17 January 2006

Polaris & Rip van Winkle

Last week I bought a new handheld light meter. I'm not, in general, a technologically challenged person but this was catch up time for me.

I realise that many people these days never use, possess or even see a handheld meter. Some types of work are served better by internal TTL metering, automatic or otherwise; I work that way myself, a lot of the time. With the arrival of digital photography, where the internal metering derives directly from the same sensor which delivers the image itself, this makes even more sense. I have a friend whose superb fine art photographic work is generated entirely from automatic cameras. Nevertheless, in areas of work where maximum control of tonal quality in the image is important a handheld meter is essential.

Another result of digital imaging is a return to the possibility of full Zone System exposure control. The Zone System is predicated on fully independent processing of every individual image; since that is impossible with roll films, it had to be modified and compromised in practice. Now, however, using RAW digital files, the full system can again be used by anyone who wishes – but only with a hand held meter.

I have, for a long time, used three meters. One is a Sangamo Weston Master V – a lovely thing, beautiful to use and to hold, redolent with memory and photographic history, a treasured possession, but, to be honest, an occasional pleasure rather than a working instrument since its sensitivity range doesn't match my needs. The second is a Pentax spot photometer – very much a working instrument, but for specialised purposes and situations. My regular general purpose workhorse has been a venerable and faithful Sekonic Apex L218.

The Apex has been though a lot with me, and put up with a lot from me. It was bought for me by my parents in 1969, when I was 17 years old. It has survived with me through swamps, monsoons, sand storms, landmines, falls out of trucks and down mountainsides, being trodden on by an elephant, and nonalcoholic punch. It has had its indicator plates reversed and modified with tinsnips to meet my specialised usage. It has delivered faultless intelligence for more than 36 years, and outlived dozens of cameras.

A month ago, though, it started to behave erratically. Readings were no longer reliable. I stripped, cleaned, lubricated and recalibrated it, as I have so many times before, and all was well for a while; but within a few days, the discrepancies were back. I kept trying, reluctant to give up; but its CdS cell is deteriorating with age, and no amount of recalibration can get around that. Eventually I had to admit that a meter which isn't 100% reliable isn't useful. It would have to be put into retirement. Not disposed of; it will snooze on alongside the Weston Master, honoured and revered but not in live use.

Which, though the Weston stepped temporarily into the gap, left me with the need to find a permanent replacement. It was a thought provoking experience.

The first six photographic stores I visited hadn't a single handheld light meter in stock. One of them, a branch of the UK's largest photographic chain, offered to order one – but it would have to be the single own brand model which they list in their catalogue. That wasn't what I wanted at all; I wanted to hold and try out potential candidates before selecting a replacement which will accompany me through the next 36 years – otherwise I could have bought more cheaply and conveniently, with greater choice, online.

Four stores assured me that handheld light meters are not made any more, because there is no longer any use for them. Which tells a great deal about their knowledge (or lack of it) in the field which they seek to supply.

Seventh time lucky, though: the next store had models available to examine, check over thoroughly, compare grey card readings against those of the Weston under various light conditions inside and out, investigate its response curves and reactions to strong cross glare, and so on. I bought a Polaris as an interim measure. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good. I can use it to explore the changes which have occurred in the past 36 years, before more knowledgeably visiting a professional supplier with a wider stock range in search of a permanent companion. Since it uses a standard AA cell, I assume that the basic mechanism is (as with the Apex) a wheatstone bridge; but there the resemblance ends.

The construction of this gadget has plus and minus points. On the plus side, it's delightfully light compared to any of my older meters... no possible excuse for leaving it at home. Against that, while well built its plastic body would not, I think, take being trodden on by an elephant with the same equanimity as the outgoing Apex. I have to confess, of course, that elephant treadings are not these days a routine part of my days. Perhaps the Polaris will become one of two replacements: one light and easy to carry, the other more resiliently elephant proof.

More significant is the move from analogue to digital output. Or, more precisely, digital display with analogue vernier.

The Apex, like the Weston Master and like all meters at the time, had a needle floating over an LV (Light Value) scale. The LV was converted to shutter speed and f/stop by a mechanical rotary slide rule. Not here ... Press a button and, depending on optional setting, either an EV (Exposure Value) or a direct exposure combination is given. Shutter speed plus nearest full stop above the correct value, with fractional stops indicated in tenths and thirds by an analogue bar below. Jog the shutter speed up or down and the aperture changes to match.

Now ... use of a handheld meter is often based on simultaneous assessment in relation to each other of two or more readings corresponding to different key areas of the tonal scale, while a needle or LCD display gives just one point value. On a meter like the Weston or the Apex, translation is handled by the slide rule dial. The Weston comes with four frequently used zone points (A, C, O and U) already marked on its dial as well as the point reading mark; on the Apex I had, like most photographers, made my own markings. The Polaris, however, doesn't have a dial, so I am going to have to use a separate one of some kind. I feel the pleasurable primary school craft day buzz coming on: I can make one myself and stick it to the back.

What else is different for a photographic Rip van Winkle who has slept through 36 years of light meter evolution? Well, the first thing is the speed of response. All meters of my generation were leisurely beasts: it took a second or two for the damped needle to settle at a particular point on the scale. Things are different now: press the button, and I have a reading – just like that, instantly. Oh, it may change as the ambient light changes as long as I hold the button down, but the immediate display is correct despite my waiting for it to change.

Speed of use is also a side effect of the single response scale. I'm used to setting my meters for "low" or "high" light ranges before taking a reading. It took a while for me to accept that there was no range switch here, that the meter would handle everything from gloom to full sunlight on a single scale.

Those last two factors greatly ease another use of the handheld meter: "snap metering". This is measuring light levels in a particular location, usually in order to plan and prepare for shooting later. Just as digital imaging increased the number of photographs I make, so this meter has already increased the number of such snap light readings I take many times over. With the rapid response they really are "snap" readings too – and, therefore, less conspicuous.

Then there is the fact that a separate flash meter is no longer necessary; it's built into the same box. I very, very rarely use flash; I almost always prefer ambient light if at all possible; so I'm very pleased to cease carrying a separate flash meter just in case. In the same vein, an optional attachment provides many of the functions of a spot meter ... it has a 10° acceptance angle, not the 1° of the Pentax photometer, but that still extends the range of occasions when I can leave the Pentax at home.

Much as I miss the loyal Apex, fond of it though I remain, and despite all the memories of which it will always be an integral part, I am very happy with the possibilities of the new world into which I've now awoken.

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