One of the advantages of many electronic cameras is seeing your exposure mistakes in the viewfinder before you begin to make photographs. Alas, the poor film photographer has to wait until the film is processed to see mistakes. The auto exposure systems that dominate today's photography do a wonderful job - most of the time. But when they donut - egg on the face and the desperate hope that the news event wasn't an important one.
I know a number of news photographers that still rely on a handheld exposure meter, and these photographers use cameras that provide the option of automatic exposure. They use a handheld incident meter, the meter whose cell is hidden behind half a Ping-Pong ball.
Unfortunately, the broad, full-frame meters built into cameras will almost always be misled when the important subject is a small part of the frame and a different brightness from the majority of the frame. The tighter "partial" and "spot" meters correct this problem but require more intelligent use and interpretation of the built-in meter. The smaller the area covered by the reflected meter, the more you have to know where to point it and how to modify its recommendations. If nothing else, this takes time, time that may not be available to news photographers.
The incident exposure meter evolved in Hollywood to solve problems just like this. Its hemispheric receptor mimicked the face of the star and metered the light falling on that all-important face while ignoring the background, the backlights and other factors that would affect a reflected-light meter. And unlike an uncompensated spot meter that would render all flesh tones identical, the meter that just measured the light falling or "incident" upon those valuable faces automatically kept the fair heroine fair and the dark and dashing hero dark. Today, in spite of the advances in the reflected light meters built into cameras, the incident meter still remains the "people meter" of choice for many photographers. Truth is, it's not only good for people, but a great variety of nearby, three dimensional "main subjects."
The handheld incident meter will never be built into and coupled to a camera, but it is simple. Meter, set your exposure, shoot until things change. Oddly enough, this "set it and forget it" attitude towards exposure can be faster for a series of pictures than anything short of blind automation. It is certainly faster than any system that requires that you meter and reframe with every shooting sequence.
It also offers one other hidden advantage over automatic TTL readings. Automatic systems may make subtle changes in exposure from frame to frame. This certainly is no problem if you are after a single shot. It will drive you mad if you are looking for a series of matched shots. The values of each transparency can be slightly different. The printing time of each negative, slightly different.
If you are not used to incident metering, it has certain peculiarities that must be recognized. A ritualistic wave of the meter produces an exposure that is highlight and midtone oriented, perfect for color transparency and a disaster for negative film in contrasty situations with important shadow detail.
Once you are aware of this, the easiest and quickest correction is just to open up a stop in such situations.
Here's a more complicated and time consuming system that you can use if you are a metering fanatic working on a slow moving feature job. Blocking the main light from the cell of the incident meter, take a "shadow" reading. Split the difference between this exposure recommendation and that of a conventional incident metering. Considering the latitude of today's films, this technique is probably absurd for journalists. But it looks weird and will probably impress the hell out of the other photographers.
The incident meter is not the be-all and end-all of metering. It's slower than automatic for a single, quick grab shot. The practitioners of the Zone System don't use one. And it can't replace the built-in, TTL spot meter when you're covering a well-protected politician from a distance. But it is an exceptionally valuable meter that doesn't get the free publicity that comes from being built into a nice camera. (This also means you can have your meter in the repair shop without sending your camera, too.) Yet, because it provides a quick system of metering that is rarely fooled, it is still the "main meter" for me and many of my friends.
Why write about it? I just met several photographers who thought the incident meter was only for studio strobe lighting and relied totally on the TTL meter built into their cameras for any other situation. I thought it would be nice to talk about a handheld meter in case they ever bought one of those big cameras that doesn't have a meter built-in.
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