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Hand held light metering for 16mm filming


Jon O'Brien
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How can hand held light metering, when shooting, say, on a 16mm Bolex without TTL metering, be speeded up to the maximum? What techniques and types of light meters work best?

The reason for my question is that I'm interested in doing some film shooting for weddings on 16mm. I've shot a wedding on Super 8 with auto TTL metering on the camera and that was straightforward and fairly low stress. But I'm starting to wonder how shooting a wedding is going to go when using 16mm. You can't exactly call out when the groom is about to put the ring on and say, "Hang on... just got to get the f-stop." Thanks for your helpful advice.

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you will want to meter the church/ceremony hall beforehand to know what kind of light levels you have on the areas of main interest. So you know that if you are shooting on that direction and the bride+groom are standing on that area you will need approximately this f-stop (t-stop). Then you just remember to adjust the stop when they move around depending on where they are standing and from which direction you shoot with the camera. 

Personally I like to use only incident meter on documentary shoots because it is very fast compared to the "nitpicking" spot meter mess which will take minutes to complete just a simple task which by my opinion can be decided more easily. I measure the ambient level and the key with the incident meter and then decide how much under the ambient I will set the exposure depending on how high the key level is. In most situations I can manage by just judging the contrast situation by eye, then measuring the ambient level on the spot where the subject is standing and setting the exposure from 1.5 to 2 stops under the ambient incident level depending on the scene/shot content, light direction and the albedo of the subject I'm shooting. This approach of mine is based on the conclusion that if you can't change the contrast ratio anyway, with film you generally need to be more careful about your shadows and dark tones than your highlights so if you can't control how high your highlights will be anyway, you need to take care of the shadows so that you will see all the details you want to see which generally are from mid gray to -3 stops (the reliable range of exposure for them on most films). So I decide which mid gray detail is the darkest I need to see in the shadows (which are lit by the ambience/fill) and will set the exposure so that this detail is not exposed lower than -3 stops. This is why I only need the ambient reading on the spot the subject is standing on and not the spot readings of the whole scene. 

this approach only works best when you are doing DI and will individually fine tune the shots afterwards in the grade. If wanting to do photochemical finish you will still want the spot readings and then you need to be able to actually tune the contrast of the scene with real lights too to be able to adjust things when needed. If doing fully documentary non-lit stuff I recommend my "ambient metering only / shadow centric exposure" approach which is very very quick and reliable enough for documentary style use. By my opinion, if you can't change the lighting you need to concentrate on the shadow areas when shooting on film. Forget the highlights, they will be fine 🙂 

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if you CAN control the lighting, you need to first determine if you need to do something for the harsh daylight coming from the windows by knocking it down and raising ambience levels inside. You may need to raise the ambience level of the whole scene by bouncing big lights around (for example one or multiple HMI's of 1.2 to 4k range) and knock down the sunlight by using diffusion/scrim/nd on the windows at the same time. Knocking down the sunlight will lower the ambience levels inside even more  which is non-ideal because you need to raise the ambience more and more. Basically you need to determine if the ratio between the sunlit areas compared to the large background areas behind the subjects is correct for you. The subjects you may be able to light separately with smaller lights but raising the ambience may NOT be a simple task.

If you DON'T need to raise the ambience levels or do anything to the direct sunlight, then you just need to take care that the subjects are getting enough light especially on the camera side. You may want to add some small fill light to raise the levels on the subjects (for example a small led panel may be just the right tool for this task. Or a lantern or a small-ish 150 or 300w led with a softbox. Something which does not disturb the ceremony and is quick and easy to set up. 

If you want to shoot the party too, you'll need to be able to wrap the church/ceremony place quick. I would personally just focus on getting enough fill on the subjects with some non-disturbing and small fixture and then raising the ambience with one single larger  fixture if absolutely necessary. You can choose to add some beautiful backlighting for the subjects but that may be too time consuming to setup and wrap and it disturbs the audience so I would just keep it simple and limit it to two lights which are fast to setup and wrap and which don't disturb anybody

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it would be ideal that you can determine a common t-stop for the whole scene and would not need to compensate during the shoot unless the ambience level changes (the sun goes behind a cloud etc) . Then you can divide the scene to the area where the common exposure works fine (for example T4 all the time) and then the area where you need to raise the exposure by for example one stop when shooting subject on that area. If you have lights with you, it may be possible to raise the levels on this low light area so that you can manage with the same "common stop" for the whole scene independent on where the subjects are within the scene. 

Then you can just take incident measurements of the ambience levels in the room to know if the ambience lowers suddenly (the sun goes behind a cloud etc) and would raise the exposure by the same amount the ambience change was. This way you don't need to individually measure anything during the ceremony, just keep an eye on the ambience light levels and adjust the exposure by the same amount the ambience changes

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Thanks Aapo, that's very informative. Is there a particular model or type of light meter you can recommend, that works well for measuring ambient light level? I have a Sekonic L-398A meter which is more the old-fashioned type. Do you use some kind of digital meter?

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2 hours ago, Jon O'Brien said:

Thanks Aapo, that's very informative. Is there a particular model or type of light meter you can recommend, that works well for measuring ambient light level? I have a Sekonic L-398A meter which is more the old-fashioned type. Do you use some kind of digital meter?

I am still using my Sixtomat Digital which I got with my first Bolex in 2000. It has been very reliable and handy low cost meter for my use and accurate though there is lots of alternatives as well. I actually like to use some very old light meters more and more nowadays, especially a very old Ikophot meter from the 50's. They work surprisingly well when you just calibrate them by checking them against a modern meter which is known to be accurate. These old meters work without any batteries and are very low cost, I think mine cost something like 5 euros and is still good for documentary shooting as long as you know how much to compensate for the meter's age (I think the Ikophot was close to one stop too sensitive so I set it to higher iso to compensate. so when shooting 100 iso film I set it 200 iso to compensate)

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I would just keep the Sekonic if it is accurate.  There is not much more one really needs from a light meter unless needing spot metering for drama/controlled lighting situations. but if shooting docu style and exposing for the ambience, then one could just use that Seconic incident meter and nothing else

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It is wise to test your light meters before shooting...

I have a digital Sekonic Flashmate L-308X-U.  It always wants me to open a stop more than I need.  It's not detrimental, but it's not accurate.  I sent it to Sekonic to re-calibrate it just to make sure, and I get the same results.  It's not a big deal, but I have to compensate for it.  It doesn't mater what film stock I use, I have to keep it in mind.

I have an analog Sekonic L-28.  It was used and the globe was a bit cruddy, so I ordered a new one before I tested it.  The meter always wants me to close a stop.  It's to the point that the image is actually under exposed.

While I was shooting a miniature set I built for my current film, I tested both meters under the exact same lighting circumstances.  This is how I determined the difference in the two meters and how to compensate.

Now that I know the margin of error of the two meters, I use them both when shooting and my exposures are spot on.

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  • 1 month later...
On 9/25/2021 at 10:03 AM, aapo lettinen said:

... I measure the ambient level and the key with the incident meter and then decide how much under the ambient I will set the exposure depending on how high the key level is. In most situations I can manage by just judging the contrast situation by eye, then measuring the ambient level on the spot where the subject is standing and setting the exposure from 1.5 to 2 stops under the ambient incident level depending on the scene/shot content, light direction and the albedo of the subject I'm shooting .... this approach only works best when you are doing DI and will individually fine tune the shots afterwards in the grade .... If doing fully documentary non-lit stuff I recommend my "ambient metering only / shadow centric exposure" approach which is very very quick and reliable enough for documentary style use. By my opinion, if you can't change the lighting you need to concentrate on the shadow areas when shooting on film. Forget the highlights, they will be fine 🙂 

Great, very helpful advice. Yes, I'd like to shoot documentary non-lit style. If I have to use a light or two I will, but will first try to use just the available light. Probably shoot with 7209.

For the technique where you use an old-style light meter and hold it up to get the ambient light only, not the key, how do you do this? Do you just aim the bulb on the meter away from the key, or do you hold the meter up, pointing to the camera lens as usual, and use your other hand to block out the direct key light? Or maybe it doesn't matter. Just curious how you do it.

I find light metering fun. I'm experimenting outdoors with fast metering techniques. Like maybe putting my hand up to shade the meter bulb if I'm in sun but the subject I'm shooting is in the shade. It's inexact but perhaps in some situations where a very quick shot is necessary it will be sufficient, rather than going right up to the subject, metering, then walking back. Also, after a while you start to get a feel for light levels.

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There's a lot to be said for sticking with one type of camera such as a Bolex, with a tiny selection of lenses, and really getting to know that camera. Rather than paying for an extra camera with quick auto exposure such as a Canon Scoopic which is an idea I had to make filming 'on the run' quicker and easier. I'm feeling if I stick with all hand-held metering I'm going to get pretty fast and efficient at it. And learn a lot too. An auto exposure camera isn't really going to teach you a lot about exposure levels.

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On 11/18/2021 at 5:55 AM, Jon O'Brien said:

For the technique where you use an old-style light meter and hold it up to get the ambient light only, not the key, how do you do this? Do you just aim the bulb on the meter away from the key, or do you hold the meter up, pointing to the camera lens as usual, and use your other hand to block out the direct key light? Or maybe it doesn't matter. Just curious how you do it.

Normally I use my hand to block the key light from hitting the light meter dome but try to keep the hand a little bit farther away from the meter so that the possible light reflecting from the hand cannot affect the readings. I will take couple of readings from different parts of the room to see if there is much variation across the room and if the ambience is more directional than I first thought

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On 11/18/2021 at 5:58 AM, Jon O'Brien said:

Aapo, do you ever use COB ('chip on board') lights such as things like an Aputure 60X? Or a 120?

https://www.aputure.com/products/ls60x/

What type of lights do you use to provide just a bit more light if needed for, say, a wedding in a largish room or cathedral?

 

I use a 150w daylight cob light for smaller things when HMI is not needed or LED is more practical. On paid gigs I have used for example the Aputure 600D, Aputure 300D, Godox mats, Nova300, etc. lights.  In a huge space like a cathedral most of the leds don't have enough power to make any difference if they are bounced to raise the ambience levels...  it might be required to use one of those ball diffusers or pancake style softboxes on them for direct light for them to show enough.  You could try that with a daylight fixture like a 300w cob led, it does not look the same as boosting the ambience itself but should work OK for wedding shoots etc. and does not disturb the audience too much even though they normally have a fan which can make a little bit of noise

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daylight power LED has roughly double the light output compared to a similar wattage adjustable colour temperature LED light so personally I like to purchase only daylight balanced LEDs if any signifiant amount of light output is needed (will get approx. double the light output with the same or lower price  and the size and claimed wattage.

Additionally most of the tungsten balanced LED emitters look pretty bad spectrum wise at low colour temperatures so even if I use a adjustable temperature light, I rarely use them at lower than about 3600K.... they tend to create this 'rancid butter' kind of ugly colour tint when at low colour temperatures like around 3000K and especially if lower than that

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