In this installment of Tstops, I will be taking a look at my new favorite piece of kit. Like being reunited with a long lost friend… a light meter! More specifically the Sekonic L-478D “Litemaster Pro”.
The Litemaster Pro, the latest meter from Sekonic comes in Two models. The L-478DR ($469.00), pictured above and the L-478D ($389.00), which physically looks the same. The main difference is that the “R” version has a built in Pocket Wizard to trigger photo strobes, in other words to a Cinematographer; No reason to spend the extra $80.00.
The light meter has for the most part gone by the wayside on a lot of modern sets. With the digital capture comes digital tools for measuring exposure. Waveform, False Color, Zebra stripes, Histogram(in my opinion not a useable tool for Video) and the proprietary over and under exposure functions most high end cameras have. Back eight years ago, when I started my career as a DP I had the fortune to work with film a few times. What was interesting about that time was that it was the shifting point from high cost film, to relatively inexpensive digital. I learned both systems at the same time. With film as many of you with a decade or more experience know, all you have is your stock, light meter and aperture. You had to know where the middle grey, toe (blacks), and shoulder(burning to white) of the film stock fell, and you used a combination of incident and spot meters to know exactly where you where at any given point in a scene. It was somewhat time consuming, but you knew exactly where you were, with no monitor and no concrete reference. Just math. I akin the experience of shooting film in terms of sea going vessels, with the objective of getting from point A to B. Digital, is a 80 foot yacht with Radar, Sonar, GPS and beautiful expansive view of the ocean, from a comfortable seat on the bridge. Film is being in a dark diesel Submarine, 50 feet blow the surface, with nothing more than a map, a compass, a stop watch, a good slide rule. If you do your job right and carefully, when you open the hatch, you will be, to the foot, right where your navigator and helmsmen said you would. Thats the difference. Film is flying blind. With skill and a thorough understanding of the medium however, you can get exactly what you want.
The light meter for the last few years has almost become a vestigial appendage, for a few reasons.
1: Live monitoring. WYSIWYG workflow, means so long as you rough in your lights, you can tweak off a monitor… no REAL need for a meter.
2: Accuracy: in relation to the stock (Digital). In the early days of digital, there was no ISO rating. Only, S/N ratio represented as “2000Lux/FX.X” format. Essentially saying what stop the lens needed to be at to get Grey at 2000 Lux. A engineers take on “ISO”. In essence, it was a different story for the early days. The Varicam, F900, DVX100, HVX200, EX1 etc… all were in the Video world. Light meters were of little use, not only because the measurement system was different, but because old sensor technology had an inverse light response to film. Where as with celluloid, as you approach the shoulder, the stock, because the crystals are being exposed and thus rendered inert to light, actually becomes less sensitive. This is the basis for the beautiful film highlight rendition. It naturally compresses the highlights in an organic way. Similar to our own visual system. CCD/Cmos sensors, have the opposite effect, they become MORE sensitive the more light you give them, and they have a finite point at which they can render detail This is the reason we have a repulsion to video clipping. It looks unnatural. Today, however, the technology of new sensors, like the MX/DRAGON, Alexa, DSLR etc… enable, using gamma curves and LOG/RAW to redistribute the information in a more pleasing way, that mimics film. Essentially, the difference in the interpretation of light gave false readings when you attempted to meter in a traditional sense on older technology.
3: Indie Mindset: The emergence of low cost video, and the explosion of hobbyist filmmakers many of whom eventually went Pro, grew accustomed to used the video only tools, and never bothered to learn the meter. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with that. They work just fine, and are perfectly accurate. Its just that, in the past a good meter was $300-1000. While that hasn’t changed, why spend the extra cash for something that has built in exposure tools when you are on a very tight budget.
Now, Back to the Sekonic. Why do I have one then? Well, the simple answer is that since I learned how to use both, methods, I can hybridize and greatly increase my efficiency on set. Also, since the newer crop of fantastic digital cameras now adhere to ISO guidelines, the readings became meaningful again. Later on in this post I will go over how I use a meter in the digital workflow on set.
OK, so what makes the Litemaster Pro so awesome? Well for starters its a fully functional full featured light meter at an amazing price. Oh… and it has a FREAKING touch screen! I have no clue why its taken so long to implement that. Touch screen functionality is so slick because you can make adjustments, in its own window, and get far more options in a clear, well laid out menu design. Gone are the days of the dotmatrix LCD screen that seem like gibberish. The only other options were bare simple analog light meters that while excellent, are only capable of simple functions. The Litemaster Pro, has deep, memory fucntions that are laid out on the display, on your choice of exposure scales, EV (exposure value) or Fstop. For example, i can meter the Talent, then the intensity of the back light, fill, and background lights, and store the measurements, but because of the giant color screen, the Litemaster shows me all of those values on a scale at the same time, so visually I can calculate the ratios. Makes life so good. I also have the option to view the variables ( ISO/Shutter/Apeture) in photo, Cinema, or HD terms. IE, Fstops/Tstops, Shutter speed as a fraction or Angle. You also get the option to view not only your taget F/T stop, but also your Footcandle or Lux at the same time. I prefer to use Footcandle, because its an easy way to determine fall off, and consistency, and is far more accurate than the Fstop scale. The Meter will read 1/10th of a stop in the Fscale, but i prefer to see a FC number. Just makes life easier.
The Litemaster Pro is an Incident meter. This means it measures the light falling on it directly. There are two kinds of meters, incident and reflected. Incident meters, usually have a white disc or White globe over the photo sensitive cell. They are used in a manner that measures what aperture is necessary to obtain “proper” exposure on an 18% great card. A reflected meter, like a spot meter, reads the direct illumination of an object through a lens. It could be said that the camera exposure tools, like waveform are reflected meters. I have a Pentax Spotmeter as well, and used it regularly, simple because it gives you the best way to see whats happening at a specific spot in the scene. The Incident meter reads whats happening as far as the ambiance of the scene.
How to use the two kinds of light meters:
This is a simple crash course. Nothing is set in stone, but this the basic way I use the two meters.
Lets take this scene for example, completely hypothetical. A man(?…pardon my drawings) standing in front of a wall with a lamp, and a window. Lets say the wall is a darker color than skin tone.
I would take the Litemaster Pro, an incident meter, and walk over to the talent, and Take a reading with the white bulb facing square to the lens. This measures the overall ambience of the scene, with regards to the key light. Yellow lines indicate sources, the black box is the meter with an arrow indicating direction of the meter. Lets say the meter reads a T4.0 for ambience. This is your new starting point. Everything from here is based on how you want the scene to look based on that reading. Lets say we are going after a bright commercial look. The talent should be very bright and evenly lit, the window should be bright, the lamp should be too, while retaining some detail.
Then, to give a sense of how the edge lights are going to look, the sources being the window and Lamp, i turn the meter around, and read how they fall on the back of the subject.
Lets say I get an Incident reading of F5.6+1/2 from a combination of the lamp and window together. I can then retract the dome of the Litemaster Pro, to help give more direction to the reading. A dome Incident meter, will read light from all directions, in “3D” space. Retracting the dome, essentially narrows its field of view, and lets you choose with some degree of accuracy, the source you want to read. See below. The top image is the dome extended, and you can see how the dome registers the direct light and the shadow side. It is in effect averaging them. When retracted, it becomes more directional.
So from here, to maintain control of the highlights in the sides of the talents face, i read the window and lamp individually. The window, reading at T8+1.2 and the lamp side reading T4+3/4. Here is where it gets interesting. Now its time for reflected readings, to see what the actual objects in the scene meter at as compared to the T4 reading from the Key.
You look though the spot meter and within its view finder is a small circle. That circle is the metering point. I point it at the Lampshade, the talents face, the window, the darker portion of wall, and the bright point of the wall above and under the lamp shade. I get readings as follows:
So, it seems the brightest points in the scene, the Window, and hot spot of the lamp both meter at T11. This is three stops above the middle grey. Lets say we are shooting on an DSLR, an 11 stop camera. Having tested the DSLR, I know it holds 5 stops below middle grey, and 5 stops above before it clips. Armed with the knowledge of having 4 safe stops of latitude above Middle grey, (I always try to avoid using the top stop as its usually ugly). I know that nothing will clip in this scene as is. The window, and the lamp both read only 3 stops above middle grey, though dangerously close. The darkest part of the wall, reads a stop below key @ T2.8. I can now make some decisions, I can choose depending on what I want the scene to look like, to blow out the window and lamp, by reducing the intensity of the key, and opening up a stop to compensate without touching the lamp or window intensity, thus pushing their exposure up; OR i can reign them in, add ND gel to the window and a dimmer to the lamp to bring them down, and make sure they are completely exposed, ready for a power window in post. Meanwhile, knowing the darkest part of the image is only a stop below key, i can choose to add cutters, and flags, to take the key light off of the wall, and add some contrast to the scene. All of these decisions I just made with the meter, I made without a camera. Imagine the time savings of being able to get 90% of the way to your lighting without having to wait for a camera to be built or set up.
This is why light meters work for me. I love mine.
Thank you for reading!
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Coming soon: Examination of: Rokinon Manual Primes, Speed demons on a budget!
loved this article, thanks for sharing!
Brilliant (pun intended) informative essay. Just picked up a Kenko KFM-2100 as my first light meter (seen you DP’s using meters on set for years although, as you point out, not as much in the past 8-9 years or so) because I wasn’t happy with the exposures I was getting from the camera’s metering. I wanted something for reflective and incident metering but not anything as expensive as the Sekonics with built in spot meters.
Been reading the manual and online forums but your example here is easy to follow and concise. Thanks a bunch.