Best light meter for night photography?

Discussion in 'Film and Processing' started by christopher_tidy, Aug 14, 2007.

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. ...which is suitable for night cityscapes and will predict the correct exposure almost every time?
    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...
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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. :)
  7. 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:
  8. 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.
  9. 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,

  10. 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.
  11. Getting good pictures at night on slide film without a meter isn't a problem at all. In fact, it's probably easier, in the long run, as they provide better feedback vis-a-vis over or under-exposure. For skylines, floodlight buildings, et cetera, start, like I suggested before, with modest-contrast ISO 100 film, and 10 seconds exposure at f/5.6, or equivalent, and perhaps a bracket at one full stop more than that. Both will probably be "good"; one will probably be "better" than the other, largely a matter of personal choice.

    Metering the sky only works when you've got horrible amounts of light pollution, or clouds, or both, and the mind somewhat boggles at how relatively useless trying to take an incident meter reading at night would be. If you can get any sort of meter reading out of the sky, and trust it, try underexposing by three or four stops, compared to the reading, depending on how much bright you want things. Odds are, you'll probably find that it winds up being very close to 10 seconds at f/5.6...
  12. I find short night photographs difficult for exposing without a meter. If there's still any light left in the sky, try to exposue off of that as twilight and your scene end up pretty much even for a while until the sky sinks into black night.

    For long exposures under moonlight things get quite a bit easier. ISO 100 f5.6 and 3 minutes is a good starting point. Remember that doubling exposure from 3 min doesn't mean 3:30 or 4 min but 6! All of my night work was done without a meter.

    A few examples shot on Sensia 100 and Elitechrome 100 here:
  13. Michael: how is walking over to the part of your subject that you want exposed correctly, and taking an incident reading 'mindbogglingly useless'?
  14. I just love it when the simplest solution is often the best. The first thing you have to realize is that a lot of folks here have spent big bucks for equipment. Now, I think, they need to justify their purchases. In many cases, these big expenditures are unnecessarily frivolous.

    How do I know this? Been there, done it, and found that it did not necessarily work as well as expected. Some years back, I bought a Sekonic L508, then the top of the line model with options for reading flash and ambient light in incident and reflected spot metering modes down to very low light levels. Expensive too, around $450 when I bought it new. Now don't get me wrong, it is a really good piece of gear. More often than not though, it stays at home. I use it mainly as a flash meter when using studio strobes. Who needs another piece of gear to carry around?

    So what's the point of this tale? Don't think about spending more money on another meter before you give Fred Parker's "Ultimate Exposure Computer" a try. His guide is excellent and will give you better and more consistent results for essentially no money than you can imagine. After learning how to work with the Sekonic's spot meter properly, his exposure recommendations agree with the expensive meter's recommendations to within fractions of a stop. Start with his guide. Bracket around it a little bit, and take notes. Compare the notes with your finished work and see what works for you. Tons more fun doing the legwork than just having the answer fed to you.

    Sometimes simpler is better...
    rickayala likes this.
  15. I highly recommend you buy a spot meter. It may be expensive but you will save money by not wasting film on wrong exposures. Plus, you will need one if you want to do more than night photography. I sometimes just carry my Hasselblad, with my Sekonic around my neck. Its the 2nd most valuable gear you can have behind the Camera and before a Tripod. For the Berlin gate I took a spot meter reading under the gate at the pillars. Taking a reading at the horses at the top could have also worked. For the city shot you have to take a spot reading on the water and on the buildings. There should be at least a one stop difference between the two. I then put a ND filter on the top half of the photo to darken it one step so that it matches the bottom half. link to city shot: You can see how complicated this stuff gets. You definitely need a spot meter!
  16. I was searching the internet and found this little guide that helped me alot. I have tried it, and it is very accurate give or take 1 stop.
    Check this out and see if it helps you like it did me.
  17. I think Ron hit it on the head. Make sure you use the same film and developer too. I have used a gossen luna pro meter for years. It's great for night shots and will give exposures into the hours and maybe days. But you have to remember that meters like everything to equal 18% grey. So you may need to underexpose as much as one stop to get skies to stay black. Your Nikon EM is one of the best for long exposures. So is the Nikon FE2 and Olympus OM2n. Those meters were very good for keeping skies dark but with detail.
  18. I think I'll have to stick with a pencil and notebook, as I really can't afford a spot meter at the moment. I will also give Fred Parker's "Ultimate Exposure Computer" a try. By chance I just found the exposure details for the Boston picture, which I wrote down at the time: 3 second exposure f/5.6 50 mm Nikon Series E lens ISO 400 film Nikon EM I haven't used the Nikon EM much recently, but I might resurrect it for night photography. Jonathan's Berlin picture reminded me of a picture I took of the Reichstag in Berlin a couple of years ago. It's attached. Thanks for the advice. Best wishes, Chris
  19. Someone mentioned walking over to the area you want correctly exposed and taking an incident reading. Sometimes this would be feasible, but in many of my pictures this would necessitate a walk of a few miles!

  20. The Quantum Calculite XP goes down to -7 EV. Not bad at all! And accurate as hell. Not easy to find but worth it when you do.

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