Environmental Report #3

Comparing similar size light modifiers in light and dark environments

In a recent video I compared 7 modifiers in 9 configurations to show how they compare with each other and how much the environment affects the look of the modifiers. The modifiers in the comparison are the Photek 46-inch Softlighter II, the Interfit 48-inch folding octa, a Photoflex 45-inch reflective umbrella, a Westcott 43-inch white shoot-through umbrella, a 48-inch Parasail umbrella in both horizontal and vertical orientation, and an Interfit 32x48-inch folding softbox in both horizontal and vertical orientations.

The photos pass by quickly in the video, so I am including them in this blog post to make them easier to see.

Modifiers in a dark environment (click to enlarge)

Modifiers in a light environment (click to enlarge)

The dark environment has black v-flats on each side of the subject to reduce environmental bounce and make the shadows darker. The light environment is the same, but with white v-flats on each side to fill in and lighten the shadows. Note that the shadow edge quality is about the same in all the photos because the light sources are all about the same size. The shadow edge transition is controlled by the size of the light in relation to the subject and the contrast is controlled by how diffuse the light is and the tone of the environment.

You will also notice that all of these modifiers look pretty similar on the subject. The main difference will be in the shape of the catchlights in the eyes or on reflective objects in a still life.

What does that modifier look like?

I had a few spare minutes yesterday (New Year’s Eve), so invited a friend and her daughter over to make some photographs with a variety of light modifiers. Here are the results of the 28 configurations we tested.

All photos lit with an Interfit Photographic Honey Badger strobe head. All photos metered to f/6.3. Subject seated about 2 feet in front of white seamless paper. All lit with the single light with no reflectors or fill light. Camera was set to “daylight” white balance (yes there is that big a difference in skin tone between them) and the only post-processing on the images was to crop them to a square.

Here is the list of modifiers used and some notes:

  • Interfit 48-inch deep parabolic softbox with both diffusers in place

  • Interfit 48-inch deep parabolic softbox with only the inner diffuser

  • Interfit 48-inch deep parabolic softbox with no diffusers (open face)

  • Interfit 48-inch deep parabolic softbox with 20-inch black foam-core disk blocking the middle of the light (looks like a ring light)*

  • Neewer 36-inch parabolic softbox with CheetahStand focusing rod with the flash head pulled all the way in to the softbox

  • Neewer 36-inch parabolic softbox with CheetahStand focusing rod with the flash extended to the opening of the softbox

  • Neewer 36-inch parabolic softbox with CheetahStand focusing rod with the flash extended to the opening of the softbox and a 20-inch black foamcore disk blocking out the middle of the light*

  • SPSystems 28-inch folding octabox with both diffusers in place Light boomed over camera on axis with lens

  • SPSystems 28-inch folding octabox with only the inner diffuser

  • 22-inch Speedotron beauty dish centered over the camera with diffusion sock

  • 22-inch Speedotron beauty dish without the sock

  • 20-inch metal dish reflector centered over the camera

  • 20-inch metal dish reflector with a diffusion sock on it

  • Interfit Deep Zoom reflector at camera left

  • Interfit Deep Zoom reflector with its diffusion sock

  • Interfit Deep Zoom reflector with 10-degree grid

  • Interfit Deep Zoom reflector with 10-degree grid and diffuser to show that the diffuser negates the effect of the grid

  • 7-inch metal dish reflector

  • 7-inch metal dish reflector with one sheet of #261 diffusion

  • 7-inch metal dish reflector with two sheets of #261 diffusion

  • 7-inch metal dish reflector with 10-degree grid

  • Interfit 2x3-foot softbox pointed directly at the subjects

  • Interfit 2x3-foot softbox feathered in front of the subjects

  • Interfit 2x2-foot collapsible softbox (which comes with the Honey Badger and has a recessed front panel)

  • 2x2 softbox with a flat front (old and apparently yellowed with age)

  • Interfit 65-inch** Silver Parabolic umbrella with the head pushed almost all the way into the umbrella

  • Interfit 65-inch** Silver Parabolic umbrella with the head pushed in (focused) and a 20-inch black foam-core disk blocking the center of the light

  • Interfit 65-inch** Silver Parabolic umbrella with the head mounted on a separate light stand about 5-feet in front of the umbrella

    * see the photo below
    **measured across the opening, other companies call this a 7-foot or an 84-inch as they measure around the back arc of the umbrella

The black foam-core disk was used in an attempt to make the lights act something like a defocused Broncolor Para. The sliding focusing arm in the 36-inch para was for the same reason. But looking at the photos, I think that I like the big 48-inch Interfit Parabolic Softbox in any of its configurations (2 diffusers, inner diffuser, no diffuser).

Some photos for clarification

Strobe head mounted on a separate stand 5 feet in front of the Interfit 65-inch Silver Parabolic Umbrella

Strobe head mounted on a separate stand 5 feet in front of the Interfit 65-inch Silver Parabolic Umbrella

Black foam-core disk blocking the center of the deep parabolic softbox

Black foam-core disk blocking the center of the deep parabolic softbox

Cheetah “Chopstick” lets you position the flash head inside the softbox, sliding it closer to or farther from the back of the softbox to focus the light

Cheetah “Chopstick” lets you position the flash head inside the softbox, sliding it closer to or farther from the back of the softbox to focus the light

What information lurks in the shadows?

Only the Shadow knows.

And he has something to say! Shadows are a very important piece of our photographs. Shadows help define our subject. They help set the mood of the photograph. They can hide things we don’t want to show. They can tell a story about how a scene was lit. And that’s what I am talking about today. What can we see in the shadows?

Here are my descriptions for the 14 images on the right (click on the image for a larger version):

  1. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector
    Notice slight double-edge to the shadow due to the flash tube being slightly brighter than the surrounding reflector.

  2. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with one layer of diffusion material
    Contrast is lower from light bouncing around the room, shadow edge is more homogenized by the diffuser. The shadow edge is the same, no extra softening from the diffusion, just a brighter shadow.

  3. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with two layers of diffusion material
    Very similar to #2 but needing more flash power. Extra diffusion did warm up the color. Still has the same edge with no additional softening.

  4. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with 10-degree grid
    Narrow beam of light doesn’t hit walls, ceilings, etc. (environment), so more contrast. Still has the same shadow edge quality, just a darker shadow and restricted coverage on the background.

  5. Standard 7-inch metal dish reflector with 10-degree grid plus a layer of diffusion
    Brings us back to what we had in #1 or #2, but required 5 more stops of light power to maintain the same exposure. Don’t put diffusion in front of a grid! It negates the effect of the grid at the cost of a lot of your flash power.

  6. Deep Zoom 11-inch reflector
    Narrower light been from the deep reflector gives a darker shadow, somewhat similar to the grid in #4, but like #1 the shadow edge is doubled because of the difference in efficiency between the light direct from the flash tube and the light bounced off the walls of the reflector. Diffusion would help homogenize the shadow, but will also take away some of the contrast.

  7. Deep Zoom 11-inch reflector with 10-degree grid
    Even less environmental bounce producing a darker shadow.

  8. 1x3 strip box in vertical position
    Narrow modifier produces little shadow along its long dimension (up/down here) with much more shadow along its shorter dimension (left/right here).

  9. 1x3 strip box in horizontal position
    Rotating the narrow box moves the shadows. The left/right shadows are a little bit tighter while we now have up/down shadows. This is especially noticeable on the light stand holding the silhouette. In #8 it casts a wide shadow, while in #9 the wide pattern wraps around the narrow object and there is virtually no shadow.

  10. 2x2-foot square softbox in close at 3-feet
    This softbox has both an inner and outer diffusion panel. Shadow transition is soft

  11. 2x2-foot square softbox backed up to 6 feet
    The box gets smaller in relation to the subject when moved back.The shadow gets a harder and more defined edge. The background brightens up slightly (depth of light, inverse square law). More light bounces around the room picking up some warmth from the wooden floor.

  12. 2x2-foot square softbox at 6 feet with an extra layer of diffusion
    Shadow quality remains the same, but image picked up some warmth from either the wood floor bouncing in or from the diffusion material (or both). Requires more flash power.

  13. 46-inch Photek Softlighter umbrella WITHOUT the diffuser
    Large, round light. Even shadows all around. Background is brighter than #14 due to longer light path and depth. Although the umbrella is 36 inches from the subject, the light path is from the flash to the umbrella (24-inches) and from the umbrella to the wall (36-inches) so the distance of light is like having a forward facing light at 5-feet away instead of 3-feet, as you would get with the front diffuser (see #14).

  14. 46-inch Photek Softlighter umbrella with the diffuser
    Adding the diffusion cover has a slight effect on lightening the shadow density. Background is slightly darker as the light source (the diffusion panel) is closer to the subject. The closer the light is to your subject, the darker the background will be.

All the photos were metered to give the same exposure. In most cases the aperture remained the same (f/4.0) and the flash power was adjusted to maintain correct exposure. The exceptions are the exxamples with the Deep Zoom reflector, as it was very efficient and I could not lower the flash power enough so I had to stop down the lens to f/7.1. 

The main take-aways from this lesson is that the shape of your modifier determines the shape of the shadows and the size of the light as seen by the subject determines the size of the shadow width or the quality of light, that is hard or soft. Diffusion, along with the environment, controls the shadow density or contrast. Adding diffusion directly to a light, where it doesn’t make the light any larger, does not soften the light. It is a very subtle, but important concept. Diffusion does homogenize the light, making it more even across its field. And, depending on the environment, fills in the shadows making them less dark by bouncing off the walls, floor, ceiling, and other surroundings. Don’t confuse contrast with quality.

As I said, the difference can be subtle. Here we have three photos to compare. The first (A) was lit with a standard 7-inch diameter silver metal dish reflector. It casts a hard edged deep shadow. Next, I taped a sheet of diffusion material over the reflector (B) and you can see that the edge shape and transition (quality) has remained the same. What changed was the depth or darkness of the shadow (contrast). The diffusion spread the light around the studio and made the shadows lighter in tone, but the edge didn’t change because the light size didn’t change. For the third photo (C) I switched to a 20-inch diameter light modifier without diffusion and you can see here that the edge got softer and the transition got wider as the light was able to “wrap” around the subject for a softer light quality.


Now let’s look at what happens when we keep the same small 7-inch diameter reflector but add single and double diffusion. The first sheet of diffusion material makes the shadow brighter and also homogenizes the shadow edge so there is no longer a double-shadow (from the flash tube and the reflector not being equal in brightness). Adding the second layer of diffusion slightly lightens the shadow, but not appreciably. It does not in any way soften the light.


I can anticipate a comment and question. That’s all well and good for diffusing a small light. I am using a Photek Softlighter and want to double (or triple) the diffusion on that. What happens there? Let’s take a look! Here are four examples starting with the Softlighter umbrella on its own without the diffuser. Next is with the diffuser. Then for double diffusion I hung a roll of diffusion material in front of the Softlighter to double-diffuse it. Then I doubled that up to make it triple-diffused (see the photo on the right). Adding the diffusion panel to the bare umbrella actually limits the spread of the light and makes the shadow a bit darker. Adding additional layers of diffusion on top of that brighten the shadows ever so slightly and start to add some warmth to the color. But again, no change in the quality/softness of the light from extra diffusion. The size of the light remained the same.

This environmental bounce can also cause color casts if the room isn’t neutral in color. In a larger studio, or in a studio with black walls, ceiling, and floors, or in an open field the changes in contrast on the subject with or without diffusion and grids will be much less noticeable.



Well, this brings us to the close of another year. 2018 has been quite a year for me. The biggest event was the passing of my 98-year-old mom, Rose, in August. Thanks for everything you have done for me and for all the support for my taking my own direction in life. I could not have had a better mom. Rest in peace.

So, here is looking to a bright new year with new challenges and accomplishments. I wish you all a Happy New Year! Stay safe and be well.


Light as a feather

What does it mean to “feather” your light?

The first thing many people will say is that it makes the light softer. But is that really true? Let’s take a look. To feather the light means that you turn the light so it isn’t pointing directly at your subject. As we should all know, the softness of the light comes from the size of the light in relation to the subject. A big light in close gives a soft light with its size allowing light to reach the subject from multiple angles and filling in its own shadows. That same light backed up farther away becomes smaller as seen by the subject. Light comes in from more restricted angles and the shadow edge quality gets harder.

What happens when you take a softbox and rotate it away from your subject? The height of the box remains the same, but the width gets narrower (smaller) as you turn it away, making it look more like a strip light to the subject. As the height remains the same the up/down shadows (under the chin, under the nose, under the eye sockets) will remain the same. But side-to-side shadows (the side of the nose) will get slightly harder. If you don’t make the light source larger, it will not get any softer.

OK, if feathering doesn’t soften the light, what does it do?

Feathering gives you control. You get to place the edge of the light from your softbox and you get to control the balance the intensity of light on the cheeks of your subject. Let’s take a look.

For this series of images I used a flash meter at the point marked in the upper left image to measure an exposure of f/4 (ISO 100, 1/125 sec.) and I varied the flash power between each image to maintain the same f/4.0 reading on all five images. The inset diagrams show the lighting setups from above and the second row of photos shows the setup from the side. There were no fill cards or fill lights used. All images are straight out of camera with no exposure or color adjustments. The light, an Interfit Photographic Honey Badger was modified with the 24x24 popup softbox that comes with the light. Both the inner and outer diffusers were in place and it was 18-inches from the nose of the mannequin in the middle image. (FCC Warning: that is an affiliate link, I may be compensated if you purchase something there using code “cornicello10” at checkout—and you get 10% off!)

Pay close attention to the nose shadows in the photos above. They stay pretty much the same throughout the series. What changes is the exposure balance between the two sides of the face. Pointed behind the subject the cheek closest to the light is much brighter than the other cheek. As the light is turned towards and then beyond the subject the highlight moves across the face. At first the two cheeks come closer to each other in brightness. Then finally with the light pointing away from the subject and towards the camera the other cheek gets slightly brighter than the cheek on the side with the light. The power on the light had to be brought up quite a bit on the last image because it was pointing quite a bit forward, lighting up more of the environment in front of the subject, causing a bit of a change in color, too. My last blog post was about environmental bounce. Check it out if you get a chance.

Distance matters, too. As you move your light back farther from your subject the light pattern grows and transition area gets larger. This can help when photographing groups of people with a single light. By backing the light up and pointing the light across the front of the group you can get even coverage across the group. Here is a group photo of the staff of PCNW in Seattle. It is lit by one large umbrella slightly to the side and slightly feathered across the group.

Click on the image to enlarge it

To answer some questions that might come up…

What is the difference between using a softbox with a recessed front panel versus one with a flush front panel? The recessed panel with its miniature barn doors gives more control over where you place the edge of the light and has quicker fall-off with darker shadows. Here is a set of comparison images lit with the same size softboxes with and without a recessed front diffuser. For the third row I added a white foam-core bounce board as a fill light.


Yes, you can feather up and down to control the balance of light from the forehead down to the chin. It is not uncommon to have your light look like it is pointing at the ground in front of your subject or pointing up into the air above your subject to get the desired pool of light on your subject’s face so that the forehead is not too bright compared to the nose and chin. Your light might end up looking like it is not pointing at your subject at all. The important thing is what the light looks like on your subject, not what the actual light looks like.

Yes, you can feather an umbrella or a hard reflector or a beauty dish. WIth an umbrella or beauty dish be careful to not turn the light so far that the bare flash can be seen by the subject, hitting them with harsh direct light from a small light source (the flash tube).

What are your questions about feathering light?

Don't confuse contrast with quality of light

One more time with feeling!

We are coming to the end of my 10-week intro to studio lighting class and I still see confusion between light quality (determined by the size of the light) and contrast (determined by the environment).

Basically, contrast is the depth/darkness/density of the shadows. It is controlled by the environment. If there is a lot of light bouncing around off of the walls, ceiling, floor, or other nearby surfaces the shadows open up. Adding a diffuser to your light spreads the light out to bounce off all those objects to lower the contrast. The bigger and darker the environment you are photographing in, the more contrast you will have. Narrow beam reflectors and grids can be used to control spill (the opposite of adding diffusion) and maintain or increase contrast when working in smaller spaces with light color walls, ceiling, etc. Please, do not add diffusion material in front of your grids!

Quality of light is the transition from highlight to shadow. It is controlled by the size of the light. The larger the light is as seen by the subject, the softer the light is as the light hits the subject from many angles and provides its own fill light. Yes, it lightens the shadows, but the main thing is that it does away with the abrupt edge that you get from a smaller/harder light. 

Adding a diffuser such as a scrim or a shower curtain some distance in front of a small light source turns it into a larger source, making the light softer. But diffusion right on the light (which doesn't change the size of the light) will not change the quality of the light. While the shadow is less dark, it still maintains a hard edge if the light source is small.

Some pictures to help explain…

One more time. With Cubes!

Cue the Cubes!


Again??? Well, yes. I do these blog posts for myself as much as for my readers. They are my public notebook of lighting tests and experiments.

Here we have three exciting and vibrant still life studies in gray. All three photos were made with the Interfit Deep Zoom Reflector on their Badger Unleashed strobe head. The image on the right was with the bare reflector. In the middle I added the included diffusion sock, and on the left I added an additional layer of diffusion (double-diffused as some might say). I have identified three places in the images to look at and compare.

At point one I want you to look at the primary shadow of the gray cube onto the white cube (scroll down to the bottom of the post for larger versions of the cube photos). With the open reflector there are actually multiple overlapping shadows. The open reflector is not even across. There are multiple light sources: the flash tube, the glass dome, the walls of the reflector. Each is slightly different in brightness and casts its own shadow. Adding a diffuser homogenizes the light into one large source and eliminates the hot spot. You can see this in these photos of the face of the reflector.

Bare reflector, single layer of diffusion, and double layer of diffusion

Bare reflector, single layer of diffusion, and double layer of diffusion

Looking closely at the cubes you should still be able to see that there is a primary hard edged shadow at point One and that doesn’t change between the three photos because the overall size of the light has not changed. Remember, for a light to be softer with more gradual shadows the light has to come in from many directions. Once you have added a diffuser it won’t matter how many extra layers you add, it will not make the light any softer. The diffusion will alter the contrast of the scene as it spreads the light out in a wider pattern allowing it to bounce off of items in the environment such as the floor, walls, ceiling, etc. filling in the shadows and making them less dense. Less dense = less contrast. But the shadow edge, the quality, does not change.

Point Two is similar. The open reflector shadow is deeper. Adding the diffusion evens out the light from the reflector and fills in some of the shadow. But again the primary shadow edge is about equal.

Point Three is the most dramatic difference where the diffuser made the light larger and able to wrap around the side of the black cube to provide more illumination so you can see the back of the table top.

What I really want to concentrate on are the differences between the images with single and double diffusion. Or is differences the wrong word as they are actually very similar, almost identical in appearance. The main difference being that I had to open up the aperture a stop to maintain the proper exposure.

I hope this helps show that adding more and more layers of diffusion will not soften the shadows in your photographs. That comes from making the light larger. Multiple layers of diffusion require more light output or allow you to cut down the amount of light if you cannot power it down or don’t want to change your f/stop.

Click on each of the photos below for a larger version.

Open Reflector

Single Diffuser

Single Diffuser

Double Diffuser

Double Diffuser

Learning to use your light meter

You are smarter than your light meter!

Just about every modern camera has a light meter built in. Plus digital cameras have a screen on the back where you can check your exposures and/or histogram. Do you really need an external meter, too?

The answer is a definite “Maybe.”

But before we try to answer that, let’s go through the basics of how a light meter works, the options available, and how to use the meter. We will look at both the meter in your camera and at external (usually hand-held) meters. And now there is a new meter that wirelessly connects to your mobile phone.

Light meters are color blind and unable to think. They make bit assumptions. They don’t always get things right. You have to do a lot of the work for them. Their readings are open to interpretation. You area much smarter than your meter, especially the one in your camera. Most cameras offer a few different metering modes. For most people the “evauative” or “matrix” mode can handle most situations. In this mode the camera meter reads different segments of the scene and quickly compares them to scenes programmed into the camera to try to make the best guess as to what you might be pointing your camera at. For general every day photography you should probably be using this mode. They usually also offer a center-weighted average and a partial metering pattern that only reads the center of the frame. Higher end cameras may also add a “spot” metering mode that reads an even tighter area. How big a spot varies by camera. For example, the Canon 5D Mkiii has a 1.5% area coverage, the Canon 6D Mkii uses a larger 3.2% area for its spot meter. It is the spot meter that I want to concentrate on here.

The meter in your camera basically assumes that everything you point it at is a medium tone of gray. And it wants to suggest an exposure setting that renders your subject a medium tone of gray. Luckily, many scenes that we photograph have a wide range of tones from darks to highlights that when averaged together are a mid-tone of gray. Whether that gray is 18% or 13% or 12.75% is an argument for another day. For now let’s just accept that average scenes average out to a gray tone that our meters are looking for.This averaging out is what makes the meter work. But it is also what makes us have to think about it and sometimes override what the meter tells us to do.

Let’s take some extreme examples—the proverbial polar bear in a snow storm and the black cat in a coal mine. If we relied on our in-camera meters both of these photos would be a mid-tone gray with a wildly overexposed gray cat and an underexposed gray polar bear. I am writing this at 7am in my PJs, so instead of going out to find the cat or the polar bear (or the coal mine or the snow storm) I am going to simulate the situations using a target with wide black, gray, and white stripes. Using the spot metering mode in my camera I metered each stripe separately (shown by the red targets) and made three photographs with the meter readings. I also made one more image using a hand-held incident meter, which I will get to later.


In the upper left I placed took the spot meter reading off of the gray stripe and all three stripes fall into line of black, gray, and white. In the upper right I made a spot meter reading of the black stripe (our black cat in the coal mine) and you can see that the meter made its expected assumption that the scene would average out to gray and by following along with the camera settings, that is just what we got. The black stripe turned gray and the white stripe overexposed. In the lower left I took the meter reading off of the white stripe (our polar bear) and the meter again assumed it was gray and turned the white patch to a muddy gray. The lower right shows a hand-held incident meter which reads the light falling onto the subject instead of the light reflected from the subject. More about that in the section below on flash meters.

This is where things can go wildly wrong if you don’t know what you are doing with the spot meter. Most of my photos are of people, so let’s look at what might happen in these situations. Caucasian skin tones are usually about twice as bright as the average gray (maybe 36% reflective as opposed to 18%). Darker skin tones might range from 18% reflectance down to 6% or so. If you point your spot meter at the different skin tones you will get very different readings that will lead to incorrect exposures with the caucasian skin being underexposed and darker skins being correctly exposed or overexposed. If you use the spot meter in your camera or if you use a hand-held spot meter you need to think things through more than when you use a matrix or center weighted mode and be ready to use your exposure compensation dial on your camera or work in manual exposure mode to get things just where you want them. Let’s look at some examples of where a spot meter can lead us if we blindly follow it.


Here we have a still life set with objects of different brightness. From left to right we have a Color Checker Passport, a white index card, a Kodak gray card, a black card, a Gnomicello*, and a set of gray patches. In the upper left I made made a spot meter reading off of the gray card, giving a good overall exposure. Upper right has the spot reading made off of the black card, leading to an extreme over exposure of the scene. Lower left has the spot reading on the white index card, and the expected under exposure of the scene. Lower right is the exposure suggested by the evaluative meter mode in the camera. I actually think that the evaluative meter did the best in this series. The spot meter is not always our friend.

Extending this outside the studio, where should you point your spot meter? Point it at the white clouds and you get an underexposure. Point it at deep green foliage, get overexposure. You need to figure out something in the scene that you want to have render at a medium gray and point the spot meter only at that element, then lock in the exposure and recompose to make the photo. Bottom line, I think that spot meters have their place for photographers working with film and following the Zone System to control the tonal range of individual images. For the rest of us spot meters are useful if you want to figure out the contrast range of a scene, but you still have to work out the proper exposure overall.

For kicks, let’s compare the evaluative meter reading with the center weighted mode.


I think you can make a case for either exposure here. This all, of course, assuming that the monitor you are viewing this on is calibrated and set to a decently low brightness setting of around 100 cd/m2. Most monitors are set much too bright from the factory (for gaming or for watching movies), so make sure your calibrator has an option to set brightness levels.

Flash Exposures


This is all well and good for photography lit by continuous light sources like the sun, incandescent lights, LED lights, etc. What happens when you need to figure out the exposure for studio flash units that are not TTL** compatible? The meter in your camera has no concept of flash, so you need to rely on an external meter. Typically these have been hand-held devices such as the one shown here, my trusty old Sekonic L-358 (that is no longer in production). There is also a new meter, the Illuminati Meter (which I have not yet had a chance to try), that can be placed in the scene and connects with your mobile phone so you don’t have to hold it in your hand.

These meters can either be connected to your flash via a sync cable, a wireless transmitter, or they can be set to wait for a flash of light to trigger the reading. As noted, these meters are placed in the scene to read the light that is reaching them, the “incident” light. This provides a more accurate reading because it only reads the light falling on the subject and is not swayed by the brightness or reflectance of the subject or anything else in the scene. You set the ISO and shutter speed on the meter to match that on your camera, fire off the flash, and the meter tells you the aperture (F/stop) to set the lens to. For the most accurate readings the dome of the meter should be pointed at the main light illuminating the scene.

Some hand-held meters can also be set to read reflective light and/or be used as a spot meter, but then you run into the same issues that you have with your in-camera meters. And you don’t have the computer “smarts” of Evaluative or Matrix metering in the hand-held meter.

Color meters

The Illuminati Meter mentioned above and another relatively new device, the Lumu meter (iPhone only at this time and also which I have not had the opportunity to work with yet) extend the function of the meter by adding in a color meter mode. Normally color meters cost around $1,000 and only do their one thing. Having this available in a light meter costing around $300 - $500 is a big deal for those who need critical control over color.

Back to the beginning

So, back to the question of “do I need an external, hand-held light meter?” The answer remains a definite “maybe.” It depends on how you work, what type of lighting you use, how comfortable and sure you are about the display on the back of your camera, how much you know about reading the histogram on the camera, and on and on. I have friends like Tony Corbell and Matthew Jordan Smith or take multiple meter readings of every scene and friends like Joel Grimes who never touches a meter. The photographer makes the image, not the tools.

Wishing you good exposures!
John Cornicello

* Gnomicello is a birthday gift I received from artist Mike Oncley a few years ago.

** TTL means Through The Lens. Some camera and dedicated flash combinations offer a metering mode where the flash fires twice. Once at low power just before the shutter opens letting the camera meter read the flash and then again with the shutter open to make the exposure.