The best light meter won't necessarily replace the one that's already in your camera, but it can teach you so much more about light than your camera can. The best light meters are able to measure light more accurately than cameras, giving you a better idea of the different ways that the light is reflecting in your scene.
While the light meter within your camera is undoubtedly helpful, it can only measure the light reflected by the subjects in the frame when you take a reading. This means that an in-camera light meter can't measure the amount of light falling on your subject.
However, using a handheld light meter means that you can walk around and check the light in different parts of your scene in order get a more accurate picture of what your exposure should be. Plus, most light meters come with an attachment for measuring 'incident' light. While you likely wouldn't use a handheld meter for when you're shooting handheld, it's a perfect tool when you've placed your camera on a tripod.
One of the areas of photography where a light meter can prove absolutely crucial is studio flash photography. Most handheld meters are able to measure flash power as well as ambient light – which is definitely something that your camera isn't able to do. Some photographers opt to pay extra for a TTL flash system instead, but this can get pricey pretty quickly. Instead, why not invest in a flash meter, learn exactly how light behaves in every different situation, simplify your shooting setup and be in total control throughout your shoot.
The best light meters
The Sekonic L-308X is small enough to fit in a pocket and runs off an easily-replaced AA battery rather than a button cells. It meters both reflected light (over a 40-degree angle), incident light and flash, and offers a digital readout in multiple modes – it also offers cine metering. It's more versatile and powerful than others on this list, but perhaps less useful for metering novices. It's annoying that you have to turn the meter to see the display after you've taken a reading, and while it will give you direct aperture and shutter speed settings on the display, it doesn't display aperture and shutter speed combinations in the same way as a physical dial. The L-308X is a great practical tool, but not such a good learning tool.
Weighing just 40g, the Digisix 2 is small enough to fit in a shirt your trouser pocket or hang around your neck via a small strap loop in the base. It offers reflected light readings over a 25 degree angle and incident readings via a sliding translucent dome. It displays a digital readout is in EV, which you then have to transfer to an external dial which then indicates matching shutter speed and aperture values. What's great about the Gossen Digisix 2, apart from its size, is its speed and simplicity. The exposure readout is visible on the top as you point the meter towards your subject or the camera and a single click of the measurement button captures a reading which is stored and displayed right up until you click the button to take another – giving you plenty of time to transfer your settings to the camera. The diffuser slides over the metering cell with a flick of your thumb, making incident readings as simple as regular reflected readings. The Digisix 2 doesn't do flash metering, but there is a Digiflash 2 version which does.
Where the Digisix 2 uses a multi-mode digital readout, the Sekonic L-208 Twin Mate is an analog device that indicates the light level with a swinging needle. You turn a dial to line up an index marker with the needle position, then read off shutter speed and aperture combinations off the same dial. It's a similar manual transfer principle to the Digisix, but with a strong retro look which is more practical than it looks. The position of the needle may look more approximate than a digital readout, but its position on the scale gives a much more immediate sense of how much light there is in the scene. You don't get that just from numbers on a display.
This high-end meter offers reflected spot metering, incident metering for both 3D and flat subjects via a retracting/rotating Lumisphere, Cine and Cine HD modes and extensive support for flash, with the ability to measure flash duration, flash vs ambient ratios and wireless flash triggering – plus high-speed sync support and flash duration measurement. Launched in 2016, the Sekonic L-858D was touted as "the most advanced light meter ever". The key thing to understand about the L-858D is that it's two specialized meters in one. It offers spot reflected readings via an eyepiece on the side and ambient readings via the rotating Lumisphere on the top, which can also be retracted/extended to suit different lighting characteristics. This is not, however, a meter for the fainthearted. Instead, it's a high-powered professional meter for photographers and cinematographers who know exactly what they're doing and just need the right tool to do it with.
The Lumu Power 2 is a bit different! It connects to an Apple iPhone via its Lightning connector to transform it into a versatile and accurate light meter. It works with the Lumu Light Meter app to enable you to measure flash or ambient exposure and colour temperature. You can even specify aspects such as your camera’s shutter speed and sensitivity range along with the lens maximum aperture, so you’ll always get applicable readings. It’s also helpful for long-exposure photography as it allows you to add a collection of ND filters and assess their impact on shutter speed. The only reason it's not a little bit further up our list is because it's not especially cheap. It might look like a hipster novelty for smartphone users, but it is in fact a powerful professional tool which harnesses the full power of the iPhone's processor and display to challenge the features of professional meters. The problem is, the price does too, with further in-app purchases to unlock all the features, even after you've bought the Lumu (you can get all the features up front, if you buy the Power 2 Pro version).
The Gossen Digisky is a compact, multi-function exposure meters with an impressive features. The device supports up to four flash groups over eight radio frequencies, and three groups of still camera settings may be defined at a time, in addition to a single preset for video settings. The retractable diffuser head enables incident and reflective light to be measured, while a flash sync socket at the unit’s base means it can be connected to external lighting sources. The body is constructed from matte-finish plastic, with a glossy front fascia. The build resembles that of a budget compact camera, a little disappointing considering the cost. There’s less to complain about with handling, though: the M button used for taking readings is large and presses firmly into the body, and it’s positioned so that the thumb naturally falls onto it when handled. The Digisky does what it sets out to do very well, and its color LCD is both pleasing to use and brings with it a practical benefit.
Choosing a light meter
Eight things you need to know about light meters
01 Angle of coverage
With in-camera through-the-lens meters the angle of coverage is governed by the lens you’re using or the metering pattern (spot versus average etc). With a handheld meter the angle of coverage is usually fixed, for example 40 degrees. You need to keep this in mind when aiming the meter to take readings.
02 Spot metering
Some more advanced handheld meters offer spot metering. Here, you look through an eyepiece to place a central spot metering area over the region you want to take a reading from. This works just like the spot metering mode on your camera, though it’s easier to quickly take readings from different parts of the scene to work out a median exposure.
03 Incident metering
Here, you slide a translucent dome over the metering cell then stand by your subject to point the meter at the camera position. With incident light metering you’re measuring the light actually falling on your subject, so the reading won’t be influenced by intrinsically light or dark subjects. It’s great for still lifes and portraits in particular.
04 Flash metering
Most handheld meters can also measure flash intensity, and here again you use an incident light attachment from your subject’s position. If you don’t have a handheld flash meter, the only alternative is manual flash with trial and error or TTL flash, which isn’t always available with studio flash systems.
05 Sensitivity range
Handheld meters don’t necessarily offer a higher sensitivity in low light than your camera’s own in-built light meter, so if you plan on doing a lot of very low light photography at night, it’s worth checking the minimum sensitivity value. EV0 is adequate for most artificially-lit situations, but moonlight may be as dim as -2EV and starlight even dimmer at -6EV.
06 Analog vs digital display
Traditional light meters and low-cost modern day equivalents may offer an analog measuring dial, where you line up a pointer with the indicated value and read off possible shutter speed and aperture combinations. Meters with a digital display will quote the light intensity as a numerical value, usually in EV but sometimes in shutter speed and aperture combinations.
07 Aperture and shutter priority modes
Modern meters with digital displays can match the shutter priority and aperture priority modes on your camera, so that if you want to shoot at a fixed aperture value, for example, the meter will tell you the correct shutter speed to use. You may also be able to fix both the aperture and shutter speed values and read off the required ISO setting.
08 Cine modes
Handheld meters have a special importance for high-end video and cinematography where the lighting is arranged with special care. Some handheld meters have cine modes calibrated for frame rates and shutter speeds or, if you’re using dedicated cine cameras, in frame rates and ‘shutter angles’.
How to use a light meter (and why not to trust the camera meter)
Photography cheat sheet: camera metering modes at-a-glance
Portrait photography tips
Studio portrait lighting: essential tips and setups explained
Best portrait lens