You Don't Need a Light Meter
(Do I say hi in these posts? No, right?)
There’s a lot of bullshit in photography. There are too many cameras with training wheels on them, and people place all of the importance on numbers and data. They judge a good photo based on its histogram. Or they only take a picture when the light meter is centered. A light meter It shows you the amount of highlights and shadows within a frame and tells you where you should exist somewhere in the balance of both. They say the goal is to get the line right in the middle, where it’s safe. It’s a computer; it doesn’t know art, man. I don’t use it, and I'm not bragging. I just didn't understand it well enough early on so I just ignored it and learned to meter light through guessing, intuition, and trial and error.
Don't depend on the meter to tell you how to light your frame. While looking through the viewfinder, you should be deciding what you want from the shadows or highlights available. How do you want them to blend? What do you want to stand out? What shapes do you want to make out of the highlights, midtown, and shadows? In my practice, I usually use highlights as my reference because I like my shadows DEEP. I picture what I want to with the highlights, and decide how pungent I’d like my shadows to be. This is also how I get rich colors in photos without needing to do anything in post-production. This is metering for highlights.
I hadn't realized that some people depend heavily on light metering until I had a one on one workshop earlier this year (2018). I met with a man around my father's age who had attended some workshops and expeditions held by NatGeo photographers in the mountains of some crazy country. Like five thousand dollar workshops, you know?
I had him shoot a bunch of photos and eventually what I found out was that he had been told, over and over apparently, to keep that light meter line in the middle and as long as it was there he would get good photos. They were telling this guy “Oh average it out, and you’re set” and charging him 5k for it.
So I corrected it by having him try new settings and immediately he was impressed by his own photos. Before that, his photos looked super flat and boring because he was shooting at an average setting!
Aside from the metering though I also noticed that he had a hard time conceptualizing photos while he looked around. We were out in this beautiful field of cactus in Joshua Tree, and he couldn't see pictures or opportunities in his head. It made me wonder how we could overcome or change that.
Most of the time people get lost in the gear and the technical stuff, but there's a whole machine that requires to be cleaned and recalibrated for the camera to do what it is capable of doing. Intuition and how a person perceives the world is 90% of photography (I would say 99% if I didn't feel the hiss of every Profoto fan ever). Makes sense though, right? A good photo is good because of the eye that saw it, not the camera that took it.