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Old dogs can learn new tricks, which is what I did when buying into the Canon flash system in 2005.
For starters, incident metering isn't an option with Canon ETTL or multi-flash optical triggering because the pre-flashes bias the meter readings. Even with multiple flashes in M mode there are command pre-flashes and the lights can't be fired and read separately for accurate ratio readings. So I learned how to use and came to rely on the other forms of metering a digital camera provides: the histogram and the highlight clipping warning, and the playback. Even on the old days with film a prudent photographer using a meter would still bracket exposures and in the studio use a Polariod back to take test shots to confirm exposure and lighting ratio. The digital feedback provides the same information, so why not learn to use it?
Unlike some giving advice here I also currently have a set of studio lights. When buying them I followed conventional wisdom and purchased a Sekonic L-358 Incident flash meter for setting ratios and exposure. But what I found myself doing after setting the ratio and exposure with the meter was the same thing I'd been doing for five years at that point on my digital cameras with Canon and Vivitar speedlights: take a test shot, evaluate it with the playback, histogram and clipping warning and tweek the settings based I what I saw, as needed. It didn't take long to realize the incident metering step was redundant in my workflow and it is was faster to just take a few test shots instead. In retrospect the money spend for the meter would have had better application if used for more lights, modifiers, or other camera gear.
With regard to measuring ratios with a meter by the numbers, I think that's also an old fashioned concept many cling to that really isn't necessary in the digital age. It doesn't address the goals of the exercise or help you understand why you'd use a 2:1 versus 5:1 ratio. I came to realize that by helping beginners on the Internet who always seemed to start with a photo of the wife with a 5:1 ratio and "Rembrandt" pattern that puts the face half in deep shadows. Mind you that's a wonderful strategy for shooting your old and wise 87 year-old grandpa, not not the most flattering choice for your wife. They were blindly follow some lighting diagram in a book without stopping to think whether or not that combination was flattering for the wife.
As a manager at work I always led teams by setting goals and defining measurable criteria for success. In the case of teaching lighting ratio on my web site I use the goal of creating "flattering" lighting as the goal of the exercise, not learning patterns or ratios by rote, the way I learned and the way most still teach. What constitutes "flattering" lighting? That's for you to decide yourself, but unless you have thought about the critieria that define it it's less likely you'll be able to tell yourself whether or not you have gotten it.
Not all lighting must be flattering, but the criteria that define flattering light for me are easy to define and understand: Get light in the eyes (preferably both of them) and avoid harsh dark shadows. A 5:1 Rembrandt pattern judged by those critera isn't flattering and thus not a good choice if the goal is flattering the wife. Flattering the wife is always a good strategy so she thinks the investment in the lighting gear was a good thing.
Teaching lighting by ratio numbers is like building a house by handing blueprint and a ruler to someone who has never seen a house. Follow the blueprint and you can create the house. If you set the key light incident strength one stop above fill you get 2Key + 1 Fill over 1 Fill which reflects 3x more light from the highlights where the two overlap. Then you stand back, look at the results and know for the first time what a 3:1 ratio looks like. That was a good approach back in the days when you shot on film and didn't see the results until days later. Nowadays you can just look at the back of the camera an see if it is working or not. How do you know it's working? One way is to have a clear goal before shooting, such as flattering the subject, and a few simple criteria like light in the eyes and shadow tone to measure the degree of success or failure.
Once you master the basics of "flattering" expand the goals to include "happy", "thoughtful", "sad","sullen","mad", "hostile" — the range of human emotions projected in portraits — then for each define criteria that create that reaction in the mind of the viewer. As the mood gets darker you'll want darker shadows, clothing and backgrounds and shaded eyes that make eye contact more difficult.
The new way to approach learning lighting was made possible by the instant feedback of digital and the fact you aren't paying 50 cents a shot for film and development is to put the wife in front of the camera with a fill light centered around chin level and raise it's power until the shadows on her face and clothing are light and flattering, then turn on the key light and raise it's power until the highlights it creates over the fill are correctly exposed. All it takes is a few test shots while adjusting the power of the light. It's really that simple. What will the ratio be numerically? Does it really matter? The goal is flattering the wife and you will have done that simply and emperically with just your eyeballs and the feedback a digital camera provides.
If photographing your 87 year-old grandpa what would you do differently? If you wanted to make him look old and wise you'd simply start the process with less fill so the shadows were darker. Try that approach and you'll quickly grasp the concept that shadows control the mood and emotional reaction to lighting on faces, and that fill intensity controls the tone of the shadows.
So with all due respect to the others instead of spending your money on a meter, I'd suggest you invest the money initially in modifers which will allow you to better control where the light goes and how much gets spilled, then try the approach I suggest of starting by adjusting the fill level first. After trying it that way on various genders and ages subjects to create happy and engaged or detached and sullen looks with the lighting ratio via modulation of the fill you'll have a better idea of whether to spend the money on the meter not.
Edited on Jun 30, 2012 at 08:30 PM · View previous versions