Hand Held Meters and HDR

Hand-Held Light Meters and HDR 

Friend of the HDR Image and Photographer Dale Smith wrote and asked; “Do you use a Hand-Held Meter and what do you think of them?” 

Well Dale the answer is, yes I do use one and like them quite nicely. So let’s explore this question further. 

First I’ll answer one really important question. Do I need a Hand-Held Meter to do HDR? Absolutely not. The reflective meter in your camera is more than capable of doing everything you need to do to successfully meter an HDR scene. But Hand-Held meter can make things easier in some instances and are also handy for other types of photography. 

What are Hand-Held meters and how are they different? 

The meter in our cameras are “reflective” meters. That means that they measure the light reflected off of our subject. They are calibrated to measure a midtoned object ( 18% or 12% gray depending on  who you talk to) as such they are subject to some inaccuracies if your subject is not a midtoned object (see our sister site See N Learn article on advanced metering for more on this) But for the most part they work just great. 

Hand-Held meters are different in that they measure the light source itself or “incident” light. They usually have a dome or “Lumisphere” to measure the light source accurately. They are not affected by the color tone of the subject so they can be more accurate. Hand-Held Meters can also be “Flash” meters to measure the light output of our flashes or strobes. This is the main reason I bought mine. A reflective meter in our camera is incapable of measuring that. And finally some models can also be used as reflective or Spot meters (measuring a small area of our scene). The funny thing is, this is most likely the mode we would use for HDR work so make sure the meter you buy is capable of this. 


Let’s take a look at a few popular meters. Meters are available from manufacturers such as Sekonic, Gossen, Polaris and others.

Some of the most popular models are The Sekonic L-358 and Sekonic  L758 and the Gossen DigPro F and the Gossen Starlite 2 

I own the Gossen DigiPro F. I bought it primarily to measure flash output but found it very useful in other situations. The reason I bought it over the similarly priced Sekonic L-358 was that it did flash. Incident and 1° spot metering without any additional attachments. I simply removed the lumisphere and it is a 1° spot meter. The L-358 is a fantastic meter but it only comes with the Lumigrid which gives 54° reflective readings and it requires optional spot metering attachments.  The Sekonic L758 and the Gossen Starlite 2 Can do 1° and 1-5° spot metering respectively without extra cost attachments

The Gossen DigiPro F is a great meter the only thing I wish is that the setting steps for Aperture and Shutter speed were adjustable 

Using a Hand-Held meter for HDR

Like I mentioned earlier Hand-Held meter are mostly known for their Incident light reading capabilities but we most likely will not use them that way for HDR. Measuring incident light is a great way to get accurate measurements for a single shot but we are taking multiple exposures and need something more than that.

 I will say taking an incident reading may be a great way to determine your center exposure in an automated 3 Exp +-2EV series as it may not be affected by mis-metering our subject as I talked about in this article

So let’s look at how I use a Hand Held Meter in determining exposures for an HDR series of images. Now normally I will use my Camera’s Built in reflective meter for this. Set to spot metering so I can pinpoint different areas of the scene. I scan through the scene and make notes of the shutter speed required for the brightest area of the scene and then I also measure the darkest area of the scene. Now I know I just need to connect those two readings with the EV steps that I choose 1EV, 2 EV etc. 

Okay, so why do I need a Hand-Held meter then? Like I said earlier, you don’t. But I’ll tell you why it may be nice to have. For the most part from say 9AM to 4 PM the light is very constant, in fact it is usually so much so I could tell you what to shoot without even using a meter. But for the ½ before sunset to the ½ hour after sunset. The light actually does change quite rapidly. And a lot of times during this period I have my camera set up on a tripod and I am probably going to shoot the same scene and composition repeatedly but just at different lighting as the sun sets and then as dusk starts. 

So if I have to either loosen the tripod ball head to take readings at different times or even take the camera off the tripod to take readings there is a good chance I may mess up my carefully composed image. I’ve had cases where I have totally messed up a straight horizon line because I was in a hurry after taking measurements to get it back on the tripod and shot in those 30 seconds that the sun is just at the horizon line. 



This is where the hand held meter comes in handy. I leave my camera as is and I take reading as the light constantly changes and make adjustments to my exposure brackets as necessarily along the way and I never need to touch the camera other than to change my settings 





In Use


In this series of images of a Lifeguard tower at sunset it was very apparent how different things can be in a short time period. When I first started shooting the maximum Shutter speed I needed was 1/500 as the sun in full view later as it was halfway hidden behind the horizon and into dusk my max needed was 1/30.

If I wasn’t able to quickly read the light through what turns out to be a quick and chaotic few minutes of getting the shot. I may have totally mis-exposed the scene. Either getting some exposures of total blowout or total blackness both of which add nothing to our HDR

BUT, make sure you let THE METER tell you what the brightest and darkest areas are. DON’T assume anything. As the sun just above the horizon line you may think it’s the brightest object in the scene at 1/30, but it wasn’t the blue sky above it was actually at 1/60 at that point in the sunset.

So for the sequence you see to the left, I metered and started my exposures at 1/250 f/16 ISO 200 and ended at 1/4 second in 1EV steps. Easily changing my shutter speed between steps doing the aperture wheel rumba , 1,2,3 snap, 1,2,3 snap





































Final Image

And this is the final image, Imported into Lightroom and then exported into the NEW Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 (I’m not sure from my review people know how much this new version rocks!) for processing before finish work was done in Photoshop


So Hand-Held Meters; Necessary? No. Nice to have? You Betcha! They may not meter much better than your camera’s meter depending on the spot metering capabilites of it. But they can make things easier along the way.

Hope that helps,






  1. Raghav August 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Can you review the popular Promote Control? Seems to be the best in business. Would be a great tool for HDR enthusiasts! Looking forward for that 🙂

    • Peter August 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

      Sure, I would love to. Promote Control want to send me a review sample? Please?

  2. Russ November 22, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Hi, Can you please explain how you get a spot measurement by removal of the lumisphere I own the Sixtomat but would upgrade for the spot metering option.
    Also In answer to Raghav’s question about the promote control, if you own a Canon camera just use Magic Lantern firmware (https://www.magiclantern.fm/releasenotes)

    • Peter November 23, 2012 at 8:08 am #

      Actually Russ, it doesn’t. The specs on the meter are ambiguous depending if you go to the US site or the German site. The US site lists a minimum angle of measurement of 1 degree, which to me would be a spot measurement. However the German site lists it at 25 degrees, which would be correct.

      So I should retract and say that the Gossen Digipro offers reflective metering but NOT a spot metering. It still has proven very effective in my metering for HDR

      Sorry for my mistake and the confusion