Best Light Meter
If you need or want to nail exposure the first time, an oft overlooked tool in this day of ubiquitous built-in meters, is the handheld light meter. Not too long ago a handheld meter was essential to every professional photographer's workflow. That's not so much the case anymore as camera manufacturers have done a good job integrating accurate light meters into their cameras. But, no matter how good they are, there are limitations to metering reflected light that cannot be overcome with a built-in light meter. That's where dedicated, handheld light meters come into play.
When a photographer meters a scene from the camera, they are taking what is termed a reflective reading. Depending on the scene, this could include much more light information than simply what falls on the subject, up to and including extraneous light or objects near the subject that could confuse a camera's reflective light reading. Modern photographers get around this problem by "chimping" the exposure, that is, they take a picture at a given exposure, judge the result, then make changes and try again. And again. And sometimes again.
For many professionals, trial and error is not an option. Not to mention, it just doesn't look professional. If the client is present on the shoot it probably will not instill confidence in the photographer's abilities to see the constant guessing and correcting. A handheld light meter can eliminate this guesswork.
Handheld light meters measure what's called incident light. This is the light as it falls directly on the subject at the subject's position. It doesn't get confused by other brightly color objects in the frame and it doesn't adjust itself to light sources that emit light that doesn't hit the subject. It's takes a true reading of the light that the meter then uses to generate a measurement to render the subject perfectly exposed. It can do this on the first try, not the fourth.
Listed here are the five best handheld light meters for photography. They are chosen because they are highly accurate, which is the most critical metric for any light meter. These light meters are also highly customizable, allowing photographers to change meter settings for a variety of situations including video or complex lighting setups. Our selections also have models or optional accessories that further increase their usefulness, like changing out the radio to trigger flashes from specific manufacturers, like Broncolor and Elinchrom, or add Pocket Wizard ControlTL support.
Sekonic L-758DR DigitalMaster Flash Meter
Sekonic L-478DR LiteMaster Pro
Digisky Digital GO 4039 Exposure Meter for Flash and Ambient Light for Cameras
Sekonic L-308s Light Meter
Lumu Smartphone Light Meter
Sekonic's name is synonymous with top quality light meters and the compnay has been at the forefront of light meter technology for over half a century. The L-758D is their top-of-the-line model and comes in a few flavors, one designed primarily for photographers (L-758D), one with an added PocketWizard trigger (L-758DR), and one with features geared towards video shooters (L-758Cine).
The Sekonic L-758D DigitalMaster is so feature-laden that it just isn't practical to list them all here. Of course, it has a retractable lumisphere, the white dome-shaped sensor at the top of most handheld light meters. Lumisphere retractability provides two main benefits, by recessing the dome it protects bubble from damage during storage or travelling, and it also allows the dome slip into a mode for better gauging of light as it falls on flat subjects, like, for instance, an art painting. The L-758D also incorporates a 1º spot meter, perfect for reading light in a very small area of scene. Think of it like a scope on a rifle, you point it at your subject, pull the trigger and get a reading at the center of the reticle. Since it's a 1º spot meter it's a "true" spot meter. Cameras that have integrated spot meters many times are only capable of 15-20º spots, an area that is many times bigger and much less precise than the spot in the L-758D. Additionally, the spot meter is threaded so you can add a small filter, like a polarizer or warming filter, to simulate the same effect that filter has mounted on your camera, increasing the accuracy and usefulness of the exposure reading.
Other notable features include flash percentages, so you can better see to what degree a flash is affecting your subject or scene. The L-758D also features what Sekonic calls ΔEV (Delta Exposure Value), a mode for getting specific light ratios between more than one flash. The Sekonic L-758D also comes in a version with a PocketWizard radio built-in, the L-758DR DigitalMaster. This radio allows the light meter to talk directly to PocketWizards using that company's proprietary communication protocol, ControlTL. The user can trigger PocketWizards up to 100 feet away from this light meter, foregoing the need to run a cable from the light meter to a dedicated PocketWizard transmitter.
You can also get the L-758D in a version suited for video, the Sekonic L-758Cine DigitalMaster. The L-758Cine adds continuous modes and exposure readings necessary for determining proper exposure for film and video, like switching the light meter into lux or foot-candles evaluations. All L-758's are built like tanks, even weather-sealed against the elements, and all are compatible with Sekonic's industry leading Data Transfer Software (DTS), allowing precise lens and camera hardware profiling, further increasing the light meters accuracy and repeatability. There is nothing on the market that rivals the Sekonic L-758D for features, dependability, customization, accuracy, and build quality.
The Sekonic L-478D LiteMaster Pro Light Meter is Sekonic's first touchscreen light meter. It's loaded with useful features in a handy, easily accessible touch form-factor. This light meter features a retractable lumisphere for obtaining accurate readings even on flat surfaces. The L-478D offers an optional 5º spot meter attachment, as well. While this attachment doesn't allow you to spot meter down to 1º, like a true spot meter should, it does give you a much smaller, more accurate spot than what is included in most cameras' built-in spot meters.
Speaking of options, you can add a PocketWizard transmitter to the L-478D, there's a little compartment on the back it slots into, or you can pick up the L-478DR, which has the PocketWizard transmitter already installed. This allows the user to conveniently trigger PocketWizards from up to 100 feet directly from the light meter.
The Sekonic L-478D(R) LiteMaster Pro has many cinema features already programmed in. If you need a light meter for video, you don't need to worry about upgrading or needing additional attachments, this light meter is ready for video shooting right out of the box.
The display itself is 2.7" and full-color. Touchscreens are convenient and familiar to all smartphone users, but there might be issues with using them with gloves on, like when you're shooting pictures in colder climates. The touchscreen does come in handy for entering profile or filter factor information which could get tedious with dedicated hard buttons. The L-478D(R) LiteMaster Pro is fully compatible with Sekonic's DTS profiling software, too. You can create camera and lens profiles and store up to 11 of them in the unit.
Gossen is a company out of Germany known for quality light meters and spectrometers. They offer a full range of meters, from the entry level Digisix 2, with its analog dials, up to their creme-of-the-crop DIGISKY. What sets the DIGISKY apart from the pack is it's capable of directly triggering flashes from Broncolor, Elinchrom, and Phottix. That's a unique ability, no other handheld light meter can claim the same. Broncolor and Elinchrom, particularly, are industry leaders that use proprietary communications protocols to communicate within each company's respective flash products, so this feature is no incidental line item.
The DIGISKY also feature a full color touchscreen, also not a common feature among light meters, as well as hard buttons for cursor control, menu, and data modes. And, as typical with Gossen products, the DIGISKY is a stylish and good-looking light meter. Its classy, glossy black finish and sleek form-factor belie the fact this light meter is quite light to the touch, if not "plastic", and doesn't feel necessarily premium since the buttons don't feel solid and click a little too loudly. Despite the questionable build quality, the DIGISKY has it where it counts, on the inside.
Gossen's DIGISKY is highly accurate for photography and equally capable for cinema shooters. A benefit of LCD touchscreens is they can easily switch modes and display important information and menu buttons for entirely different uses, like the switch from photography modes to video. The DIGISKY's menu system and soft buttons are well thought out and intuitive and the whole unit is a pleasure to use and navigate.
Even though the Gossen DIGISKY Light Meter is rather costly for a light meter, the fact that it can do some things that other light meters can not, for some, makes it a worthwhile purchase and a valuable, if not necessary, addition to their workflow.
The Sekonic L-308S FlashMate is lightweight but packs a mean punch despite its diminutive size. The L-308S is perhaps the most popular light meter for individuals just starting out in photography, wresting that honor away from the popular, but now no longer in production, the venerable L-358 Flash Master. The lumisphere that's on the L-308S Flashmate doesn't retract, but the light meter does come with a lumidisc attachment that snaps onto the L-308S and essentially converts the sensor to a flat, directional meter. The lumisdisc attachment is perfect for metering flat objects like paintings or across surfaces like green screens.
The L-308S comes in a cine-focused version called the L-308DC DigiCineMate and includes all the exposure measuring accommodations one would need when shooting video. Although this is Sekonic's entry-level handheld light meter, it's very well built and has all the options a photographer would need when first starting out. You don't get camera and lens specific profiling, but for the price you shouldn't expect to. What you do get is an accurate, dependable light meter that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
Lumu Smartphone Light Meter
There's an old adage in photography, "the best camera is the one you have with you." The Lumu Smartphone Light Meter is the light meter manifestation of that ideal. It's extremely small, very accurate, and attaches directly to the smartphone you already have with you.
Lumu started as a Kickstarter campaign by Lumu Labs. After Lumu Labs met their funding goal they brought to market a well-made, well-supported light meter. In the box you'll find a Lumu lumisphere attachment, a handmade leather storage pouch that can attach to a camera strap, a lanyard you can use to hang the device around your neck, and documentation. Even though the Lumu is pricey for such a small, uncomplicated device, Lumu Labs have done the presentation justice and the included accessories add good value to the purchase.
The Lumu slots into the headphone jack on Android and iOS smartphones and turns those devices into a capable ambient light meter. As this light meter can only measure ambient light, you will not be able to use the Lumu with triggered flashes. Even so, Lumu Labs offers three free apps that let you run the light meter in photography mode, video mode, and pinhole mode. It's strange that they don't offer one app that simply switches between these modes, but alas, to have access to all the features you will need all three apps.
Adding to the convenience, the Lumu does not require its own battery. It gets its power from the headphone jack and has a nearly undetectable energy draw.
If you are looking for an accurate light meter to travel with, or just one to have handy when you walk about, assuming your phone is compatible with the Lumu apps, you can't go wrong with the Lumu Smartphone Light Meter.
No longer simply the "family photographer," I am now a published, award-winning professional portrait and wedding photographer with over 10 years in the business. I also have advanced interests in automobile, landscape, sports, astro, and lifestyle photography. I enjoy researching the latest tech, the newest gear, and learning new picture-making techniques in the never-ending pursuit of creating better images.