Can I Just Use My Camera's Internal Light Meter?

Hello and happy Wednesday! I hope you are all enjoying our new metering series.

Today I’m answering this question, straight off the film forum boards…”Do I need an hand held meter, or can I just use my camera's internal light meter?”

Great question.

Over and over again, you will hear experienced film shooters say “do not trust your in-camera meter”

Here is why.

There are two basic ways to meter a scene: incident metering and reflective metering.

Incident metering means that your meter is reading the light that is falling on your subject.

Reflective metering means that your meter is reading the light that is bouncing off of your subject.

Most in-camera meters, meter using reflective metering.

And because your metering is reading the light bouncing off a subject, the reading can be effected by the surface of your subject (are they wearing white or black for example) and/or the surfaces around your subject.

So if your subject is standing on a white beach or in front of a large window or, as in the case of the photo below, on a boat surrounded by bright shiny water, the other light in that scene will be taken into consideration by your camera’s meter.

In high contrast situations this often results in accidental underexposure of the shadowy parts of your photo.


Because in high contrast situations, there is usually a 3 to 4 stop difference between your highlights and your shadows. Your camera’s meter just does not do an accurate job of accounting for these differences.

In the photo below, I had my camera set to over expose everything by two stops… but because the contrast in the scene was so great, my shadows were still underexposed…. and sadly, my son’s face happened to be in the shadows.

Accidentally underexposed
Accidentally underexposed

If you use a hand held meter however, you can get an accurate incident reading in the shadow (or spot meter for the shadows), and your photo will be gorgeous.


Happy Shooting!

-Sandra Coan