Why getting the shot is not everything

We all read a lot of stuff about lighting and coaching the models, and although this still is the main thing of course there is also a part that is often forgotten or is even regarded as being old fashioned or limiting creativity.

Don’t even start about how many times I hear that using a lightmeter is old fashioned, it’s really weird because almost everyone who I teach how to use a lightmeter never wants to shoot without any more.
Some myths about the lightmeter is that it’s never 100% accurate and that with the histogram you can easily see what you’re doing, well sorry to burst that bubble, the histogram is not correct.

First of all the histogram doesn’t show you the RAW data, it shows you the JPEG thumbnail, for example change the settings in your camera from neutral to for example full contrast and full brightness and you can see that the histogram changes while the RAW file is still correct, so the histogram is not accurate when you want to check your RAW. You can get it very close by setting the contrast to -2 which will mimic the RAW a bit better than the neutral setting, although I have to add that this can change in the future and per camera, which in fact strengthens my point that you can’t trust the histogram…. But there is more.

Lets look at your own skintone and now look at the skintone of your friend, partner or anyone, are they all the same ? No they are not…. So where should your skintone be in the histogram, and were that of your friend or partner ? I guess you already figured out that also here the histogram is useless.

Do I hate the histogram ?
No way, it’s very very valuable when you understand how to read it, it’s used to judge the tonal distribution within a scene and in that it works very nicely, although you always have to remember that your looking at the JPEG version and the RAW is totally different, so do I use the histogram ? well to be honest no, I use the lightmeter.

I’m using a Sekonic L758 lightmeter, I love this meter because it uses both spot reflective and incident metering and you can store 3 camera calibrations per ISO which is a very nice addition to make the meter fully accurate with your camera. To have the meter 100% accurate however you should calibrate it to your camera/lens combination. This is very easy and I already explained this once in detail plus it can be seen on my kelbytraining videos and DVDs, but the short version is to use an 18% gray card and measure this, now look at your image from the RAW version on your PC/Mac within your workflow software and make sure the spike on the 18% gray is app 128.128.128 or the spike is in the center of the histogram. When you have done this you will have a 100% accurate meter.

Measuring myth 2
Another reason why a lot of people don’t use a lightmeter is that they get inaccurate readings, this can often be the fault of the wrong way of measuring. There are two methods of measuring out there, one dictates you should always aim your meter towards the camera, and one that claims your meter should be pointed towards the lightsource.

People who visited my workshops and seen my DVDs or videos know that I use the method in which I point the meter towards the lightsource, this has sometimes caused some heavy discussions because some of the pros teach it the other way around. However without saying they don’t know what they are doing think about this.

With incident meter readings you are measuring the light falling on your subject, this is put into the camera and you should have an accurate exposure.
When your light is from the camera position you can measure towards the camera, but as you move your light more and more to the sides (without changing the distance) the measurement will start to change and you will need to open up your aperture more and more, and when the light is next to your model you will sometimes get an exposure that is way over exposed or the meter will simply state EU (I always call this extreme underexposed).

Now when we take into account the so called inverse square law which dictates that lights falls off over a distance it’s easily understood that when the distance is not changed from model to lightsource it’s impossible that the exposure should change, meaning measuring towards the camera simply put never can be right for ALL lightsetups.

Just try it out in your own studio and this effect can very easily be seen.

If you calibrate the meter (1 minute of work) and use the proper measuring technique you will learn to trust and love the meter.

Frank how about reflective ?
Often people buy the cheaper meters like the L358 from Sekonic because they think that will be enough, and in most cases it is, however when you understand the photographic dynamic range you can very easily use the spot meter to make sure that your blacks won’t block and your whites won’t blow out.
In short (again watch the kelbytraining videos or my own DVDs) you can say that when white is 2.5 stops higher than your diffused values (the measurement with the incident meter) it will blow out, and if it’s lower than 4.3 stops below your diffused value the blacks will block.
REMEMBER… dynamic range can change per camera and higher or lower ISOs than the base ISO will interact with the dynamic range, so experimenting and knowing your equipment is of vital importance.

Getting the colors right
We now have the correct exposure so everything is done yes ?
Well no, sorry.

We all know those series posted online where in every shot the model has a different skincolor, some are too magenta, some are too yellow, some are too blue and we can go on and on, and to be honest unless people are very sick or drink too much they will not change skincolor that much (well at least not the people I know).
So how does this happen ? Well that’s actually quite easy to explain, every lightsource has a different color temperature, very simplified this means that some lightsources are more yellow than others that are more bluish. On your camera you will see these difference in the settings for colortemp which range from tungsten, daylight to fluorescent, just for fun shoot a few images on those different settings and see what happens again this will be seen on the display on the back of the camera, your RAW files will stay the same (unless you use a RAW convertor that reads the settings you used).
So how do we solve this ? Well that is very easy. The cheapest simplest way is a simple white balance card, personally I love the simple solutions best. There are methods where you mount a device to your lens and shoot into your lightsource, I experimented with those but never really liked it, just handing your model a neutral white balance card and use the colortemp picker in Photoshop does the job. However if you want to do it really right you can use the so-called color charts. This is the best system and although in the past using them was a drag, nowadays it’s very easy with the supplied software, it’s a simple drag and drop system and the profiles can be used in Photoshop afterwards for a very accurate color representation. Again with this people seeing the difference are sold.

The following products are the ones I use :
Datacolor colorchart
Xrite colorchecker passport

With the meter and color charts combined you will have very accurate colors and great exposures, so we’re done now? No…. there is more.

Seeing the colors
Now we have calibrated the camera with the color chart, we have calibrated the lightmeter and we have the images on the screen but still it looks funky, did we do something wrong ?
No, don’t panic and don’t throw your monitor out yet, this is normal.
Every monitor out of the box is not showing the colors correctly, as you did with the color chart you will also have to calibrate your monitor. And don’t worry this is actually the most simple of what we have done till now. You will need some extra hardware for this, the coloranalyzer. There are a lot of options out there but I personally advise the Spyders or the Xrite units which I both use myself. Using them is very straightforward, you start the software and place the analyzer on your screen, most software will autodetect the analyzer (or point you to where to place it) and the software will start it’s work and a few minutes later everything is done.

Initial settings
Do remember that the first time you will have to set the settings in the software, for LCDs I advise the following settings.
Lightoutput : 130CDM
Colortemp : D6500 (6500)
Gamma : 2.2

Some people will use 5400 degrees which can be explained why it should be used in certain workflows, however because most photographers are also doing motion (video) it’s much more wise to choose the D6500 setting because all video is used on that standard, and for the normal use photographers D6500 is also the best setting, when you NEED to use 5400 you will probably know why and understand why, so if you don’t go for D6500 (yes it’s that simple J)

“Great tip, can I borrow your coloranalyzer ?”
Well actually you can but it won’t help you.
Don’t be alarmed but you will have to calibrate your monitor at least once every 2-3 weeks, we do our critical system every time I have an important session or once a week.
Remember however that you will do the calibration on a monitor that is already warmed up (at least 30-40 minutes).

For my choice of coloranalyzers see :
Spyder3 Elite

Spyder3 Express

Spyder3 Studio (for printer)

Xrite i1 Display2

Xrite i1 Display LT

What about that creativity thing at the start ?
Yes I did not forget about that one.
Some people will say that when you use all this technique you will loose the creativity in a shot, and although you can indeed think too technical it should not be this way of course.
The advantage you have with this method is that you have a correct BASE, after this you can be as creative as you wish, you can change colors, exposure everything that you would normally do, to be clear almost all my work has changed color in some form. The advantage of this method is however that if you have found a method or filter that works for you, you can repeat this filter on every single shot and get the same effect this means much faster workflow which earns you money.

For a pro photographer there is no excuse to forget one of these methods, for a hobby photographer it’s all depending on what you want to achieve of course and how much time you have, but I would strongly advise to use these three simple tools, it will really enhance your work but most of all speed up your workflow incredibly.

One more thing (well actually more).
We are now seeing the correct image on our monitor how about print ?
Use the print profiles of the manufacturer and the paper you use, if there are no profiles make sure you try to get them or make them yourself, you will need a different coloranalyzer for this which is more expensive, for example the Spyder studio suite.
I use Epson printers and because they are using a different technique (cold) they hold their coloroutput very stable during their lifespan and the canned profiles are very good so don’t expect too much problems from those.

And how about the monitor of your customer ?
Well often they are also not correct, but that’s no reason why you should not care, remember they see everything incorrect so if you’re using correct colors and exposure your work will look the same as the other good work on their monitors, so in short if they are used to seeing everything too blue and your work is the same they will not notice this as wrong, it’s important to realize however that a lot of monitors show a lot of different colors so having a stable output yourself that is 100% correct (or as close as possible) will not guarantee that it will look accurate on all monitors but at least it will be correct and show up like the viewer is used to seeing (wrong) colors.

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22 replies
  1. Ton
    Ton says:

    Thanks for this information Frank.
    I don’t completely get your remark about the -2 contrast setting to match the histogram with the raw file. Can you explain a little more?

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      The JPG is often clipping way before the RAW file will clip.
      By setting the contrast on -2 you will “fake” the display on the back of the camera to look a bit more like the RAW, it’s not 100% accurate but at least you don’t see a blinking sky or highlights when in reality in the RAW there is still detail.

  2. anthony byron
    anthony byron says:

    nice read frank i have to say since seeing your kelby vids and buying the light meter it goes everywhere. I did a shoot on sunday and model iddnt have to wait long for me to change location, reset lights and get exposure with the meter. In regards to being creative i think ive been more creative since i got the meter then i was before. Still coming to grips with the colour checker though 🙂

  3. Richerd Reynolds
    Richerd Reynolds says:

    Excellent information Frank. I have already implemented the colour control aspects. Now all I need is a good light meter. Next on my list.

    @Ton I think Frank is referring to the picture controls in camera. Not sure about Canon, but on Nikon you can set and customize your picture controls (ie vivid, neutral, portrait etc). So in this case one would customize the Neutral preset by taking its contrast down -2 to get the jpeg previews histogram (which is what you see on the back of your camera) to more or less match what the histogram would show with the unaltered raw file.

    At least that’s I understood it. I could be wrong.

  4. Geert
    Geert says:

    Tom, that’s very easy to explain: a raw file is rather flat in contrast.
    Frank’s proposal is not to match the histogram of the rawfile exactly, but to get the closest possible match.

  5. Ton
    Ton says:

    @Richerd: Thanks for the explanation. That was the answer I’m looking for. I’m a Nikon user so I’ll check it on my camera later.

    @Geert: Thanks for the addition.

  6. bernd
    bernd says:

    interesting read! me too needs a decent flash/lightmeter. any opinion on the gossen starlite? if one is on tighter budget any recommendation what a minimum set of features one should look for?

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Gossen, Sekonic and Kenko (minolta) are all decent/good meters.
      However my personal favorite would be a meter with a spotmeter.
      You can go for a used Sekonic 558 or a 358 with spot attachment, although I’m not a fan of the attachment because you could loose that and in the end you will probably be at the same price point as a 558.

  7. bernd
    bernd says:

    yeah loosing small parts is always “fun” 😉 thanks for the advise, I’ll see what I can get my fingers on…

  8. Anthony Falsarella
    Anthony Falsarella says:

    Interesting blogpost. it is information that is necessary to get out, since a lot believe that what is tried tested no longer applies these days. I never relied on histograms but always used what I was trained with a long time back. Thanks for this blogpost.

  9. Kim Bentsen
    Kim Bentsen says:

    1) Do you ever make skewed adjustments to a print, to match viewing conditions which are not neutral? For example making the print more bluish to compensate for yellowish light conditions in a gallery.

    2) Given that light sources have different colors, have you ever used CC filters on lights and a Sekonic Color Meter such as the C-500R? I guess that this could be useful if you need to adjust your flash to the artificial ambient lighting.

  10. Frank Doorhof
    Frank Doorhof says:

    1. No, light in a gallery should be aimed at displaying art, you cannot correct for that, or at least that’s my opinion, if it really looks bad one could do it but when the buyer will take the image home he/she will be disappointed.

    2. Yes without a doubt but not with a colormeter. You can use a whitebalance card if you would really want to check it quickly. First put the whitebalance card in the ambiant and after that in the strobes and compare those.
    A colormeter is more accurate but in real life it’s often easily solved in different ways.

  11. peter snijders
    peter snijders says:

    Hey Frank, I read above with pleasure one more question, what light sources do you use where the monitor stays? TL I suppose, which temperature and do you have a good addres for those TL.
    Regards Peter Snijders

  12. Max Archer
    Max Archer says:

    I wish there was a more practical way of combining an external meter with TTL flashes. I use Nikon’s CLS heavily, and I’d love to be able to incorporate my 358 into the equation.

    Similarly, Skyport support would be nice. My next set of “big” strobes will probably be Rangers Quadras, and it’d be nice to trigger the built-in receivers with the meter.

  13. Frank Doorhof
    Frank Doorhof says:

    But there is.
    You can set the strobes on manual and use the lightmeter, Yesterday during the workshop small flash I demonstrated this, you can set the canon strobes at 1/3rd increments so that’s rather useful, although not as accurate as studio strobes but on the other had 1/3rd is enough with a little play in placement.

    You can also use the skyports of course to trigger them, just connect the small cable to the strobe input and the skyport (universal) and you’re set to go.

  14. Anders C. Madsen
    Anders C. Madsen says:

    Frank, do you know if there are any colorcheckers that will work with Aperture from Apple? So far it seems that only Lightroom (and other ACR-variants) are covered by the products you link to.

    BTW, while I fully appreciate your reasons for using a lightmeter I think that it may not always be the best approach when using a DSLR (as opposed to the medium format backs you use), simply because a properly exposed shot on a DSLR might not use the sensor data in an optimal way – that is, a low-key shot that is properly exposed may not contain much information in the upper part of the lightness scale where the sensor records the most detailed information.

    Exposing to the right of your histogram may not give you the exposure that you had in mind when setting up the shot but it will give you a lot more tones to work with in post production, and to a certain extent be able to give DSLR users a better utilization of the smaller dynamic range they have, compared to medium format sensors. Once the image is in post production it is pretty straight forward to adjust it to the look you originally had in mind, but using curves you should be able to hold a lot more information in the dark areas than otherwise.

    Or am I missing your entire point regarding using the lightmeter?

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      I’m now testing the spyder colorcheckr which can use the XMP side cards, the results look less saturated than the color checker passport but when combined (both use a different method) I find the results great, so maybe the spyder is something for you ?

      On exposing to the right my answer is always very simple, always expose correct, even in low key settings there always is some highlight detail, also with modern times raw there really is hardly any reason to not expose correctly, and if you are afraid to loose detail in the blacks, just use a little bit of fill.

      So I’m not a big supporter of expose to the right and will never do it myself, not on the DSLR and not on the MF camera, with the meter I can get very accurate results that are repeatable and captures the scene I want it, if the dynamics are too high I will use just a bit of fill light (which also can be measured by the way).

  15. Anders C. Madsen
    Anders C. Madsen says:

    Hi Frank

    Well, the Spyder Colorcheckr with sidecar files was a good idea but unfortunately only a very limited amount of data (e.g. keywords) seems to be imported from XMP sidecar files into Aperture. Adjustments of any kind are ignored.

    Also, the documentation for Aperture makes it pretty obvious that Apple thinks that their customers are too stupid to understand how to make and use custom camera profiles:

    “Creating an accurate profile for your digital camera is not easy. Unless you’re using your camera in a strictly controlled lighting situation, such as a studio, the variable lighting conditions from one scene to another make profiling a digital camera difficult.”

    Hmm. Time to go bark up Apples tree instead I guess. 🙂

    Regarding exposing to the right – well, I certainly understand your reasoning and I agree that it makes your post processing workflow more streamlined but I still believe that it has its place when creating images that has sufficient headroom (highlights are well below being blown), especially on crop sensors that traditionally has a lower dynamic range.

    However, it may simply be that my opinion is affected by working with an older 12 bit crop sensor that has a lower dynamic range and holds 1/4 of the tones that a modern 14 bit sensor theoretically does – that is very much possible. 😉

  16. Frank Doorhof
    Frank Doorhof says:

    Did not try that yet, for me having colorprofiles in Aperture is not important but I think it’s a fault from Apple to not allow it indeed. You could maybe translate the profile to ICC ?
    I’m doing all my retouching in PS but I know a lot of people are using LR or Aperture.

    I’ve never really been exposing to the right by the way except when shooting outside for myself, with the models I want everything to be measured and be perfect, one could argue about overexposing exactly 1 stop for example and correct this but somehow I always have some whites in the image 😀

  17. Tyson Stevens
    Tyson Stevens says:

    Great post Frank. I was wondering if you had any tips about using the light meter outdoors. Specifically when shooting subjects back-lit with no fill. Anything you have would be great. Thanks.

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Best is to do the same thing as in the studio.
      Measuring towards the lightsource to get the light intensity, and for fill calculating the ratio you want.
      Sometimes you will want to have less on the model for effects, which I love, make sure your fill falls never below 3.5 stops (4.5 will be black).

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