The historic, esoteric and mostly surpassed use of a light meter. Because all cameras have them built-in now, don’t they? Or you chimp it and make corrections. Or fix it in post -that’s what RAW files are for, no?
Incidentally – chimping. I was listening to a program on etymology, like you do, and they were discussing new words and changed words with the introduction of digital technologies. So the old salt Fleet Street photographers were gradually getting dig’ed up and what they saw was their colleagues pointing at the backs of their cameras and going ‘ooh, ooh’. Chimping.
And yes you can use autoexposure or the histogram or even drag something out of RAW. But my oldest camera is older than me and has nothing but a lens. Besides, I went through Zone phase where I wanted to spot-meter every object in the frame before agreeing with what the film packaging suggested was a reasonable exposure. First up though was an incident meter, because I had been told that this was the one true path to enlightenment. It could well be so for portraits, where you can put the meter under their nose and play with the lights. There is still some disagreement over how to meter backlighting though. But still, I got me an incident meter and proceeded to make a whole body of work with underexposed shadows. Fine for slides, as there is a chance of keeping some detail in the highlights. Crap for negatives. And total rubbish for any situation where you can’t walk out to where the subject is to take a reading.
So I tried an ordinary reflected-light meter. In this case a Leningrad that came in a strange-smelling leather case. Mixed results. If the scene was average and I pointed it in an average direction I got mostly average results. It lied like a sneaky thing when it got dark or if the light was in the cross-over range between the high and low measuring scales. The problem was that I seemed to spend my time taking pictures in minimal lighting. That and dodgy cameras with small-aperture lenses and inappropriate film. It still works and it’s small and robust enough to be the meter of choice when I need one. I’ve kind of learned its ways too, so there is a bit less transparency on my negatives than before.
For my Zone period I naturally bought a spot meter. A cheap and unpopular one off eBay, obviously. Oh, the fun I had metering things! I can see why people with large format cameras use spot meters for landscapes: anything else would have walked away by the time they were ready to take the picture. I can see a use for the spot meter though, in situations where the subject can’t be approached and is under different lighting to the rest of the scene. Something happening on stage perhaps. The meter is pretty big though and takes up space that I could use for an extra lens or camera. Did you see that news item where someone taking star photos on a beach in Ireland had the police called on them because they looked like a sniper? I wonder what would happen to me, walking around with a pistol that I keep raising to my eye? Imagine trying to use a Zenith Photosniper or an old Novoflex lens in public. We shouldn’t have to worry about these things.
I’m afraid I had an attack of the groovies and bought a Weston meter. It’s a think of beauty and just having it round your neck will make your pictures turn out better. It’s a way better reflected light meter than the Lying Bastard (the Leningrad). It’s also heavier and has more fiddly bits, so it just feels that it ought to be more accurate. The invercone business for taking incident readings is very fiddly though. My original incident meter works far better for this, not least because you can use it by holding it up in front of yourself. To use the invercone on the Weston you have to turn round and face away from the subject. No big deal, right? Try doing it when you are walking.
I got a narrow-angle Minolta Viewmeter 9 cheap. This looked ideal; it’s a half-way stage between a true spot meter and a standard reflected light meter. I guess the reason it was cheap is that it soon died. It’s on my desk at the moment with the lid off as I trace the wiring and solder joints. There’s a whole load of pulleys, strings and springs as well, so I am working up the nerve to lift the workings out of the casing. Hopefully not Fup Duck.
Weirdly, or maybe not, I’ve got a bit of plastic that works as well as any of my meters for general photography. It’s a Johnson Standard Exposure Calculator. Basically a numbered wheel set inside a numbered frame. Dial-in the type of scene, the weather, the month and time and the ISO and it gives you the exposure. It sounds complicated but it’s four movements of the dial. And it works. It says that it is based on the British Standard Exposure Tables BS 935, so it will work at this particular latitude north (or presumably south as well). For negative film it works great. It’s also tiny and lightweight. What’s not to love?
Basically it’s a sunny sixteen list, corrected for season and weather. I have an extended list in my notebook that gives estimates covering the range of -6 to 16 EV. I’ve also got notes I made over the ages (I do kinda miss those dinosaurs) that cover moonlight, the flare of a match and lit by flames. Sounds like a good night out. Strangely, I have actually used some of these. There does come a time when it’s so dark that the best you can do is guess, so it’s handy to have a starting point.
Still, it’s all fun and games as you try to get your eye in. I will continue to carry some form of light meter for the cameras that don’t have one of their own. I will continue to find myself struggling with dimness. But I’m learning.