A very quick light metering tip

A few days ago I got an email from someone who asked me “where to point the meter outside”.
The main reason he was confused because some people would say :

“Use the histogram and don’t get a meter”
Well I won’t even go into that one.


“Always aim towards to the camera”
This is wrong, I showed this in a video a while ago, and it’s easily explained.
When you aim towards the camera and move the light to the sides (but keep the distance the same to your subject) the meter will show different readings, but the light should stay the same due to the inverse square law, also the model will go up in brightness which is of course not correct, the quality/direction of light should change but not the brightness of your subjects skin.


“Always aim towards the light source”
This is what I teach people.
And in my opinion it’s the best way, by doing it this way you are metering the light hitting your subject and you will have a perfect/proper exposure on the area you meter your subject. HOWEVER having said that now comes the problem…

Imagine a setup where the sun is hitting your model from the back, IF you would always meter towards the lightsource you would now…. indeed meter towards the sun… however the image that you will get is WAY too dark and the models face is not properly lit. Now let’s make clear that this could be the look you’re after, and that’s ok (could be cool), however most of the time you don’t want this. Now throw in a reflector it will bounce light back on the model and fill in the shade, however when metering towards the sun this will still not be right. Now the reflector is the new lightsource, so meter towards the reflector to get a proper exposure on your model.


Now this sounds logical right?
However most of the time when I shoot outside I won’t even use a reflector, so how do I meter?
Very simple, you have to realize that outside there are two lightsources, yeah I know there is only one sun… however although there is only one sun there is also ambient light, and yes I know it’s created by the sun, don’t worry.


Now when you are shooting without any form of reflection from a reflector and the sun is behind the model but you want your model to be lit correctly the solution is very simple. Now the new lightsource is the ambient light, so point your meter towards the camera to meter the angle of THAT ambient light, you are NOT metering towards the camera, but you are in fact metering the ambient light coming from the cameras direction.

If you understand this using the meter outside becomes a breeze.



19 replies
  1. Bryant Yang
    Bryant Yang says:

    It’s always great to read the content that you write, even if some of the time it isn’t applicable to me because I don’t own a light meter. Hoping to get one in time as I continue in photography. On that note just wanted to say that I appreciate all the work you do. You always inspire me with your work, passion, and fantastic personality to find my own style and creativity! So thanks Frank, for being so awesome!

  2. fred
    fred says:

    This almost sounds like reflective metering, but I know you don’t mean it that way….(?)

  3. MD Hodges
    MD Hodges says:

    Frank, what if I’m trying to meter the ambient and balance the model/subject with strobe? Example, it’s night time and there’s a lit building behind the model or a sunset. Do I spot meter the building or an area of the sunset and then lower the exposure by a couple stops to get the right ambient and then set the strobe to whatever aperture will get within my sync speed? I keep blowing out my backgrounds and chimping because I don’t have a solid understanding of my light meter. Hope all this makes sense, thanks.

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      2.5 stops over is white, 4.5 stops down is black.
      This depends a bit on the camera and the ISO used, but when using spot metering that’s the way you can quickly calculate it.

      What I do is I will take the darkest or lightest part that I want to retain detail and base my main light on that.

      On the Live in Boston DVD (or download) there is a lot of information on this 🙂

  4. Mike Ling
    Mike Ling says:

    Hi Frank,
    I am new to photography, and I found you on the web when i did a search on Sony A99, I aslo watch you on TWIT Photo”. Your photos are amazing! what is “the angle of THAT” ambient light?

    Thank you,

  5. Piet
    Piet says:

    hallo Frank, Mijn naam is Piet Verbeeten en ik heb een vraag: Ik lees in uw verhaal over licht meters dat u licht meet met de licht meter richting de lichtbron. Op de seconic site lees ik echter dat de meter richting de camera gericht moet worden. Ikzelf heb nu drie EX 580 mark2 flitsers welke aangestuurd worden door pocket wizzard TT5. NU wil ik een lichtmeter seconic L-478 DR kopen. Het zal wel try and error worden, immers uw verhaal is steekhoudend en logisch maar het verhaal van Seconic zelf ook wel. Ik ben confused en in de war. mvg, Piet Verbeeten

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      altijd richting de lichtbron waarvan jij wilt dat de belichting correct is. Buiten kan dat betekenen dat je ergens anders heen richt, of bij sterke backlight, maar de basis is richten NAAR de lichtbron toe.

  6. Jay
    Jay says:

    Hey Frank,

    I’m a newbie on metering and I was just wondering in this specific case, would it make sense to use spot metering based on model’s neck/chest area?



    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Nope, every model is different and without a doubt not 18% gray, and that’s what you get when spot metering. Incident is the only way for the correct exposure on a model.

      If you REALLY want to use spot let her hold an 18% graycard and meter from that…. but that’s…. well just showing off 😀

  7. Xtudio Fotografia
    Xtudio Fotografia says:

    Hello Frank,
    But if I use a speedlight on external location and this light is the main source in the models face? To where I”ll point the meter? My guess is, in this case, to the speedlight, correct?

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      IF you use a strobe on the face ALWAYS meter towards that light source of course.

      You only NOT meter towards the light source if you want a special effect, or a correct exposure on a place where the lightsource doesn’t directly hit the model but you use the lightsource for example as accent. Like my example with the sun and ambient light.

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