LIGHT METERS: What are Incident Meters Good For, Anyway?

Way back when I shot film I was a serious devotee of The Zone System. I lived and died by my spot meter. I have a much harder time doing this in HD, however, so I’m rediscovering the joys of using an incident light meter. I’ve picked up a few new tips and tricks, and now I’m going to share them with you.

A DP once told me, “I put all the important stuff within a five stop range, +/- 2.5 stops from middle gray. Everything else can do what it wants.” He’d light by eye, make sure that the important stuff (flesh tone, important set pieces, etc.) fell within that five stop range, check the bright areas and dark areas with a spot meter to see if they would retain detail, and shoot.

I became very good at using The Zone System, which is a great way to pre-visualize what you want and then determine an exposure that will allow you to capture it just that way. Better yet, I’d light a set by eye, place the values that I saw by eye on The Zone System, and then calculate an exposure to preserve that. For example, if I lit a set in a way that looked great by eye I’d look for something in the set that appeared to be middle (18%) gray, measure it with my spot meter, and then put that stop on the lens. I’d then measure a few other things, like important highlights and shadows, and see what zones they landed on. If they fell within the range of the film stock (I discovered +/- 3 stops was usually safe) and then judged the rest by eye I generally got great results.

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