Many photographers swear by using a flash meter to precisely set up their flashes whenever they are taking photos in a professional studio. But does that mean you need to use some kind of meter to take professional shots?
Why use a Flash Meter at all?
A flash meter is designed to help you get correct exposures when using flash photography, normally with studio lights. The basic operation of a flash meter is relatively simple:
- Dial in an ISO value (either as set on a digital camera or the speed rating of analog film)
- Place the meter where your subject will be
- Set off a test flash
- The meter then provides you with an aperture value that will give the correct exposure.
From here you can either set the aperture to what the meter suggests, or if you prefer you can adjust the power of the flash unit and repeat the process above until you get an aperture value you are happy with.
Using a Flash Meter with a modern Digital SLR Camera
In the knowledge that a flash meter is something many people swear by for studio photo-shoots, last weekend I decided I should invest in one before using a rental studio for the first time.
The prospect of studio lighting can be daunting, and even though I was reasonably confident in what I wanted to achieve there is always some doubt when using unfamiliar kit. If a reliable flash meter could speed up my workflow and mean less time would be spent forcing models to pose whilst I got the lighting right, then I thought it would be worth the expense.
Our photo-shoot was on Sunday morning, and as it was already Friday it was too late for any online bargains. I needed to find something reasonable and affordable, in London, that day. So, after a small amount of research I found a limited amount of information on the Interfit 410, which appeared to fit the bill.
Interfit 410 Flash Meter
This meter was available from Jessops for £60, making it the cheapest flash meter I could find on the high street by a hefty margin, so I decided to go for one.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the story and I became immediately suspicious when I opened the (somewhat shabby) packaging; the unit looked ok, but felt cheap and came in a carry case made of that horrible plastic material that only cheap electronic goods from China come in.
Ignoring the fact that my run of the mill 9v Duracell battery wouldn’t fit into the unit properly, I powered it up and it turned on. So far, so good. Ish.
Anyway, I duly collected my speedlite flash gun so I could test the Interfit out, and with the ISO dial set to 100 I got set to take a reading and fired the flash. The dial happily lit up with a reading of f/32.
Ummm, how odd. Not to mention the inconvenience that the lens I currently had on the camera couldn’t step down further than f/22, an aperture of f/32 seemed awfully small to me(!). After some considerable tests, that’s all I could get out of the thing. Whether I put the flash right on top of it or put it in the next room, it always read f/32.
To put it mildly this thing was utter rubbish, so it was returned the next morning. Incidentally the sales assistant I returned it to confirmed it was rubbish, and suggested I take a refund and buy something elsewhere. I guess there’s some points there for honesty at least.
I still didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money, but time was running out so I went in search of something used. It didn’t take long before I was in a lovely little camera shop up the road, purchasing a second-hand Minolta Autometer IV F for the (curious) price of £101.
Minolta Autometer IV F
The Minolta Autometer range of flash meters have enjoyed a great reputation amongst professional photographers for years, and instantly it was clear that this mk IV version was enormously better quality than the shambolic Interfit nonsense from the day before.
A quick test with the same speedlite gave much more believable results, so it was packed away in the camera bag ready.
The next morning we rocked up at the studio and I started getting ready for our first few shots, setting up two lights and then metering them to give an aperture of f/8. Lovely. We took a couple of shots and then I repeated the process for the next setup.
For the third shot we were going to be using an unusual lighting pattern, so we downed tools and started moving things around. I metered for this shot, but the results on the laptop screen weren’t quite right so I put the meter down and ended up moving things around quite a bit until we had it nailed.
That was the last time I used the meter, less than an hour into an eight hour studio session.
So why Choose not to use a Flash Meter?
Shooting tethered to my MacBook (using the free Canon EOS Utility software, included with all Canon DSLRs) we could see the results instantly.
There was a time, and one not that long ago, when you pretty much needed some sort of light or flash meter if you were planning on taking photos in a studio with professional lighting. This is because before the world of digital cameras you couldn’t see the results of your photos anything like instantly. In fact, you had to shoot the whole roll of film and then wait for it to be processed and developed. For the vast majority of photographers now shooting digitally, the instant feedback makes it much easier to react creatively rather than relying on creating a technically perfect setup using metering and maths.
It didn’t take long at all before I was suitably accustomed to the flash units to get pretty close to what we wanted by an educated guess, and from there it was simply a case of making a few quick and minor adjustments to perfect the look.
Verdict on Flash Meters for Digital Photography
Whilst I decided reasonably early on to abandon using the Minolta Autometer IV F flash meter, there are occasions where one might be useful. For swiftly recreating the same shot over and over again, or if you know you will have a very limited amount of time with your subject, it could be a valuable tool.
For me, the days of metering flashes religiously before every shot are over. A well set-up digital workflow negates the need for a flash meter most of the time, and once you get used to adjusting the studio lights without a meter it will soon become much more natural.
In fact, even if I decide to shoot on film in the future, rather than rely on metering I’m much more likely to take a few digital test shots and then move over to the film camera once I’m happy with the lighting setup.
As for the very cheap flash meters? Well, the less said about them the better. Lets just say that without any meter at all I could do better than telling you to use f/32 for every shot…