Why You Should Leave the Light Meter at Home (At Least Once)

When I first started shooting film, I toyed around with some auto-exposure point and shoots (I think I still have that Canon SureShot 35AF somewhere) that I picked up from a local thrift store.  I simply just wanted to give film a try.  As I quickly researched and progressed through different 35mm cameras, I finally mustered up the courage (with plenty of pressure from a friend of mine) to purchase my first medium format camera.  Not only did I not know how to load my new-to-me Mamiya 645 Pro TL with a non-metered prism, but this would also be the first time that every step of the photographic process would become a more manual experience.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL w/ 80mm // Kodak Portra 400

I had never used a light meter, loaded a roll of 120 film, nor had I ever really forced myself to manually focus prior to the purchase of that camera.  At that time, I remember being so afraid to learn how to work a light meter.  For some reason, that device was just intimidating, not worth the expense (neither was the metered prism), or too cumbersome to carry for whatever reason.  After a quick search or two, I found a few mobile light meter apps that seemed to be much more inviting and user friendly until I could muster up the bravery to try a real light meter.  Something about the older ones with all of the numbers really frightened me for some reason.  Knowing what I know now, of course a dedicated light meter performs much better than your cell phone, but at the time, it did the job in letting me get the shots that I wanted and enabled my dependence on using something to evaluate the light in a scene.

The photos I got with my Mamiya are still some of my absolutely favorite photos I have ever shot.  Not only do I love the shots I took with that camera, but there was something about that learning experience that make those pictures a bit more sweeter and more meaningful.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL w/ 80mm // Kodak Portra 400

Over the course of the next few years, I bought, sold, and traded a bunch of different kinds of cameras.  Almost every single camera that I wanted to try or get my hands on, it was sort of required that it would have a built in meter.  While I still tried cameras like the Pentax 67 and Hasselblad 500c, I felt that it was more of a chore to shoot these cameras simply because I had to take a light reading out of camera.  And due to my continuous use of a built in meter, I also felt that I would need to meter the scene every single time I decided to take a photo.  I know that isn’t totally necessary now, but everyone’s habits are different.

Hasselblad 500c w/ 80mm // Ilford HP5

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to get my hands on a Leica M2.  After experimenting with other M-mount bodies like the Konica Hexar RF and Leica CL, I just still didn’t understand the mystique behind the Leica name.  Meanwhile, I am still stuck here lusting after an MP.  But, I figured I would give the M2 a fair attempt with the understanding that I would definitely purchase Voigtländer VC ii meter when I found one for a reasonable price.  Turns out, the VC meter is pretty sought out after, maintains its value on the used market, and people don’t like splitting the meter from the body it’s on to sell separately.  And understandably so.

With that, I decided to purchase a Minolta light meter for less than $40.  I used it once on the day I got it, and haven’t really touched it since.  Again, I found it to be a bit troublesome to carry around this extra piece of extraneous equipment simply to take a single light reading on a day or shooting.  At a time where I am trying to simplify many things, including the number of cameras and lenses I have on the shelf to choose from, I decided to leave the meter at home from that day on.  I decided to simply use my instincts and all of those basic rules we learn when we first start shooting photos (f/8 and be there, Sunny 16, and so on).  If I really needed to use a meter, I can always pull out my trusty meter app that served me well enough in the past on more than a handful of occasions.

Yashica A // Kodak Porta 400

While I have only put a few rolls through my M2 since receiving it, foregoing the meter and trusting my instincts has been a liberating experience.  So far, I have only shot three rolls of rather-forgiving 400-speed Ilford films and a single roll of Kodak ColorPlus 200, but I can happily say that I have yet to waste a single frame from absolutely botching a light estimation in my scene.

Leica M2 w/ 35mm Zeiss ZM // Ilford HP5

Sure, I may have missed by as much as a couple of stops, but nothing has been rendered unusable or unfixable with some minor corrections if necessary.  Even when doing a few prints in the darkroom, not much has been lost.  I’ve pushed and tested myself in a variety of environments simply by using the Sunny 16 rule and adapting it to whatever environment I find myself in; whether that be an indoor sporting event, night shooting, or in direct or indirect sunlight.

Leica M2 w/ Canon 50mm LTM // Kodak Color Plus 200

I have found that shooting without a meter has been quite a liberating and confidence-boosting experience.  After depending on something for so long and just going without it was a bit uneasy, it was a great way to put my skills to the test.  When it comes to shooting without a meter, I probably wouldn’t say that it’s one less thing to worry about.  If anything, I probably worry about it even more.  As each roll is developed, I and initially nervous and anxious to see if there will be photos throughout the roll, but in turn I have become more and more comfortable in foregoing a meter.  I’m not saying that I’ll go meter-less from now on or even go shoot a somewhat important event without one, but it makes the simple reward of seeing my images that much sweeter.

Leica M2 w/ Canon 50mm LTM // Kodak Color Plus 200

If you have been shooting for a bit now, but have yet to go without a meter, then I urge you to just give it a shot.  Perhaps you’ve been looking for a new challenge, or simply want to alter your shooting experience just a bit to break from your normal routine for something slightly new and different.  Perhaps you are like I was; scared to remove that safety net in favor of verified, perfectly exposed shots, every single time.  If that’s the case, then I say it may be time to give yourself some room to make a mistake and simply test yourself.  Give up a little control in exchange for a little bit of uncertainty and excitement.  It makes the process that much more rewarding in the end and chances are that you are way better at this than you think.


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