Nothing is more important in photography than light. By that measure, good photography must accurately measure the light on its subject. Nearly all new digital cameras come with a built in light meter coupled to shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These meters largely do a serviceable job and when live view on those big LCD screens shows otherwise, its a simple matter of adjusting settings and snapping away until the desired result is achieved.
It gets a little more complicated when shooting film film, where every exposure costs money and on-board meters can swing wide on spectrums of quality and reliability. How many times has a camera transaction been killed by the dreaded words, “light meter inoperable?” And if you’re in the studio with off-camera flash, your built-in light meter won’t be all that useful no matter its accuracy.
Most critically, all light meters built into cameras are reading reflective light, or the light that reflects off of a subject. This will have to suffice when you can’t reach your subject, but being able to read incidental light — or the light falling onto the surface of the subject — is a real advantage to a photographer.
There are a number of cheap options for life without a built-in light meter. The cheapest of all is the Sunny 16 rule for guesstimating proper exposure. Another alternative, and practically as cheap, are cell phone light meter apps. And then there are Selenium meters, a frugal option when dipping your toes in the dedicated meter pool. But all of these carry huge drawbacks.
Sunny 16 is a cute concept, but in truth it’s as far from precise as it gets. Cell phone apps can be reliable reflective meters, but only after unlocking your phone, opening the app, ignoring texts and notifications, and forgetting what you were trying to do in the first place. And selenium meters make readings through a chemical reaction when light hits the selenium, meaning that eventually they will stop functioning when that reactivity is exhausted.
I’d made enough images using each of these options to know that they weren’t cutting it. I wanted something more precise, accurate and reliable. After extensively sampling way too many different types of light meters, with bells and whistles that inevitably ratcheted up the meters’ prices, I settled on the Sekonic Flashmate L-308s.
In Sekonic’s wide range of professional light meters, the L-308s is the smallest and lightest. Weighing in at only 3.4 ounces and taking a single AA battery, it fits into a shirt pocket, pants pocket, and (from my weirdly extensive experience) the front breast pocket of a Member’s Only jacket.
It reads ambient and flash exposure in reflected or incident light. With an ISO range from 3 to 8,000, and delivers readings in up to third-stop increments. In manual mode it goes further with readings in tenth-stop increments with an accuracy of plus or minus 0.1 EV. It reads with an f-stop range of f/90 to 0.7, and shutter range from 60 seconds to 1/8000 of a second. It measures incident lighting ranging from EV 0 to 19.9 at ISO 100 with the same range received at a 40 degree angle in reflected light.
It uses a non-retractable lumisphere that measures incident lighting when closed, and when opened measures reflective light. It also comes with a flat top lumidisc for measuring incident lighting on flat surfaces. Reflective readings are received at a 40 degree angle.
Pushing the Mode button toggles between flash, corded flash, daylight and daylight EV reading modes. There is a button to set ISO, up and down toggle buttons on the side underneath the measuring button, and a flash synchro terminal for corded readings. The mode button also allows the user to toggle between measurements in full-, half-, and third-stops.
The 308s operates in shutter priority mode. Once you push the button to take the reading, the results will be given based on whatever shutter speed was last used with the corresponding f-stop. To find a different f-stop, toggle the up and down buttons on the right to select a different aperture and the shutter speed moves with it. More expensive meters include an aperture priority setting, but I’m happy to reverse engineer the process.
Beyond reading natural light, the L-308s is suitable for a variety of flash and studio uses. I avoid flash as much as possible, so I have zero experience with the meter as a flash tool.
Compared to Sekonic’s top-of-the-line L-858D Speedmaster, with its touch screen, wireless compatibility, spot metering with averaging capability and more, the L-308s feels almost primitive. But it’s a tool with one job, and it does that job ably, quietly, and without a lot of imposition upon the photographer. And without all the added bells and whistles, it remains one of the most affordable professional meters on the market, selling for about $200. Yes, the 308s is plasticky and gives the feeling that it wouldn’t take much to crush, but it’s not a product that should be exposed to much physical stress.
It was the price of real meters that kept me satisfied with phone and selenium meters. $200 can buy a good amount of film and processing. But after finally pulling the trigger, I noticed a sharp uptick in the percentage of images that came back properly exposed. I have no doubt that it was one of the best investments I’ve yet made. The only recurring cost is a AA battery every year or so, and that’s cheaper than a bunch of missed shots.
Perhaps even more importantly, having a dedicated light meter opened up a world of camera-buying potential that was previously unappealing. Now, anything that has a manual mode can be used regardless of the health or reputation of its light meter. As my wallet bites its lip and holds back tears, I know that this little light meter gives me the ability to shoot almost any camera.
I can’t think of an argument against owning a dedicated light meter. At best it provides the photographer with more accurate readings with which to take better photographs. It opens up the opportunity to shoot reliably with cameras lacking a meter, and will improve the photos from cameras with sub-standard built-in meters. At worst, it slows down the photographic process a few seconds. Even if you’re shooting a world-class professional camera, every bag should have a basic professional light meter like Sekonic’s L-308s. Your work will thank you.