Sometime last year I bought a Praktica LTL 3, an old German camera. It was my way of getting a cheap SLR at the same time as participating in the new hipster trend for lomography and ‘authentic’ photos. So I set off taking photos, and when I finally went to get my film developed I was surprised to see a few which looked really terrible, like this photo of Reading station:
With a digital camera on high dynamic range it works out the correct settings for you and the longer you give it the more sharp and evenly lit your photo is going to be. I understood that on digital cameras slow shutter speed = a better photo, but didn’t make the jump that on a manual camera slower shutter speed = a blurry over-exposed mess. I’m told that apparently people solved this in the past with light meters which they used to carry around to measure the correct aperture size and shutter speed settings to get decent photos.
My camera ran out of batteries for the built-in light meter and rather than replace them I went and bought an app for my phone, for 83p. It also comes as a free version with advertising. There’s an iOS version from the same developer but it looks quite different so I can’t comment on it. Incidentally the developer also has an app for helping people cultivate ganja. It’s a strange world.
I’ve been quite conservative when it comes to apps, whereas my brother’s gone all out and downloaded almost everything he’s laid eyes on I’ve held back with two games, iPlayer radio app, wikipedia, twitter, not much more than that. These are perfectly workable apps but they don’t do much more than what I could already do with a normal web browser on my desktop. This is the first time I’ve gotten a specialist app which almost turns my phone into another device, it does something I couldn’t do before and means I don’t ever have to get batteries for my camera.
So how well does it function? I guess I won’t be able to really tell until my next batch of photos get processed and I see the results. In any case the accuracy can only be as good as the sensors on my phone, and this is one of the app’s main weaknesses. I’m still amazed to have unlocked this new functionality in my phone, but no matter how good the software is it will always be limited by the hardware it runs on. The sensors in the Nexus 4 are likely small and cheap and I wouldn’t expect it to compete with purpose-built devices used by professional photographers. The design of the app itself accepts this, it’s playful and skeuomorphic, far removed from the scientific interfaces used on more serious devices.
On my Nexus 4 it takes the incident light reading from the sensor on the top left of the phone. This is the same sensor which automatically dims your screen when you’re in a dark room. The reflected light reading comes from the front camera, and I think it does this by taking a picture but I’m not sure. The interface can be a bit confusing if, like me, you’ve never used a real light meter before. Thankfully there’s a help screen which explains everything, though I don’t actually know how to get to this screen, it just seems to come up every now and then.
It’s easy enough to set the ISO value, and once it’s done you can forget about it, you never have to touch it again unless you get new film with a different ISO value. After you’ve set the ISO value it’s as simple as pointing your phone in the general direction of your subject and pressing the big ‘measure’ button. The window in the centre of the app shows what exactly you’re pointing at and the slider on the bottom is a zoom. I’ve tried the zoom a few times – standing in a dark area and focusing on a light far away, or standing in a well-lit area and focusing on a dark patch, it never changes the reading by much.
This app is remarkably well made compared with the other apps on the market. It seems like the best in its category so if you need a light meter I recommend trying out the free version.