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Best light meter for night photography?

Christopher Tidy , Aug 14, 2007; 09:16 p.m.

Hi folks,

I really enjoy night photography. Usually cityscapes. Until now, I've just taken a lot of pictures and varied the exposure time, then selected the best after I've had the film processed.

But I'm wondering, in the interests of getting the best pictures and wasting less film, is there a light meter available which is suitable for night cityscapes and will predict the correct exposure almost every time? Or is night photography best approached by guesswork and experience?

I shoot 35 mm (mostly colour negative) with my manual focus Nikons: an EM, a Nikkormat FT3 and an F2A.

Attached is one of my favourite night pictures.

Best wishes,

Chris


The Boston skyline from MIT

Responses


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Jonathan Ee , Aug 14, 2007; 09:55 p.m.

I own a Sekonic 608 which I believe has been discontinued now. It has never let me down. It was the highest model and can be found for a reasonable price on ebay. Otherwise the brand new Sekonic 758DR is pretty sweet. It doesn't really matter what light meter you buy as long as it has a spot meter which you will need for your city shots. Unfortunately spot meters are very expensive ($500+) but you get what you pay for. I wouldn't worry about which brand gives better results. They all do their job well. Its more human error, like not taking a reading at the right place which usually gets your exposure wrong. You should always be bracketing your shots anyways.

Just letting you know that if you want, you can buy a digital SLR with a built in spot meter which will do the same job. Plus when you see the image you know if the exposure was correct and then translate that info to your film camera. Just an idea.

Craig Cooper , Aug 14, 2007; 09:59 p.m.

...which is suitable for night cityscapes and will predict the correct exposure almost every time?

Chris,

Firstly, no light meter predicts the correct exposure as there is no such thing as a correct exposure. It depends what you what to achieve. All a light meter does is tell you exposure combinations that will reflect what(ever) it meters as midtone. In daylight many people just accept the results and many modern built in meters have some predictive smarts wrapped around them.

When it comes to night photography, again, a meter will give you an exposure reading to achieve midtone, which at night is probably not what you are trying to achieve in general - make your night scene look like daytime. Therefore, general, scene averaging meters probably arent that useful. Look for a meter that offers a narrow spot meter. Meter specific parts of the scene and then make adjustments for how you want it to look. For example in your image above, the building reflection in the water directly below the moon, meter this and maybe open up 1 stop; or alternatively meter the glow in the sky adjacent to the building skyline and close down 1 stop; meter a few parts a check where they all fall. Its about thinking where you want your tones to fall relative to midtone; meter specifically then adjust.

Hope its of some help...

Sndr . , Aug 14, 2007; 10:41 p.m.

Forget about the light meter in any SLR. You need a light meter that is sensitive enough to measure at low light levels. These light levels are expressed in EVs (These are stop values, where EV0 is - I believe - 1 second at f/1). Normal light meters typically have sensitivities from -4 EV to 0 EV, where -4 EV is four stops more sensitive than 0 EV.

I use a Gossen sixtomat digital (it has a different name in the US), which goes down to -2.5 EV. In practice, that's sensitive enough for me because when it gets darker than that the exposures get too long at the apertures I use and the speed of the film I use. I don't have enough patience for 30 minute exposures.

Actually getting the right exposure can be tricky even with a meter: night scenes often have lights in them that you'll want to overexpose (like in your Boston skyline) and some parts of the picture will usually be completely underexposed (like the near the horizon in your picture). You'll have to choose what to expose correctly, and what to over- or underexpose.

The best way to measure exposure is through incident light. Slide the diffusion bulb in front of the light meter, go stand at where you want correct exposure, and measure.

Reflected metering is usually more difficult: unless you have a spot meter (in which case you'll probably won't have the needed sensitivity), it's usually hard to be sure that there are no lights directly in your measured area that throw off the meter and lead to underexposure. One trick is to meter the sky and work from there.

Ronald Moravec , Aug 14, 2007; 11:21 p.m.

No meter. Run an exposure bracket and remember the exposures and use that from then on in the same conditions.

My digital Pentax Spot meter helps as i can mesure the bright and dim areas from camera position if I am in a new situation.

So get a pencil and notebook

Michael Gilday , Aug 15, 2007; 12:06 a.m.

Light meters are pretty much useless at night. Learn the basic rules of thumb (skylines typically 10sec at f/5.6 with 100-speed film), err on the side of overexposure when in doubt, and gain experience through practice.

Trying to get exactingly technical about the genre leads to madness. At sunset, by the time you've spot metered everything, adjusted your readings as necessary, and compensated for reciprocity failure, the light has changed... and probably for the worse. :)

Jeff Polaski , Aug 15, 2007; 07:56 a.m.

In 1971, I used to take test shots with a 4x5 Graflex using a Polaroid back and ASA 500 film. Then I'd pop in the Tri-X pack holder and go from there.

In 2007, I take a test shot with a Pentax Optio S4i, and look carefully at the histogram (the shadows are on the right).

Then I check a couple of crib notes, the best of which can be found here:

http://www.fredparker.com/ultexp1.htm

Roger Smith , Aug 15, 2007; 12:00 p.m.

Try metering off the sky with your cameras. That will work until it gets too dark and almost no meter will be of much use to you.

Christopher Tidy , Aug 15, 2007; 01:35 p.m.

I probably should have realised the error in my question before I posted it. Thanks for pointing it out, Craig. Of course I don't want my night shots to look like daytime.

Given the cost of spot meter, I think I'll be sticking with the pencil and notebook for now. I really should use it more. Mostly I rely on memory, but that doesn't always work out. Although I think that Boston picture was about 5 seconds at f/8 using ISO 400 film.

How hard is it to take good night pictures on slide film without any kind of metering?

Thanks for the advice.

Best wishes,

Chris

Sndr . , Aug 15, 2007; 02:41 p.m.

Spot meters are useless at night: they're not sensitive enough and will generally not meter below EV 2 (the picture you posted is probably around EV 0).

Getting the right exposure for slide film without a meter is going to be hard; you'll waste so much film that it's probably more cost-effective to just get a cheap meter that will go to EV -2 or less and meter off the sky or in incident mode. Learning how to do that correctly will take about two rolls of slidefilm.


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