My last post showed why it’s difficult to get the exposure right with the reflective meters in our cameras. They measure the light without being able to differentiate whether a subject is bright, dark or in-between.

This one is how to get accurate exposures every time. The trick is to measure light before it hits the subject. You have to be either speed-of-light fast to do that or… use an incident meter, the one with the little white dome. Best of all most modern incident meters measure flash and ambient light separately or bonus! at the same time.

Sekonic ioncident light meters

Sekonic L-758DR & L-478DR incident light meters

There are two major players in the light meters for photography field. Gossen and Sekonic, made in Germany and Japan respectively. I have used both brands over the years along with the venerable and sadly, no longer available Flashmeter IV from Minolta. Fortunately light meter science has progressed a lot. Since digital capture came on the scene I’ve been using Sekonic’s L-758DR. I was an early adopter (serial number 21) because it can be calibrated to the sensor in the camera and it has a built in Pocket Wizard transmitter for triggering electronic flashes without wires. This isn’t an endorsement of either brand. It is an enthusiastic endorsement of using incident metering to determine exposure. Here’s how:

Walk up to a subject, then point the incident meter’s dome directly at the source of light. Take the reading. It will be very close to “right on.

With only the primary source of light on, point the dome of the incident meter at it then take the

With only the primary source of light on, point the dome of the incident meter at it then take the reading.

Simple right? I know you’re thinking “It can’t be that easy. Nothing in photography is that simple.” For the most part though, it really is that easy. Why? No matter how complex the lighting set up is, there is always a primary source of light for the most important part of the photo. Measure it then set that exposure on the camera. Every other light in the image functions in support of the primary source and exposure set on the camera. Their quality, color and intensity is a matter of the photographer’s vision, aesthetic or simply, taste.

The photograph on the left of Jessica is lit with a gridded Dynalite studio head in a 22 inch beauty dish. This is my source of illumination. This light is the one that I metered with the incident meter to get the exposure to set on the camera–1/125th of a second, f/11, ISO: 100. With the exception of her face, Jessica is a silhouette. The contrast between her body and the background is quite high.

The exposure of both photos is the same. The left side shows the effect of the one stop darker fill.

The exposure of both photos is the same. The left side shows the effect of the one stop darker fill.

The only way to lower contrast is to add light to the shadows. A six foot square Chimera light panel with a single Dynalite head behind it about a stop darker than the beauty dish fills in the rest of the photo. This light serves the primary source by lowering the contrast. It’s brightness is entirely my choice. It can even be brighter than the dish if I want it to be. How these lights are set and so forth are the exclusive decision of the photographer. The exposure still remains the same. My intention for this image was to have Jessica’s face be the brightest part of my photograph. The viewer will see her face first then look at her red St. John’s gown. The slightly darker background makes her stand out in its frame.

The lighting is straight forward. Take a look at the lighting diagram for this shot.

Exposure is set for the beauty dish. Fill comes from the panel and the flash head behind it.

Exposure is set for the beauty dish. Fill comes from the panel and the flash head behind it.

One more thing. When ever possible, I shoot tethered into my computer so exposure, color, composition and yes, focus can be monitored during the shoot. Nothing’s worse than returning from location only to find a problem that would have been easy to fix on the set. The next post on exposure tactics is about refining color and perfecting exposure.

Here are some useful links: Sekonic light meters:

Dynalite electronic flash systems:

Chimera light modifiers:


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Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Very useful information.

  2. I’m surprised you didn’t make note of the Lumu. Since I always have my iPhone with me anyway, I can now carry this tiny pill (less than 1″ X 1″) and just pop it into my iPhone to get an incident meter. I own a Sekonic and , but no longer need to put those huge things in my camera bag. :)

    • Hi Burt,

      I didn’t mention for two reasons. First I had no idea such a thing existed. So that’s the main one. Now that I know about it I checked LUMU’s website. The Lumu reads ambient light not flash. I use a lot of studio flash in my work so this solution won’t work for most of my situations. I am going to check it out.

      Thanks for the info Burt!

  3. This was terrific. Excellent explanation, and an inspiring idea, too.

  4. Great post! I am in the market for a new light meter so this was very useful! I also liked the description of your lighting set up used in the portrait of Jessica. Thanks!

  5. […] meter from Sekonic, the L-758DR can be calibrated by shooting test targets to match it to the exposure characteristics […]

  6. […] meters–incident and reflective–do to measure light. If you read the reflective and incident posts in my Exposure Tactics posts you have a working knowledge of the […]


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About Kevin Ames

Photography is life. Kevin Ames is living it to the fullest. His career encompasses commercial photography, authoring books on Photoshop, Lightroom, as well as on photographing women, two magazine columns (Digital Photographer’s Notebook) in Photoshop User, (Lighting Photographer’s Handbook) in Light It! and speaking engagements in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia at Photoshop World, WPPI and Photo Plus Expo. Through it all he maintains his studio in Atlanta, Georgia working with clients including A.T.&T., Westin Hotels and Honda Power Equipment. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Atlanta Sports and Fitness and exhibited at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and on corporate websites, brochures and catalogs. Kevin is a Sigma Pro and Dynalite VIP. Read his blogs on: and


Gear, Lighting, Photography, Shooting