Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.
How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?
How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?
If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.
I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.
I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.
So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.
No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.
My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.
I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.
A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?
But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.