The best light meter was once a photographer's best friend, and can still have its uses today. While it won't replace a camera's built-in light meter, it can be a hugely handy way to reach yourself about how to measure light for correct exposures, and can also be highly useful if you're using an older camera whose built-in metering system is unreliable or non-functional. Or, indeed, one that doesn't have one at all.
In-camera light meters can only measure the light reflected by subjects in the frame when you take a reading, whereas a handheld light meter allows you to walk around and check light in different parts of the scene, for a more broadly accurate picture of the situation. Some also are capable of measuring 'incident' light, which is the light falling on the subject and is not affected by the brightness of the subject itself.
Light meters are at their best when you've placed your camera on a tripod and have both hands free to work. They can be really handy for DIY photographic experiments, such as building your own pinhole camera, though where they really come into their own is in studio flash photography.
Read How to use a light meter (opens in new tab)
Many handheld meters can measure flash power as well as ambient light. Cameras require expensive TTL systems in order to be able to do this, so a flash-enabled meter can be a much more cost-effective alternative. Not all of them are flash-compatible though, so make sure you pick the right one if you want to use it with flash – we've specified on our list which picks will work with flash.
Sekonic is a dominant brand in handheld light meters, but there are plenty of other options to choose from. So, let's get to the best light meters you can buy.
The best light meters(opens in new tab)
The Sekonic L-308X is small enough to fit in a pocket and runs off an easily-replaced AA battery rather than a button cell. 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.
The Sekonic L-398A Studio Deluxe III is a piece of history – so much so that it's the basis of Sekonic's special edition 70th anniversary commemorative light meter. It uses something called an amorphous silicon photocell to take its light readings, which means it doesn't require batteries.
This is not only environmentally friendly but also just generally means it's less of a hassle. The EV range is a little narrower than others, and there's no flash metering, but the Sekonic L-398 does have both a "Lumigrid" for reflected light and a "Lumidisc" for incident light, which is pretty cool. The metering cell is also in a rotating head that can be turned in almost any direction.
A light meter can be a pretty simple device to do a simple job. There are hugely complex light meters out there, like the Sekonic L-858D Speedmaster a little further down this list, but if you have a feeling you need something more straightforward, we'd happily recommend the Voigtlander VC Speed Meter II.
Weighing just 42g, this little device mounts onto your hotshoe and will sit there quite contentedly. There's no pairing or connection, so it'll work with analog cameras as well as digital. Anyone who is familiar with the ins and outs of exposure can probably guess how it works from looking at the aperture and shutter speed dials – set them to your desired exposure settings, take a reading, and adjust until you get a green light.
There's no flash metering, and it's powered by LR44/SR44 batteries, which can be harder to get hold of. But this is a great hotshoe meter for users of all types of camera.(opens in new tab)
This light meter is a great affordable option from TTArtisan if you don't need more in-depth control or digital readouts. In a tiny compact package that fits on the hotshoe of your camera, and only weighs 35g, you will barely even notice it. Powered using common CR2032 batteries, you won't have to worry about outdated batteries.
Using only reflected metering, this light meter cannot be used with flash, but for everyday photography this is perfect. The controls are simplistic, with aperture and shutter speed dials to lock in your camera settings, and then a plus and minus LED light will guide you to the right exposure.
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.
Non-US readers should be aware that the Gossen Digisix 2 is getting a little hard to find in other territories, so you may want to consider an alternative option.
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.(opens in new tab)
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 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
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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 we test the best light meters
We measure the specs of different accessories such as light meters up against each other to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each one, such as reflected vs incident light readings, angle of coverage and display types. We consider how well they perform in real-world conditions – factoring in considerations like battery life, EV range and the physical weight of the device. We use these findings to support our comments in buying guides and product reviews.
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Photography cheat sheet: camera metering modes at-a-glance (opens in new tab)
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