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Written by Sarah Collier
It’s the one thing that your film photography lives and dies by, and, yet, pop into any film group on Facebook, and it won’t be long until you see someone say proper metering technique doesn’t matter, just overexpose as much as possible and you’ll be good.
How could it hurt when you see people posting photos that look fine while they proclaim that proper metering is for the birds?
The Importance of Metering in Film Photography
There are many components to metering. So many that we spend the majority of our workshops and coaching sessions with The Film Photographer’s Workshop talking about metering. It is the foundation for all photography, and without proper knowledge of it, it will be difficult to consistently shoot beautifully in any lighting situation.
If you haven’t yet, read an Ansel Adams book (find on Amazon) to get a sense of just how important metering was for him to be able to accomplish what he did through his lifetime.
For the sake of time, I’m just going to cover one aspect of metering where I see most of our students struggle: how to correctly position a light meter.
When they start to change how they do this, their photography can change dramatically. The goal of proper metering is to achieve consistent results no matter your lighting situation, and to achieve a film negative with the right amount of information to print well or manipulate digitally if you need to.
It’s important to note that I take care not to overexpose unless I’m using Fuji 400h (Amazon), and then I meter only one stop overexposed and sometimes at box speed.
All the photos you’ll see here are Portra 160 (Amazon) and Portra 400 (Amazon) metered at box speed. Portra gets very orange and yellow when overexposed and skin tones just don’t look good. I never overexpose Kodak films.
Positioning Your Light Meter
Where you hold your light meter in a scene can dramatically change the outcome.
When watching our students meter, the first thing I notice is many of them will hold their meters in different positions and different angles from photo to photo with no real strategy or pattern. We did an exercise at our last workshop where we metered a face in harsh direct sun, and we got F stops of 11, 5.6, 4, and 16 all in the same spot without anyone moving.
This is why it’s so vitally important to have a method for holding your meter and sticking to it no matter the scene so you know exactly what you’ll be seeing once the film is developed.
Many people talk about how it’s scary to shoot film because you can’t see it right away, but if you have a process and have practiced it hundreds of times, you actually will know what you’re going to get out of it.
Generally speaking, I hold my meter at 45 degrees pointing toward the ground or the dark part of my scene, because I want to meter properly for shadows so that I don’t have muddy or black shadows (this is NOT overexposing, it’s spot metering).
The reason I hold it at a 45 degree angle down is so that I make sure there isn’t too much light hitting my bulb and tricking it into giving me a reading I don’t want.
Bulb In vs. Bulb Out
I also shoot bulb out. I do not take my bulb off (aka bulb in) since that will change my outcome up to 2 stops. The meter manual actually talks about the purpose of bulb in and bulb out. Bulb out is for shooting three dimensional subjects and bulb in is for shooting flat subjects.
These three photos are an example of how I meter for shadows at a 45 degree angle with the bulb out, same exact way in all three lighting situations.
Metering For Bright Scenes
Because I’ve practiced and experimented, I know what part of the scene I need to meter to get the outcome I want.
For instance, if my subject is in an extremely bright scene, I will always meter the highlights and shadows to see if I need to average the setting.
A great example of needing to average a meter reading is when I was shooting for a magazine in Hawaii on an extremely bright evening with the sun to my subject’s back. The readings were 4-5 stops different between the front of my subject and her back, so I averaged the readings and shot in the middle of the two.
Had I simply metered for shadows in the front of her I would have lost too much of the background, and had I accidentally held my meter in a way that allowed too much sun to fall on it, I would have potentially photographed her face a bit too dark. I also used a reflector to fill in the light on her face so that she would stand out more from the scene and the image would print well.
The first image below was averaged between the front and back meter reading and a reflector was used.
The next two images were carefully metered for shadows so I wouldn’t lose the beautiful rock detail. Also, so I would maintain highlights as well as possible. A reflector was used in both.
I took readings of the highlights in those photos as well to see what I was dealing with so I could maintain the highlights. The sun was low enough that I could meter for shadows and not lose those details, also a reflector helped maintain the shadows beautifully.
Metering For Dark Scenes
I use the exact same technique when shooting with any kind of lighting or in dark situations. Below are examples of the same technique, the first at a wedding in daylight, the second at a wedding with artificial lighting, and the third metered for shadows in a very dark situation.
Metering For Highlights And Silhouettes
Sometimes I want to meter for highlights, in which case I still want to make sure I have a balanced photo. I’ll again take an average reading of at least a couple of different spots, taking care to make sure my subject’s face or whatever part I want highlighted is metered properly for.
If I want to meter for a silhouette, I simply meter for the sky by pointing the meter at the sky.
1. Make sure you are consistently holding your meter in the same way every single time you shoot. Work out what gets you the results you want and practice it a million times. Start with metering in the shadow under your subject’s chin (or if shooting a black suit next to a white dress meter for the suit), 45 degrees pointed toward shadows, taking care not to have too much direct sun or strong light on your bulb.
2. Average your meter readings from both highlights and shadows in scenes with very conflicting light.
3. PRACTICE! There’s no magic formula for anything in photography. Becoming an expert simply takes good old fashioned practice. Make sure you’re doing your own experiments rather than only asking other people to show their examples, because you don’t know how their lab is processing the film, how the lab or they have edited it, what kind of lens they’re using, etc. There are a lot of variations that go into how the final image looks.
4. Don’t indiscriminately overexpose. You won’t learn what your film can actually do if you’re doing this. You may be getting color shifting that either the lab is fixing for you without you knowing or you just don’t really see yourself. I see lots of Oompa Loompa skin tones posted in Facebook groups, don’t let it happen to you! Get to know different films by doing exposure comparisons, and always start at box speed with a film when you’re first experimenting with it, yes even Fuji! The term “film is light hungry” is very misleading. Film needs good quality light to look great, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be overexposed.
5. If your meter is in good working order and you’ve gotten good results out of it, trust it! Our eyes can really trick us into thinking there is more light than there really is, but the meter should be accurate no matter what, unless it’s broken of course.
Though this is just a small part of metering technique, it’s a very important one. If you’ve been struggling to get consistent looking scans, work on this and I promise you’ll start seeing a change!
Thank you so much Sarah for all of these awesome metering tips! Sarah is the photographer behind The Film Photographer’s Workshop, so be sure to check it out if you’re interested in film photography workshops and mentoring. You can also find Sarah on her website and Instagram.
You can read all of our film photography tutorials here, and if you’d like to read more from Sarah, check out her Shoot It With Film Kodak Portra 160 article here!