Photography Exposure

How to Use a Light Meter in 10 Steps

Photo of author
Written By Nate Torres

Have you ever struggled to get the perfect exposure in your photos?

Maybe you’ve tried adjusting your camera settings, but you just can’t seem to get it quite right.

That’s where a light meter comes in.

In this article, we’ll explore the basics of light meters and how they can help you achieve accurate and consistent exposure in your photos.

What is a Light Meter?

The light meter is a device that can read the ambient light of a scene, it can also measure the direct light coming from your main light source.

Simply by looking at the name, you can easily discern that a light meter measures light.

You will usually see professional photographers bring out a little “walky-talky-ish” device, yeah those are the external versions of a light meter.

A light meter isn’t always a separate device, most photographers just prefer the external version. Your camera has a light meter built-in, but it only measures reflective light.

light meter
light meter

As a device that is essential to measure how bright a “spot” is, photographers tend to hover on the most detailed one. The camera’s version of a light meter solely measures the reflected light, which is pretty problematic.

Since cameras try to compensate exposures when set into an automatic or semi-automatic mode, it will most likely not result in the image you have in your mind.

Other than measuring light there are some other neat features. For example, the Sekonic L 308X U is able to determine the aperture, shutter speed, measure your flash, measure reflective light, and change the ISO, and also comes with various modes. This versatility and abundance of features make it a must-have for photographers.

What Does a Light Meter Do?

So, what does it do?

Photographers who prefer to shoot indoors or in studios will also use this device to calculate the correct shutter speed and aperture values that they need to acquire accurate exposure of their subject or object.

Although you can also use this device for shooting outdoors, it will most likely be a waste of time and will be inappropriate for certain venues.

For example, when shooting at outdoor venues such as weddings, birthday parties, or even meetings. It will become simply inefficient to move back and forth between your spot and the subject to just measure the light.

Personally, I just use what’s available and adjust my aperture and shutter speed. Unless I’m there to take a commercial shot and must take a few stunning shots.

It will also calculate the required shutter speed and aperture to match your desired exposure for a shot.

No matter if you shoot in manual, aperture mode, or shutter priority mode, this handy light meter will always have your back.

How to Use a Light Meter

1. Understand the Basics Of Your Light Meter

The first step in order to use your light meter, is to first understand the basics of this photography tool.

The three main parts you need to know about your light meter are its sensor, measurement display, and controls.


The sensor in your light meter is responsible for measuring the intensity of light.

It captures the light that falls on it and converts it into an electrical signal, which is then used to calculate the appropriate exposure settings.

Your sensor’s sensitivity can be adjusted based on the ISO setting, ensuring accurate readings across different lighting conditions.

Measurement Display

The measurement display is where you view the exposure readings provided by the light meter.

The display will typically show the recommended shutter speed and aperture values for proper exposure.

I wanted to also note that some light meters also display an EV (Exposure Value) reading which just represents a standardized exposure measurement.


Lastly, light meters come equipped with various controls to adjust your settings.

These controls could include buttons, dials, touchscreen interfaces, etc. — depending on your brand and quality of light meter, with the more expensive ones having more “bells and whistles.”

The common settings you will be adjusting on your light meter include the ISO, metering modes, exposure compensation, and metering area size.

Since you will be adjusting these settings, it’s important you know what each of these terms means so be sure to check out the guides we have on each term!

I remember when I first started using a light meter, I knew understanding its components was crucial to becoming proficient with exposure control.

I remember getting my hands on a handheld light meter with a digital display.

I took the time to examine the device closely, noting the presence of a small sensor located on the top panel, taking time to explore the backlit LCD screen measurement display, and navigating through the different controls.

The biggest tip I give photographers is to just take time to familiarize yourself with the different components and functions. From there you will gain confidence in using your light meter!

light meter parts
light meter parts

2. Learn the Metering Modes

The second step is to learn the different metering modes.

Why you may ask? Well because metering modes play a crucial role in determining how your light meter will measure light and provide exposure recommendations.

The three main metering modes you should know include spot metering, center-weighted metering, and matrix/evaluative metering.

Spot Metering

Spot metering measures light from a small, specific area of the scene which is great for precise exposure control for a particular subject in your frame.

When using spot metering, the light meter concentrates on the selected area, providing exposure recommendations based solely on that spot.

For example, one time during a portrait session, I wanted to ensure accurate exposure for my model’s face while maintaining the desired background exposure.

By using spot metering, I aimed the light meter at the model’s face, specifically measuring the light falling on her skin.

This allowed me to obtain a proper exposure for her complexion, disregarding the brighter or darker areas of the background.

spot metering photography
spot metering photography

Center-Weighted Metering

Center-weighted metering evaluates the light primarily in the center portion of your frame, giving more importance to the exposure around the center.

You’ll want to use this mode when the subject is centrally positioned or when you want to balance the exposure of your main subject with your overall scene.

For example, if you take a landscape photo with some mountains in the center, you may want to use center-weighted metering.

If you do so, the light meter will consider the exposure around the center (the mountains), ensuring they are properly exposed while also taking into account the surrounding elements.

center weighted metering photography
center-weighted metering photography

Matrix/Evaluative Metering

Matrix or evaluative metering (depending on your camera brand) will evaluate the light from across the entire frame and consider multiple areas and factors.

With that being said, your light meter will evaluate multiple elements such as the brightness, contrast, and color distribution in your scene in order to try and provide the best exposure recommendations.

This mode is great if you are photographing in diverse lighting scenarios.

evaluative metering photography
evaluative metering photography

3. Set Your ISO

The third step when using your light meter is to set your ISO.

Setting your ISO will ensure that both your light meter and camera are calibrated to the same sensitivity.

In case you need a quick recap, the ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s image sensor to light.

Because of this, it’s important to match the ISO on your light meter to your camera so there is exposure consistency.

For example, during a photo shoot in a dimly lit environment, I set the ISO on my camera to 1600 to increase its sensitivity to light.

However, I initially forgot to adjust the ISO setting on my light meter, which was still set to the previous shoot’s ISO of 400.

As I started taking exposure readings with the light meter, I noticed significant discrepancies in the recommended shutter speed and aperture values (the other two components of the exposure triangle).

The meter was suggesting significantly longer exposures than I anticipated. Realizing the oversight, I quickly adjusted the ISO setting on the light meter to match my camera’s ISO of 1600.

4. Ambient Light Measurement

Ambient light is generally referred to as the existing natural light in the scene such as light coming through a window.

When using a light meter, it’s up to you whether you want to measure the ambient light or the light falling on your subject (known as incident light).

For example, during a landscape photography outing during golden hour, there was a beautiful golden light, and I wanted to capture the ambiance of the moment.

To accurately measure the ambient light, I pointed the sensor of my light meter toward the entire scene.

The light meter analyzed the overall illumination and provided exposure recommendations based on the existing light levels.

It suggested a combination of shutter speed and aperture settings that would preserve the beautiful colors and tonal range present in the scene.

By relying on the ambient light measurement, it helped me ensure that the exposure settings I chose would accurately represent my scene’s lighting conditions.

5. Meter Reading

Now that we’ve covered some foundational knowledge you need to know before capturing a reading, let’s look at how to capture an actual reading.

The fifth step is to point the light meter toward the subject or scene and get a reading.

This step is fairly straightforward and consists of you aiming your light meter toward your subject or scene (based on the previous step discussed), activating the metering function, analyzing the light, and then looking at the exposure information.

6. Evaluating the Meter Reading

The sixth step is to evaluate the reading you received.

When it comes to evaluating the reading, the first thing you’ll want to do is check the exposure values. When your light meter analyzes the light it will display the recommended shutter speed and aperture values.

If you metered correctly, then these values should represent the suggested settings to achieve proper exposure in your current scene.

In case you need a quick recap on what shutter speed and aperture is, here you go:

Shutter speed is responsible for controlling the duration for which your camera’s shutter remains open. The faster the shutter speed (ex. 1/1000s) then the less light will pass through and vice versa.

Aperture, on the other hand, controls the size of your camera’s lens opening, impacting the amount of light that enters the camera. For example, a wider aperture (lower f-stop value such as f/1.8) will allow more light to enter.

Once you receive your shutter speed and aperture value, you will then need to consider the creative choices you want to have in your photo.

For example, capturing motion blur in an image will require a slower shutter speed, or capturing a wide depth-of-field image with bokeh will require a wider aperture.

motion blur in image
motion blur in image

It’s important to know what creative outcome you want to achieve so you can better tweak the exposure settings once you receive your reading.

For example, once when I was photographing a city landscape, I used my light meter to assess the exposure of the city.

After pointing my light meter toward the scene and activating the metering function, it provided me with recommended shutter speed and aperture values on its display.

The light meter suggested a relatively fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture, indicating that the scene had ample light. However, I wanted to create a long exposure to capture the cars and convey a sense of motion.

Considering this creative preference, I adjusted the shutter speed to a longer duration while maintaining the recommended aperture for proper exposure.

7. Adjust Your Camera Settings

The seventh step is to adjust your camera settings based on everything discussed in the previous step.

Once you receive your exposure settings and know what creative choice you want to have in your image, adjust your camera to those settings.

8. Take Test Shots

The eighth step is to start capturing some test shots.

Once you’ve adjusted your camera settings based on the reading from your light meter, you’ll want to capture a few test shots using the suggested settings to make sure everything looks good.

This will allow you to evaluate the initial results based on the suggested settings, review the images, and make any necessary adjustments to fine-tune the exposure.

9. Fine-Tune

The ninth step is to fine-tune your settings.

If the test shots indicate overexposure or underexposure, it’s important to make adjustments to the exposure settings, such as the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO.

This iterative process allows you to refine the exposure until you achieve the desired result.

Think of this whole process as a loop where you capture a reading, evaluate the reading, adjust your camera settings, take test shots, and then fine-tune.

If you don’t like how the images look then go through the loop again.

10. Recalibration

The tenth and final step is recalibration.

If you notice your readings are starting to get way off, then you may want to compare its readings to other light meters to make sure that your light meter is still working optimally.

If you notice significant discrepancies, I’d recommend you to recalibrate or service your light meter.

How Do You Read a Light Meter?

To measure the light in the first place and use your light meter, you put your dome on your subject and face it to your main light source. It will then show how bright it is in increments of f-stops.

Each stop is twice or half as bright respectively based on a stop higher or lower than it. Meaning that an f/2.0 is twice as bright as an f/1.4.

aperture photography chart
aperture f-stop chart

On the popular Sekonic Light Meter 308s that everyone uses, there are three readings: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture.

ISO on the top right, located below it is the Aperture, and on the bottom left is your shutter speed. That’s all the big three settings that you’ll need to know when reading your light meter.

We do have single articles that explain the basics of each of these elements, I highly recommend you read those articles. For now, I’ll just explain the concepts in a nutshell:

  • ISO: ISO is essentially how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Higher ISO will make it more sensitive, thus allowing you to take brighter pictures in low-light situations and vice versa. Most cameras will not emit noise if you use a 3200 ISO, but each camera is different.
  • Shutter Speed: Brutally oversimplifying it, shutter speed is how fast your shutter can close and open again. The longer/slower it gets to close, the lighter it lets in, which allows more light to hit your camera’s sensor. A Longer Shutter speed translates into a brighter picture and vice versa. But, since it’s slower to close moving objects or your shaking hands will make the image blur.
  • Aperture: This controls your lens focus plane. A smaller aperture (f/32, f/16, and f/8) will give you a thorough focus on the scene. On the other hand, a larger aperture (f/1.4, f/2.0, and f/2.8) will focus on the foreground and blur out the background. Larger apertures will also make the image brighter since more light can enter the camera’s sensor and vice versa.

Changing the aperture will make your shutter speed slower or faster depending on how you change it. Choosing a smaller aperture will, in turn, make your shutter speed slower too.

The light meter is basically compensating for the aperture exposure by making the shutter speed slower. But what if your hands are shaky?

Well, in this case, you can simply bring out the Tripod and attach a wireless remote shutter release to your camera. In case you want a faster shutter speed, you can just increase the ISO by pressing the ISO setting on the side and pushing it up.

Your Aperture and shutter speed will naturally rise too since all elements are connected to each other, but don’t worry you just need to lower your aperture back, and voila! A faster shutter speed, the same desired aperture, at a higher ISO.

To further explore the subject of using a light meter, check out this in-depth video by The Photographer Academy:


Is a Light Meter Necessary?

Light meter photography will help you achieve that perfect shot every time.

Without a light meter, you’ll go back and forth from shooting a photo, reviewing it, and taking it again, until you get a satisfactory photo.

And just like an AD would go, this light meter will solve your problems in one go. The meter displays the required aperture and shutter speed that you are recommended to set after the light has been captured.

The light meter definition sounds too good already, how does it get even better? Well, that is where I must warn you about the debating climate between “light meter converts” and those who oppose them.

I would like to disclaim that both parties have their points, and their arguments are also strong.

Some argue that taking a shot and quickly reviewing them manually will be quicker than pacing around while measuring each light source.

I would argue that the efficiency of each method would be different depending on your location and venue.

Portrait photographers that shoot multiple sessions of graduation images would love to have a reference for their exposure triangle.

exposure triangle

For you creative people out there, the light meter can be portrayed as a threat to your creativity. Using a light meter gives you optimal and perfect exposure.

But perfect is not always welcomed, perfect does not tell much of a story, and a perfectly exposed image doesn’t make it automatically fulfill your theme/idea.

I think that you can still use them regardless, you definitely should not fully rely on them and let them determine your exposure.

A light meter will provide you with information that can help you easily review and recreate the image!

The more data that you have when documenting your artwork, the easier it becomes to recreate it in the future.

This item becomes a valuable part of the amateur photographers’ learning process. Use everything you have to help you learn and as time goes on you’ll naturally part ways from it.

Are Light Meters Accurate?

Well, it depends on the light meter you’re talking about. Most external light meters are as accurate as you use them. On the other hand, light meters that are built-in aren’t so accurate.

First of all, a camera’s light meter will only measure reflective light that’s from the subject and doesn’t measure how bright the light source is.

Secondly, the light meter on your camera tends to give you results after color compensation. Color compensation is your camera adjusting the current exposure based on the 18% grey area, most of the time it underexposes/overexposes the image.

These two factors are the main argument for why people say that built-in light meters aren’t accurate.

Your external light meter will probably do a better job at measuring reflective light than your camera.

If you use them properly, every light meter can be an extremely accurate one.

What to Look for in a Good Light Meter?

I must say that your purpose is one of the leading factors that you should consider when purchasing your light meter.

There are many options to consider in light meter photography, starting from the type of light meter, the various features that it has, and also your preferred manufacturer.

There are three main types of light meters:

  • Incident Light Metering: This determines the exposure based on the light that falls on the subject. It also provides a quick estimate of exposure for multiple light sources.
  • Reflected Light Spot Metering: This refers to the light that is reflected by the photographed environment.
  • Flash Metering: With most flashes lasting a 1/1000-second, most capable flashes have a PC terminal or other sync port for the triggering of a flash. There is also the dedicated mode that puts your meter on standby and will capture and save the measurements when the flash is triggered.

There are also various utilities and functions that you should consider which are (but are not limited to):

  • Data Entering: This will help you download test images into your computer, from RAW into TIFF. The data transfer will also help you graph any DSLR camera’s dynamic range.
  • Spot Viewfinder: This feature helps you in making correct exposure choices with its large, information-packed data display and viewfinder equipped with a diopter correction.
  • Memory Mode and Latitude Display: This mirrors your camera’s dynamic range which aids you in deciding on the exposure settings.

Manufacturers only matter if you already have a pre-existing bond and personally know how good their products are. Some famous light meter manufacturers are Sekonic, Phottix, Nikon, and Canon.

So, what is a light meter? It’s an instrument that helps you measure light. It provides you with an accurate combination of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.

Besides that, it is also handy at helping you recreate previous photos or light setups. Some like the instrument, while others prefer to stay away from it.

I see a light meter as a tool to assist photo sessions that need precision and fabulous shots. Some also use it as a stepping stone before entering manual mode.

The more experiments and situations you go through with this instrument, the faster you’ll recognize situations where it’s less effective.

Good luck and have fun!

How do you read a light meter?

To read a light meter, point it towards the subject or scene you want to photograph and press the button or trigger to take a reading. The light meter will display information about the available light, including the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings needed to achieve a properly exposed image.

What items can a light meter tell you?

A light meter can tell you the available light in a scene, the appropriate aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings needed for proper exposure, and whether the light is too bright or too dim for a given film or sensor sensitivity. It can also help you determine the contrast ratio and color temperature of the light in a scene.

Is it necessary to have a light meter?

It’s not always necessary to have a light meter, as modern digital cameras have built-in light metering systems that can help you achieve proper exposure. However, some photographers prefer to use an external light meter for greater precision and control over their exposure settings.