top of page

Shooting without a Light Meter:
Don't let the absence of a light meter prevent you from using a great camera.

When transitioning from digital to analog or from 35mm to medium format the absence of an in camera light meter may seem a daunting prospect, but in reality it is no big deal.  When I first started shopping for medium format cameras, I noticed many did not come with a light meter. Since then I've learned that even if they do come with one, there is a 90% chance it will not work (even if the seller claims it does). There are easy several ways to overcome the lack of light meter technology and I incorporate all the following techniques in my shooting; now I don't even notice I'm not relying on a light meter. 

Sunny 16 Rule:

Using the sunny 16 rule is the best starting point for anyone using a camera with manual settings. Black and white film is extremely forgiving of minor exposure mishaps and as such, you can use this rule in 90% of shooting situations. A quick Google search will return thousands of hits explaining the sunny 16 rule, along with easy to read image guides. Here is a quick overview of the rule in my own words:

  • F Stop/aperture will be based on the light conditions: 16 for sunny, 11 for partly sunny, 8 for shade.

  • Shutter speed will be based on your film's ISO speed. For 100 ISO use 1/100th sec, for ISO 400 use 1/400th sec. 

  • Once you have this basic setup, you can change your aperture or shutter speed according to your subject and preferences and simply adjust the other in the opposite direction to  maintain correct exposure.

sunny 16 rule easy to use camera settings for manual exposure

Example 1: Shooting children playing on a sunny day using ISO 100 film. I start with my camera set at f16 and 1/125 of a second. However 1/125 will not freeze motion and since the kids are running around, I need to bring my shutter speed up to 1/500th; this moves the exposure two stops darker (1/125, 1/250, 1/500). As such, I need to compensate with aperture two stops lighter (16, 11, 8) so I move the aperture to f8 and thus have the correct exposure for the light conditions and subject; hence, no light meter needed. 

Example 2: Shooting portraits in mostly shady conditions with ISO 100. I would set my camera to f8 and 1/125th. But I want some nice background blur/ bokeh. If I adjust the aperture to f2.8 to get the background blur. Changing the aperture from f8 to f2.8 will overexpose the photo by four stops of light, so I need to speed up the shutter four stops (1/125- 1/250 - 1/500 - 1/1000). Unfortunately the fastest shutter speed on most of my cameras is 1/500, so in this situation I would either have to adjust my aperture to f4 to use 1/500 for proper exposure or accept that the shot will be 1 stop too bright making it slightly overexposed; but that's relatively easy to fix in post processing. (1 stop off is no problem when using black and white film.) Also, I could make note of this and shoot the whole roll 1 stop bright and develop the film as if it were 50 ISO. 

*Note on learning manual camera settings and stops of light: 

When I took my first photography class using a digital camera, I had difficulty understanding the formula for f-stops and exposure values. (i.e. f-stop value = focal length/diameter of aperture, and that each stop of light is determined by a sequence using the power of the square root of 2.)  Unlike shutter speeds which just double for stops of light, f-stop math is not something I can do in my head. And I could never remember, if one stop from f2, f3.5 or f2.8 or is f7.1 one stop away from f6?  Thus comes the advantage of using an older film camera, unlike my DSLR which has aperture in fractional stops adding in f6.3, f7.1 etc, The scale on most of my film cameras is spaced exactly in one stop increments, so basically for every incremental increase in shutter speed, I simply need open the aperture (decrease the f number) the same number of clicks. Some of my Hasselblad lenses even have a feature that locks aperture and shutter speed together so that changing one setting will simultaneously change the other, instantly preserving exposure. 

Use a Digital Camera to Meter Light:

Nikon d810 live view manual mode aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings for correct expsure

I rarely leave my house without my digital camera, especially when traveling, so if I am ever in doubt of correct exposure I just pick up my DSLR, set the ISO to the film speed and meter, Then I apply the same settings to my film camera. An added bonus with this method, is the ability to easily switch between matrix metering and spot metering, a feature that requires extra attachments on stand alone style light meters.

Several months ago, I was taking a digital photography workshop and got into a discussion about film photography and mentioned that I used this technique to meter. This comment inspired a lecture from one of the other workshop participants on why using a digital camera settings will not be equivalent in film photography (ISO in film is based on the sensitivity of the silver crystal compounds in the emulsions i.e. chemical, and ISO on my DSLR is a digital computation, etc.) Although this is true, let the naysayers say nay and I will continue to meter with my digital camera, because it always works just fine.  

*When I went to shoot for my Ilford Film Comparison post  it was important that I got the exposure exactly right in order to show the difference between Delta 100 and FP4+ so I metered the shot with my Nikon D810 before shooting with the Hasselblad 500cm. And here are the unedited results side by side.  Close enough to say that when in doubt, metering with a digital camera will certainly get you in the right ball park.

Nikon D810 ISO 100 f8 1/250sec

digital photo of Las Colinas horse statue from Nikon D810 in black and white

Hasselblad 500cm Ilford FP4+ ISO 100 f8 1/250sec

Hasselblad 500cm image of Las Colinas horses taken on Ilford HP5+ black and white film

 iPhone (or Android) Light Meter App:

An even more portable option for metering is your smart phone. A quick search in the App store will bring up several options ranging from free to $5.00. There are some disadvantages to using a smart phone to meter light such as, annoying ads, fiddly buttons, no compensation for focal length etc. Despite the disadvantages, when I travel without my digital camera, it comes in handy to know I have a light meter in my pocket at all times. With the sunny 16 rule and a few years of experience, I rarely rely on these apps. However, when I'm in a questionable lighting situation, I get it out more as a confirmation tool than a neccessary device. 

apple app store photograher light meter app for iPhone
iTunes app store free easy to use light metering applications used by photographes
great photography app for use with manual mode and film cameras

Old School Light Meter:

1960 style light meter Gossen Luna Pro made in West Germany

I was very excited the day that this beautiful German made 1960's light meter arrived in the mail. I bought this Gossen Luna-Pro on eBay for $20 and found a user manual online for free. I knew before hand that I would have issues with the batteries. Most light meters from this era take the no-longer available Mercury batteries, yet I had researched and found several work around options. Unfortunately the issue of powering the light meter was more difficult than I anticipated, and after a few attempts, I gave up. This is not to say it cannot be done, but with the other easy-to-use options at my disposal, I quickly became impatient and moved on.  For people who love to tinker and don't mind the extra weight and bulk in their bag, this is a really cool option for getting the perfect exposure.

Gossen Luna-Pro light meter photographers tool for setting correct exposure
gossen light meter made in takes old mercury Hg batteries1960 West Germany

New Digital or Analog Light Meter:

A quick search over at B&H photo's website will return 172 light meter and light meter accessory related results. Prices range from around $125 to $1,500 with analog meters at the low end and highly sophisticated digital meters at the higher end.


Based on user reviews, the 'lower priced' analog meters seem easy to use and sufficient for the average photographer. However, for costing over $100 they are somewhat cheaply made and won't tolerate being dropped. The digital meters are all priced above $200 with most being in the $300 to $500 range. They come with a multitude of options and modes and tend to get good reviews; but for the average film enthusiast this seems a bit overkill. There are also a range of smart phone accessories available, some of which get five star reviews and others still in beta mode come with tons of bugs. For the conspiracy theory nuts out there, the Illuminati light meter connects to a smart phone via blue tooth and is used in conjunction with an on-phone app; use caution though as its reviews were less than glowing. As a hobbyist on a budget, even the $125 meter is out of the question for me. By using the previously mentioned resources already in hand, I can put the money saved on foregoing a light meter towards a Rolleiflex, or Hasselblad glass! 

new Analog light meter for sale at B and H photo store
digital affordable light meter sold at B and H photography website
high end expensive digital light meter sold online for serious professional photographers and film makers
illuminati light and color meter uses bluetooth connection to work with iPhone app for photograhers

Other Techniques to make the transition from meter to meterless easier:

Practice with a cheaper 35mm camera that has a working light meter, or a digital camera in manual mode.

My $100 Nikon Fe2 came used with a working light meter. Now that I have a Hasselblad, the Nikon spends most of its time on the shelf.  However, I should note that six months of shooting with the Nikon's light meter, got me so used to setting the camera manually that I easily made the transition to the light meter-less Hasselblad with great success. I use manual mode on my digital Nikon D810 about 50% of the time, but with the crutch of instantly viewable results and the ability to quickly switch to aperture or shutter priority when in doubt, I never became completely confident with metering on my own until switching back to film. When you are forced to use manual mode, think carefully about each shot, and wait for the results, it is surprising how quickly your brain will adapt to understanding what settings will achieve optimum exposure. 


I rarely bracket when shooting film, especially medium format where each shot brings me closer and closer to a dreaded reload break. However, when its a once and a lifetime shot in a once in a lifetime location, bracketing is a great way to ensure that you get at least one usable photo. With my digital scanning process and the forgiving nature of black and white film, I feel like I can adjust at least one stop light or dark and still get an incredible photo; therefore, I usually bracket 2 or 1.5 stops on either side of what I estimate to be the correct exposure. That way, if I've forgotten which ISO film is in the camera or any other error that may cause me to end up missing the exposure by 3 stops, I know I can still pull or push one of the 2 stop bracketed shots during digital post processing. 

Take a class.

I grew up shooting film and even took a semester of photography in college 20 years ago.  However, when I seriously returned to film photography, I invested in taking some basic workshops and classes. Even if you think you know all you need to know about film photography or watch hours upon hours of YouTube videos, never underestimate the value of an in person class. As a digital photographer you may have lost some of the most basic skills needed as a film photographer. Today's technology with automatic modes, computational HDR, image stabilization etc. has turned me into a lazy photographer that relies far too much on the equipment and less and less on my knowledge and skill; hence, continuing photo education gets my head back in the game and seems to enrich the whole photo experience.

What is your preferred method for light metering?

bottom of page