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Does Anyone Use an Independent Light Meter to Shoot Interiors?

Published: 05/11/2018

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David in Alabama asked the following:

I've recently been reading about the Sekonic C-700 color and light meter. It seems like an amazing tool with great potential for PFRE users but how would you best use a device like this to sort the perennial problems of WB and color accuracy in rooms with multiple light sources? If my priority is not saving money but instead pushing the quality higher, would you invest the bucks or stick with something more conventional?

To me, spending $1300+ on a light meter for shooting interiors or real estate work is overkill because it is so quick and easy to get the white balance just like you want it in post-processing as Dom Bower describes above.  Also as Dom describes, "It's not about accurate WB; it's about good WB." That is, what looks good is more important than what's accurate. You have to check how the WB looks in post anyway; why not just fix it if needed?

It's interesting that in the 10+ years of doing this blog, I can't remember anyone even talking about using a light meter! That is probably because in today's digital workflow, it doesn't add much.

Does anyone use a light meter?

Larry Lohrman

9 comments on “Does Anyone Use an Independent Light Meter to Shoot Interiors?”

  1. Talking about accurate white balance in a property with several different light sources in each space is like trying to herd cats.... cannot be done. So, take your light meter and use it in the studio where you can control the light source. You don't have the time or money to change out all the lights in each environment that you come across in RE photography to make your light meter happy and make a profit.

    Over the years as a wedding photographer, before digital, we used Hasselblads and learned how to call each space with the correct f stop and speed... light meters where just a back up

  2. What Jerry said.

    Color temperature can be measured and it WILL tell you you have mixed lighting.
    Then what?
    Daylight plus CFLs (any number of flavors)plus tungsten (1900K to 3000K if you are lucky)plus LED (any freakin' color but what you need) and you have a mess.
    The color meter tells you "you are screwed".
    Learn decent exposure and choose lights that balance for the most part and up your PP game.

  3. Re: Does Anyone Use an Independent Light Meter?

    Oops, there was no mention in the headline of a colour meter.
    As I don't have a colour meter my answer is no. I only use a Sekonik 478DR light meter

  4. For all of my many years as a commercial photographer, my light/flash meters was a must, and it still goes with me in my camera bags.
    I use it when I am shooting fine art landscapes, in the studio and out outdoors to help set the amount of fill flash or lighting ratios.
    But, for RE work, its not a necessity. As someone mentioned, learn good exposures. When I'm out doors, I always set my WB to daylight. but indoors, there are so many different color temperature lightbulbs, I use auto white balance to get me a general balance. But, I sometimes use an expo disc 2.0, which helps balance mixed lighting (but not always accurate). if I am shooting in a confined area with no daylight (such as a bathroom with mirrors), I will often do a white balance on a 18% gray card, a white bathtub or white sink, and shoot HDR available light.
    Since attending the workshop in Atlanta, I've been turning off table lamps, ceiling lamps and chandeliers, which often gives the orange/yellow interior cast, unless they are on dimmers. If they are on dimmers, I turn them way down to just get a touch of glow. so far, my agents (most of them) have not complained about turning off the lamps.
    A color temp meter is very expensive, and great when film crews are lighting a movie set, or perhaps on a architectural magazine shoot where you have control of the situation) but for the average interior RE shoot, and as mark so accurately mentioned, will inform you that you are screwed.
    I truly recommend that all professional photographers own a good light meter, and learn how to use it. Your in-camera meters can be fooled by a scene depending on the contrast or lighting conditions, which is where a good light meter can help. But for RE work, I just haven't found it a necessity, just as a backup.

  5. Actually I have mentioned using a color meter a few times here. But I don't use a light meter since I shoot HDR and my in camera meter gets me pretty close to where I want to be for my normal exposure with the brackets supplying the balance of over and under exposure for HDR. But I do use my circa 1980's Minolta color meter when I have mixed color light sources and/or wall painted in colors that will affect the color of the light. So bathrooms and kitchens seem to mostly benefit. And I have been finding that yes indeed, the color meter gets me to where I seldom have to make further color corrections in post, so 30 seconds on site saves me minutes in post per image. And I have found that even after 40+ years of shooting, the meter is more accurate in achieving a nicely balanced color balance in mixed lighting than guesswork based on my years of experience. So much for 40+ years of experience! I notice that eBay has quite a few of the older Minoltas selling for typically for less than $200 USD.

  6. The dynamic range inside many houses is far too long to really use a light meter effectively. An average of what, exactly? It also doesn't take into account the far more useable range that the newer sensors are capable of. What we do know, is that a single exposure won't have everything we need, and a bracket of 3 will have a lot more then we need, so it makes the sense to blend frames rather then try to perfect a single frame, just from the standpoint of time lighting a scene vs time in LR. And when I use the word "scene", I'm not talking about a bedroom - I'm taking about an interior that starts at the entryway and extends thru the living room to the kitchen in a single composition. The available dynamic range is far too long to capture that in a single frame, and if you exposed left to accommodate windows, the brown leather sofa would render as jet black, and in post, grainy and noisy enough to pepper a blackened steak, cajun style.

    It's better to have a pretty good idea what your supplemental lights are outputting, and develop a workflow that makes use of them + ambient. A good rear camera screen is pretty helpful for that, although relatively few camera brands have accurate enough screens. My Nikon 610 is the worst for judging - the images on the rear screen remind me of that flat, unsaturated LOG look - not even close. My Canon 6d is probably the best, because it uses the profile you choose in the menu to render the rear screen preview. My Sony's are hit & miss. Enough to judge as long as you know the camera, but nowhere near as good as a Canon preview. I think it's because Sony doesn't allow you to use a picture style if you shoot brackets.

    There are apps that turn your phone into a color meter - Luxmeter+ works good, but if you are shooting RAW, it probably doesn't show anything you couldn't correct in post.

    A more useful meter is ColorMuse - it will read the color of any item you press it against (wall, floor, furniture, etc) and give you RGB or HEX numbers of the item that you can compare to the color picker values in PS>

  7. I used to use a light meter for studio sessions all of the time and still do when I'm working with just one portrait client or a complex product set up. The rest of the time it's easy to just let the camera show me a histogram and make adjustments between that and what on the LCD or tethered computer. Color is the same thing. I'll use a X-rite passport for portraits and products and let the camera's auto white balance do that for me the rest of the time. I don't need technical perfection for RE images the same way as I do if I'm shooting a product with distinctive branding. Also, RAW files are so malleable that there is lots of leeway in post to make corrections. The expectations of the clients are also much different for RE. As long as there isn't glaring color or exposure issues, spending all of the extra time isn't going to yield an image that they will find much better. Sure, getting good color balance and exposure is important, but that last 5% of perfection is costly and under appreciated in RE.

    I shoot with the lights off unless I'm in a space so dark that I really need them to see anything. I'll take one frame with the lights on if I need to show them such as when there is a really nice fixture. I can put that frame in a layer and mask in just what I want without contaminating the color of the room.

    With some experience, it's easy to know when you are going to have color issues based on what types of artificial and natural light you have. Aside from changing bulbs (if possible) in all of the fixtures and using gels, getting uniform color is going to be very tough. It's done for TV and movies, but they have big crews and color correction in post is very intensive.

    Exposure is also something you can spend ages measuring and making lighting adjustments. Getting good at knowing the correlation between what's on the camera LCD and what you actually have to work with in post is something to develop. The histogram is going to tell you if you've seriously blown the highlights or dropped off the left side in to total darkness. The great thing about digital is the instant feedback and ability to quickly make changes. Using a meter was much more critical with film since if you don't get the exposure correct, you won't know until a long time later and endlessly shooting Polaroids could get expensive.

  8. This discussion has ended up a little wider than just light/color meters. Building on what Kelvin said, I can't rely on the viewing screen on the back of either my Sony or Cannon. Not just old eyes. So for video, I bought a middle of the road small monitor, a FreeWorld, for video where I really have to see what I am getting fast and be able to read the settings which are especially difficult to see on the screen of a Sony. I suppose Sony assumes all users are 18 years old. And the Sony screen does not flip out to the sides.

    Then I found myself using the monitor mounted onto the hot shoe of either camera for stills. I can turn it at any angle to see what I am getting when I am having to cram my tripod into the last inch of a corner with nowhere for me to stand. I can even take it off and hold the thing in my hand for the best view. I can see right into the detail area and see my camera adjustments even with my old eyes. It also lets me see a much larger histogram. All this not to mention the ability to really check on the verticals and horizontals with much more accuracy.

    So for less than $200 USD, I think my workflow has speeded up and mistakes reduced using the external monitor for both video and stills:

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