Summer is here, and that means long days and beautiful light—perfect weather for photographers, especially film photographers!
Film loves light. The more, the better. If you’ve ever been curious about giving film a try (here are some things to know if you want to switch from digital to film), now is the perfect time. As long as you meter properly, you can’t go wrong. And the good news is, metering is really, really easy.
Film vs. Digital Sensors
Digital sensors are very sensitive to light. Make a wrong exposure, and you can lose detail in your highlights and blow out your image.
With most film stocks, however, it is pretty hard to lose detail in the highlights, even when overexposed. This kind of exposure latitude makes film incredibly forgiving. That said, it’s still important to meter properly to get the most out of your roll.
The easiest and most accurate way to meter for film is by using incident metering, which means that your meter is reading the light that is falling on your subject rather than the light that is bouncing off of your subject.
I like incident metering because when I use it, my subject’s skin tone or the color of their clothing won’t matter to my camera. The meter is only going to read the light that is falling on them, and therefore, my readings are super consistent.
To take an incident reading, you will need a handheld light meter.
How to Take an Incident Meter Reading
I always shoot my film at box speed (the ISO given to it by the manufacturer and printed on the box). Once my ISO has been set, I adjust my meter to the “bulb out” position. Then I meter for the darkest shadow I can find by placing the bulb in the shadow and taking a reading.
What’s great about this technique is that you can use it in any lighting situation you may find yourself in. I meter this way on cloudy days, sunny days, with window light and with strobes.
It’s super consistent and easy—and I’m all about consistent and easy!
Here are a few examples of this metering technique in different kinds of light:
The photos above were shot on a cloudy day in late afternoon light. I used incident metering and metered for the shadows. (Shot with my Contax 645 camera and Kodak Portra 800 film.)
Above, we have examples of what an incident reading in the shadows looks like on a sunny day in mid-afternoon light. (Shot with my Contax 645 camera and Fujifilm’s Fujicolor PRO 400H film.)
Here, we have incident metering for the shadows with indoor window light. (Shot with my Contax 645 camera and Fujicolor PRO 400H film.)
The photos above were captured inside with strobes, also taking an incident reading in the shadows. (Shot with my Contax 645 camera and Fujicolor PRO 400H film.)
My Approach to Metering
All of these images were taken in very different lighting situations, and they were all metered exactly the same way: incident with box speed, the bulb out and in the shadows.
Sandra Coan is an industry educator and award-winning newborn and family photographer specializing in studio portraiture, artificial lighting and fine-art film photography. She last wrote about common misconceptions of shooting natural portraits with artificial light.