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Calculating light by eye (without a light meter) indoors
Old 02-19-2015   #1
Redseele
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Calculating light by eye (without a light meter) indoors

Hi everyone,

I've been shooting with a Leica M3 for a couple of years now. Without a meter I resort to the Sunny 16 rule to shoot in the sun under different conditions (cloudy, hazy, no shadows, etc.) and I've got a hold of it relatively well. However, I ended up giving when I realized that I also shot pretty often indoors (which sort of justified getting an M6 in addition to my M3 ).

So here's my question: how do you calculate light without a meter indoors?

I realize there are other practical ways of doing this (handheld meter, using the M6's light meter, etc.). That's what I'm doing right now. However, I met a guy (a photographer with a few decades of experience) a few days ago who could very quickly calculate aperture and shutter speed almost perfectly without using a meter. I was amazed by this ability and I want to learn more about it. Unfortunately I won't be seeing him very often, so I was wondering if the community could help me out with some pointers of how to go about learning to do this.

As an example, how to go about doing this by looking at how much light come through windows, how far away something is from a window, the type of artificial light used (incandescent vs. artificial day light), etc.

Finally, another question: I can shoot very well outside on the sun, but how much should I compensate for shadows (for instance, shadows under a tree or next to a building in different light conditions, etc.)

I know that's a lot of information I need but I love being able to do things manually and relying the least possible on technology. I am sure other people in the forum could also benefit from this information.

Thank you!
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Old 02-19-2015   #2
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... handheld it's f2.8 1/30 at 400asa and hope for the best
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Old 02-19-2015   #3
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It amazes me how some people insist on making life as hard as possible. Go buy a good handheld meter. You can buy a very good one used for $100. Guessing exposure is hard enough in daylight, which is relatively predictable and constant. Indoors with artificial light? Forget it.

I know this post will be followed by a hundred posts by guys claiming that they never use a meter, that it is a 'crutch' used by the talentless. Like a bull**** dick measuring contest. The fact is, no one gives a damn how hard you made the process; they care about the image. I prefer working with properly exposed film, it makes printing easier and the quality will be better, no matter what anyone tries to tell you.
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Old 02-19-2015   #4
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I have gotten used to the situations I am often in and therefore can usually just guess. Daylight is easier like you say.

Anytime I have to second guess myself, I just pull the LuMu meter out - plug it into the iPhone and meter away. Once done, I can deal with the little changes off top of my head.

Am I accurate? No, don't think so. But for BnW film I do okay.
Oh and I always shoot 400 which helps staying consistent.

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Old 02-19-2015   #5
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I would say that it all comes down to repeated experience. Buy the meter, as Chris advised, and use it over and over again, observing attentively the lighting and the readings you are getting, until it becomes second nature to you, too.

Personally, I use handheld meters a lot.

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Old 02-20-2015   #6
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What Chris C said. Not using a light meter makes a photographer a fool, not a cool back-to-basics dude as some seem to think...!

There's no good reason not to carry a meter. Humans are physiologically unsuited to gauging absolute light levels. Outdoors, where the light typically changes little and slowly, you can sometimes get away without metering by recalling camera settings from similar situations - but then you're not being intelligent but aping a trained monkey. Indoors, metering is essential because it's often humanly impossible to estimate the brightness.
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Old 02-20-2015   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
It amazes me how some people insist on making life as hard as possible. Go buy a good handheld meter. You can buy a very good one used for $100. Guessing exposure is hard enough in daylight, which is relatively predictable and constant. Indoors with artificial light? Forget it.
and here we go, a post of Chris where i agree with him completely (well, at least with this half on-topic).

You can't guesstimate indoors. You just can't.
You can remember the values if it's your home and you metered it several times in the same condition, but you cannot guesstimate it otherwise.

You might get lucky or you might get "close enough" on half the shots e.g. in Diafine but that's not gonna be consistent nor easy to print/use.

If you really can't go on with a handheld meter, then just switch to a camera with a meter. (Reason no.2 i dropped the M2 in favor of the Bessa R3a)
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Old 02-20-2015   #8
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we have a lightmeter (eyes) built in, but it's designed like the Yashica electro35 series: It is auto exposure without telling you the measured values. You only notice when it's too dark or too bright, everything in between is automatically handled pretty well.
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Old 02-20-2015   #9
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I don't think what I'm about to add conflicts with what's already been said, but just adding a little more info. Often with my M6 I like to set a value before I put my eye to the viewfinder, then I know my shutter/aperture as I adjust to the meter without taking my eye away again. Over the years I've gotten to the stage where my best guess when I set the camera will be within half a stop of the meter, not always but surprisingly often, but I always like the assurance the meter gives and wouldn't want to be meterless.
However, and particularly indoors with the cameras reflective meter, the reading it gives can be very easily fooled and it's important to try and learn how differing conditions affect metering. Dark walls, light walls, rim lighting, and windows will all pull and push your meters readings into inaccurate settings. So I would never blindly follow a reflective meters readings indoors. If you have the luxury of incident metering then that's generally a better option.
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Old 02-20-2015   #10
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Hi,

Well, I'm on the side of the meter users but I'll add that now and then you have to add a bit of guess to the reading. Or, as I should have said, adjust sometimes in the light of experience...

And meters are dirt cheap, I see them in the flea markets for two or three pounds now and then and the last one I bought like that (a Weston Euro-Master) was agreeing with the checked and calibrated and balanced ones at home.

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Old 02-20-2015   #11
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Experience with various films over years of use is the only way to judge indoor light IMO, esp for color.
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Old 02-20-2015   #12
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I'm with Stewart - as wide as your lens will go at 1/30 (or 1/15 if you are a steady hand) and hope
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Old 02-20-2015   #13
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I'd wager some of the great 35mm photographs of the 1920s-1940s were taken without a meter. And most dryplates from the 1890s until film used no meter. And ALL wetplates from the 1850s until dryplate used no meter! I use a meter when I can with 35mm. But if you forgot one, do you just cancel photographing for that day? I don't.
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Old 02-20-2015   #14
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Oh, hand held only shooting? If so I agree with John.
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Old 02-20-2015   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by goamules View Post
I'd wager some of the great 35mm photographs of the 1920s-1940s were taken without a meter. And most dryplates from the 1890s until film used no meter. And ALL wetplates from the 1950s until dryplate used no meter! I use a meter when I can with 35mm. But if you forgot one, do you just cancel photographing for that day? I don't.
yea but you only see the frames that were succesful somewhat in their exposure. The lucky guesses.
You dont see the thousands that got dumped because of exposure mistakes. :P
Plus if you use flash and you know what the flash does, we have a different story

and finally, the fact that 100 yrs ago it was more difficult and some people still did it, doesnt mean we should make it more difficult today... Do you often travel on horseback?
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Old 02-20-2015   #16
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Quote:
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... handheld it's f2.8 1/30 at 400asa and hope for the best
This is what I do. Usually it works OK.
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Old 02-20-2015   #17
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Actually, it was by shooting a Leica and having to set aperture and shutter speed by hand and not having those values shown in the viewfinder that I began to learn to judge approximate exposure.
I never really learned when I was presented with the values in the finder, partly as it throws up so many variables with thirds of a stop, and partly as long as the shutter didn't go too low, I didn't pay as much attention as I do with a fully manual camera.
My stupidity I'm sure, but there was something about physically setting the values that made the connection that much clearer. Also always shooting 400iso film helps to keep a constant.
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Old 02-20-2015   #18
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Since good meters are cheap and available, I picked up an older Luna Pro for $15, then by all means learn how to use a meter and use it. Even if you are looking for that grainy gritty chalk and soot look to indoor pictures you will learn how to expose for that effect.

Talking about meters I just picked up a pristine, fully working OM-4T at a second hand store for $30. The multi-spot reading feature is great so even if I only used it for a meter for my other cameras it is worth taking along in the bag.
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Old 02-20-2015   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
It amazes me how some people insist on making life as hard as possible. Go buy a good handheld meter. ...
+1

Otherwise:
  • use one of the many "calculators" that offer approximate exposures for common conditions.
  • shoot only sheet film, take two identical exposures using your best guess, process one normally and use that result to judge how much to push or pull the development of the other.
  • get a cat and, as per the oft repeated story/legend, use the diameter of the cat's pupil to judge the amount of light in the scene.
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Old 02-20-2015   #20
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Intelligent interpretation of a good meter is always best. "Intelligent interpretation" is important: don't just blindly follow the meter.

BUT

There's not always time

If you're carrying an old, un-metered camera, you may not wish to be encumbered by a meter

Experience is a great teacher, and with experience, you can judge most exposures perfectly adequately

SO

Refusing to accept that many people can learn to make excellent exposures without a meter is as stupid as pretending that a meter is the only realistic approach.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-20-2015   #21
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hallelujah, roger ...
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Old 02-20-2015   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sparrow View Post
... handheld it's f2.8 1/30 at 400asa and hope for the best
... just to clarify ... that was for indoors under artificial lighting, and not this bit ...

"Finally, another question: I can shoot very well outside on the sun, but how much should I compensate for shadows (for instance, shadows under a tree or next to a building in different light conditions, etc.)"

... for that it really depends if the subject is in shade or backlit, if it is then open up a couple of stops from the sunny-f16 reading ... you can open up one stop all the time if you like as a safety margin modern negative film is really forgiving to overexposure ... (I'm assuming you'er shooting negative film here, slide film and digital are different)
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Old 02-20-2015   #23
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned 'bracketing', if you have time that is. Three or four shots, one stop over, one on and one stop under. Sometimes it works.
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Old 02-20-2015   #24
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Interesting question, one that crossed my mind 2-3 years ago.

I rely on my iPhone app meter for indoor photos, kind of a cheapo spot option. Before, I used to use the widest aperture that a lens allowed with 1/15 or 1/30, speeds that I have found I could hand hold comfortably. Even though I got usable photos with the guess work, I would not shoot without a meter nowadays, indoor lighting has surprised me many times. My success rate (with regards to metering) is close to 100% now, sadly, same thing cannot be said about other qualities of my photos.
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Old 02-20-2015   #25
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Interesting question, one that crossed my mind 2-3 years ago.

I rely on my iPhone app meter for indoor photos, kind of a cheapo spot option. Before, I used to use the widest aperture that a lens allowed with 1/15 or 1/30, speeds that I have found I could hand hold comfortably. Even though I got usable photos with the guess work, I would not shoot without a meter nowadays, indoor lighting has surprised me many times. My success rate (with regards to metering) is close to 100% now, sadly, same thing cannot be said about other qualities of my photos.
What would you deduce from that? if asked to consider the statement
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Old 02-20-2015   #26
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Refusing to accept that many people can learn to make excellent exposures without a meter is as stupid as pretending that a meter is the only realistic approach.

Cheers,

R.
Exactly. I don't have issues going meter less and if the speeds drop below 1/15 I'm not taking the shot as most times I do not have a tripod with me. Which would be the same result if I had a meter with me.

If you don't feel comfortable going meter less, then do what makes you feel comfortable.
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Old 02-20-2015   #27
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I learned to guesstimate light by carrying a meter with me in my daily walks and doing light readings under all possible conditions. I'm not really good at it, but when it comes to shooting indoors, I am reasonably good, and if anything, within a stop... thanks to all that practice.

However, the important rule in my book is to bracket.

Now... have you seen prints by this mystical guy who can guess exposure correctly? That's where the real test is.
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Old 02-20-2015   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SolaresLarrave View Post
I learned to guesstimate light by carrying a meter with me in my daily walks and doing light readings under all possible conditions. I'm not really good at it, but when it comes to shooting indoors, I am reasonably good, and if anything, within a stop... thanks to all that practice.

However, the important rule in my book is to bracket.

Now... have you seen prints by this mystical guy who can guess exposure correctly? That's where the real test is.
I've seen them. They suck. I don't get people spending thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, on gear then using it in a wasteful halfassed way to produce garbage. Life's too short to waste time like that, and I'm not wealthy so I can't afford to waste film and other costs involved in my work like gas for my car to go out photographing.
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Old 02-20-2015   #29
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... handheld it's f2.8 1/30 at 400asa and hope for the best
Yep, or with one of my meterless camera/lens combos where I rate Tri-X at 500, I go f2.8 for 1/60.

And if you've got daylight streaming in through a big window, adjust accordingly.

I've discovered that at least with Tri-X, exposure isn't hyper critical, and I can usually get close enough by eyeballing. Which lets me use some of my favorite old cameras (M3, F2) without having to carry around a light meter.
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Old 02-20-2015   #30
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... but than it's the contact sheets that really matter ... and anyway I know folk who can consistently blowout sky with a meter
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Old 02-20-2015   #31
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... handheld it's f2.8 1/30 at 400asa and hope for the best
+1 for me (a hobbyist)
Back when, I always did 1/30 or 1/15 at f2.0 at ISO 400. Worked fine, things looked "natural", Tri-x is wonderfully forgiving.
f2.8 would work too.

If you career depends on it, and you can't move around taking meter readings, buy a shoe-mounted light meter.

EDIT: Much more of a challenge, indoors with color film is white balance, esp when there is a variety of light bulb types (and ages). Which is why The Gods invented Tri-X.
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Old 02-20-2015   #32
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What would you deduce from that? if asked to consider the statement
fair enough..

As I said before, I used to guess exposure indoors and really sucked at it. Most of the shots came out underexposed, some, to my surprise, came out overexposed (in strong window light during the daytime). I used to spend quite a bit of time on the computer to get reasonable prints out of them, but results were not satisfactory. I have found reflective meters in the camera totally useless, incident metering works if the light is consistent but my best results have come from my iphone meter (this is not a plug for the iphone or an app). I have got prints from approx 8 rolls in front of me right now, and not a single photo has the intended subject under/overexposed. Granted, I am not as experienced as a lot of folks on this site, I only speak from my own experience.

To demonstrate, I quickly scanned some 4x6 prints on my HP scanner, the scans appear a little over-exposed than the prints. All photos are taken with my Rollei 35 S on Superia 400 and metered using the iphone app. Flash was not used. First 5 are daytime photos.


I took a similar photo with my GA645 and it's totally unusable.




For me, guessing exposures in the following photos was impossible.







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Old 02-20-2015   #33
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Now some night time indoor shots..

First 3 were taken in a room illuminated with 4 bright white CFL bulbs, guess work could have worked here due to uniform and strong light, but I metered them anyways. SS must have been 1/15 to 1/30, aperture 2.8.

Again, the scans appear over-exposed than the actual prints, I have to change settings on my scanner.








Room in the following 2 was illuminated with 2 CFL bulbs, ss was 1/2 or 1/4.






I do bracket at times, but I don't believe in wasting film by guessing exposure if the solution is as easy as using a handheld meter.
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Old 02-20-2015   #34
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Leica M3 DS, Planar 50, Portra 400 @ 200, no meter, no bracketing
f2.0, 1/8
Hammer Museum performance art installation, Los Angeles a few weeks ago.



Same location, but at an indoor stairwell.
1/60 @ f2.0



Want to use a meter? Fine. But I do w/o with my meterless cameras. I enjoy the experience and understanding the light.

Quick aside, I trusted the fancy 3D colour matrix metering on my first test roll with my Nikon F6, and it underexposed a strongly back lit subject. Something I would have easily got right w/o a meter.
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Old 02-20-2015   #35
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We are all different and there is no one right way. I like to carry my IIIc with the little 50mm Elmar and I don't want to carry a meter. After about 10 years of this I find better and more consistent exposures from my IIIc than from my M6 cameras. When I do meter I much prefer my Sekonic incident meter altho the meter in my Nikon N90s does very well. I just don't use the Nikon much. Also, I shoot mostly 400 asa color negative film. It's forgiving, I'm learning and it works for me. Joe
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Old 02-20-2015   #36
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Intelligent interpretation of a good meter is always best. "Intelligent interpretation" is important: don't just blindly follow the meter.

BUT

There's not always time

If you're carrying an old, un-metered camera, you may not wesh to be encumbered by a meter

Experience is a great teacher, and with experience, you can judge most exposures perfectly adequately

SO

Refusing to accept that many people can learn to make excellent exposures without a meter is as stupid as pretending that a meter is the only realistic approach.

Cheers,

R.
Rogers has put it really nicely.
Photography is making choices and nobody can tell you how to shoot or expose your film, even the meter can't. Nobody knows in what interiors you'll be measuring the light - there will be always a compromise as the contrast will be greater and it is up to you to choose what look you are going for. Many people here can guesstimate the exposure pretty damn accurate, and it is not a hard thing to do. This is nothing to do with talent or to show off. To use light meter creatively takes time and may not suit your style or concept of your OWN photography. Of course, if you shoot walls, car parts and benches you will find time to take ten meter readings, even if you live in a part of the world where you can shoot f8 @ 1/250 sec. till the cows come home through the whole year.

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Old 02-20-2015   #37
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I've seen them. They suck. I don't get people spending thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, on gear then using it in a wasteful halfassed way to produce garbage. Life's too short to waste time like that, and I'm not wealthy so I can't afford to waste film and other costs involved in my work like gas for my car to go out photographing.
Dear Chris,

Be fair, though. That's not necessarily anything to do with whether they use a meter or not.

And do you REALLY believe that there is no-one on earth who can take good pictures, far more often than not, without a meter?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-20-2015   #38
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Now some night time indoor shots..

First 3 were taken in a room illuminated with 4 bright white CFL bulbs, guess work could have worked here due to uniform and strong light, but I metered them anyways. SS must have been 1/15 to 1/30, aperture 2.8.

Again, the scans appear over-exposed than the actual prints, I have to change settings on my scanner.


Room in the following 2 was illuminated with 2 CFL bulbs, ss was 1/2 or 1/4.


I do bracket at times, but I don't believe in wasting film by guessing exposure if the solution is as easy as using a handheld meter.
... to my eye both sets look way too bright, but it looks more like they were done by a lab and the scanner/printer simply tried to expose them to an average setting .. I expect the same negs could give a better print with a bit of work, thin negatives are not easy to print I admit but it can be done
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Old 02-20-2015   #39
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Like others in this thread, I personally know a few people who produce consistent exposures w/o the use of a meter, more power to them. I, however, am still learning and would prefer to use a meter. After using a hand held one for a couple of years, I can accurately guess exposures under 2 and 4 CFL bulbs.

Advising someone (new to manual metering) never to use a meter because they have done it for years with good results is wrong IMO. Guessing can teach you a lot but so can using a hand held meter. And as Roger mentioned in an earlier post, it is not so easy to use a hand held meter, you have to understand light and be able to compensate when necessary.
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Old 02-20-2015   #40
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... to my eye both sets look way too bright, but it looks more like they were done by a lab and the scanner/printer simply tried to expose them to an average setting .. I expect the same negs could give a better print with a bit of work, thin negatives are not easy to print I admit but it can be done
They are bright because of my scanner (I mentioned this in my posts). I have never scanned prints before and used my HP all-in-one to make quick scans to illustrate. The prints are perfect, I wish there was a way to show you. Some scans even have color hues which are not seen on prints.
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