gray. Metered using in-built light meter on the Pentax ME Super

If your camera has an in-built light meter, excellent, you’re good to go. Just keep in mind that light meters in old cameras can sometimes be faulty and inaccurate, so if you’re using your camera’s light meter for the first time, it’s worth double checking the reading with another method as well.

The other factor to consider when using your camera’s light meter is that it will be giving you an average of the overall light in the scene rather than the part of the scene you actually want to be exposed perfectly. So, for example, if you’re taking a portrait and your subject is backlit against the sun, your camera will tell you to meter for that strong backlight, which if adhered to, would result in your subject being underexposed. You can see this mistake in the images below.

Photos by Alex Gray. underexposed images.

Even in a less extreme scenario it can sometimes be difficult to tell if your camera's light meter is going to give you the best result. One way to try and make sure you don’t get caught out by this mistake is to bracket your shots. First take the image according to your light meter’s reading, then take another shot one stop overexposed, and another one stop under. This way you’re sure to get at least one perfectly exposed image.

(a stop in photography refers to increments of light controlled by aperture. So if you’re shooting at an aperture of f.8, one stop above would be f.10, and one stop below is f.5.6)

example of bracketing shots. Left: - 1 stop, Middle: correct exposure according to light meter, Right: + 1 stop.

But you may want to make sure you get more accurate results every time you meter a scene. In this case an external light meter may be the way to go. These light meters come in two main types, reflective meters (which measure the amount of light hitting the subject and bouncing back to the meter), and incident meters (which measure the amount of light falling on the subject.)

Reflective (or spot) meters are especially good if you don’t want to waste film by bracketing and taking multiple shots. With a reflective meter it’s often a good idea to take multiple readings, from both the highlights and shadows in your scene, and set your camera to get the perfect exposure.

Incident meters are popular because they are good for getting a fast reading of a scene, making them ideal for street photography. Just place the meter next to the subject, pointing at the light source to get a reading.

Professional light meters by brands like Sekonic or Minolta are lauded by many photographers, but they also come at a hefty price. If you don’t feel like dropping a large lump of money and adding yet another piece of gear to your arsenal, then you can use a mobile app. This is our personal preference as only needing to carry your phone helps to keep things simple.

Photos by Alex Gray using Exposure Light Meter app for Android

There are loads of free or cheap light-meter apps available and most of them do a solid job. Just remember that their accuracy varies depending not only on the app developers but also on your phone’s hardware. A few favorites include, Pocket Light Meter, myLightMeterPro, Lux Light Meter pro, and Lumu Light Meter.

When using a handheld light meter of any kind you can more easily get close to your subject to make a reading. This way it will give you the correct exposure for the part of the scene that is your focus. As mentioned you can even take multiple readings of different parts of the scene to figure out exactly how you want to meter the photo. External light meters and mobile apps all differ slightly but the standard way of operating them will be something like this: You set the ISO, and choose an f.stop (aperture) you want to use, then your light meter will tell you the correct shutter speed to use.

In film photography, a good general rule of thumb is to meter for the shadows. This is because negative film handles overexposure much better than underexposure. You’ll make sure to retain information in the shadows and also avoid blown out highlights as well. However if you underexpose you’re much more likely to lose information on your negatives.

Photos by Alex Gray - metered for shadows

Overexposing is essentially pretending you have more light in the scene than you actually do. To overexpose by one stop you can change your shutter speed (e.g from 1/500 to 1/125) or your aperture (e.g from f.5.6 to f.4). But probably the easiest way is to tell your lightmeter to read for the “wrong” ISO (e.g ISO 200 instead of 400.)

Keep in mind that you might want to meter differently in different situations, or depending on the “look” you’re going for. In recent years color negative film overexposed to an exaggerated degree has become an especially common and fashionable aesthetic, but you may prefer a more high contrast or grungy look. So experiment with different exposures and see what works for you. It all comes down to personal preference.

Of course you may want to be a maverick and forgo the use of a lightmeter completely by using the “sunny 16” rule. This rule is not the most accurate method of metering, especially in difficult lighting situations, but it’s a great way to train yourself to understand light, and also takes away the need for a lightmeter.

Photos by Alex Gray using sunny 16 rule

To follow the sunny 16 rule, the first thing you should do is set your shutter speed to the number that matches closest to your ISO. So if you’re using ISO 400 you should set your shutter speed to 1/500 sec. For ISO 200 it would be 1/250 sec, and ISO 100 would be 1/90 or 1/125 sec. Set it and forget it!

From here you use the lighting conditions to estimate the correct aperture. On a bright sunny day f.16 is optimum. If there are a few clouds in the sky then move down to f.11. If, like us, you’re currently experiencing Europe in winter, you’re probably going to spend most of your time at a gloomy f.5.6. You get the idea.

The Sunny 16 Rule infographic courtesy of Esmer Olvera on flickr.

Of course things can get a little more complicated. For instance you might want to shoot with a shallow depth of field on a sunny day which would be impossible at f.16. This is a situation when it can be a lot easier to rely on an external light meter.

We hope this has given you plenty to think about and experiment with. Whichever method you choose to use, remember to have fun most importantly and share your results here with our community!

What type of light meter do you favor? And did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.

written by alexgray on 2023-01-10 #tutorials #exposure #tipster #light-meter #tech-junkie


  1. rolfmg
    rolfmg ·

    @klawe me too

  2. northofbangor
    northofbangor ·

    I generally use the meter in my cameras. All three are still accurate. But I also carry an old Gossen Luna Pro handheld as a back-up or for tricky situations. Lastly, I occasionally test myself with the Sunny 16 method by estimating the exposure and then checking it with a meter. A good habit to get into I think, for that inevitable day when batteries die or meter stops working.

  3. alexgray
    alexgray ·

    @klawe me too, for speed and simplicity, but I still sometimes get confused when adjusting settings for a shallow depth of field!

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