As a generalist pro who shoots portraits, weddings, and products, my lightmeter is about as important to my livelihood as a working phone. Tyros, who swear by their TTL 35mm’s, don’t live in the pro’s world of big manual flash units, where consistency in ambient exposure is also required. No automated, on-board
meter can beat an incident lightmeter for reading flash exposures or existing light. Don’t believe me? Check out the pros shooting from the sidelines of an NFL game. Although everyone is toting a monopod and monster tele, you’ll see an incident meter dangling from almost every photographer’s neck.

For most of my career, a Minolta has been my meter. In recent years, it’s been the Auto Meter IVF (that’s “four F”) because of its light weight. But when they introduced the Minolta VF (that’s “five F”) and Sekonic came out with the new L-358 Flash Meter, I wondered if the new Sekonic had the mettle to dethrone my Minolta dynasty. I decided to put the two new meters to the test, and since September ’02, the Sekonic has joined the Minolta in my arsenal.

First impressions
The Sekonic weighs just an ounce more than the 4.4-ounce Minolta, but it isn’t as well-balanced as the Minolta VF because the extra ounce is all in the dome end of the meter. And at $250 (street), the Sekonic is about $30 more expensive than the Minolta. But since it has a retractable dome that doubles as a flat receptor while the Minolta requires a $23 accessory to be used this way, the price difference is a wash.

While both meters have proven to be reliable and accurate, at first glance, I was put off by the Sekonic’s LCD display-darkish gray numerals on a light gray field. Even with its automatic display illuminator beaming its brightest, the readouts aren’t easy to see. And, if you look at the LCD panel straight on, contrast is much lower than if you tilt the meter’s top away from you and view it at an angle. Conversely, the Minolta’s LCD shows black numerals against a lighter, more contrasty background-very easy to read, even though there’s no illuminator.

Then there was the feel of the Sekonic’s controls-more rubbery and less precise than the VF’s. Why? Unlike the Minolta, the Sekonic has gaskets protecting its control wheels and buttons. There’s also one on the battery compartment cover, but for me, that’s not worth a lot. Gaskets are nice, though perhaps overrated. I’ve been using Minolta meters for more than 20 years, and I’ve never had one fail because of water damage. Of course, I don’t shoot in rainforests. For someone who does, gaskets could be a lifesaver.

Low batteries haven’t knocked any of my Minoltas out of action, either. The VF gets a good run on a single AA-like six months between changes-and even then, it’s not because the battery fails, but only because I feel that I should change it. The Sekonic, however, burns through its CR123A like a kid chewing candy. And those batteries cost four times what an AA does. Also, try finding a CR123A at a convenience store. That’s why I now carry two back-up batteries for the Sekonic.

But for me, all of these issues are overshadowed by what’s behind the Sekonic’s battery cover: a contact-lined compartment that accepts an optional PocketWizard radio slave transmitter ($100 street). This lets the L-358 fire a transceiver-equipped remote flash wirelessly. No PC cord, and no clunky transmitter stuck to the back of your meter (pros have been doing this for ages). As a shooter who uses PocketWizard radio slaves, and has a case full of PW receivers, transmitters, and transceivers, this feature alone edged my Minolta toward retirement.

Relative greatness
What pushed the Minolta off my full-time payroll is the difference between the way it and the Sekonic compare relative flash and ambient exposures. Sekonic uses percentages, in 10-point increments-the easiest and fastest way to balance fill-flash and ambient light that I’ve ever seen. A readout of 100 percent means that 100 percent of the exposure is coming from the flash. A 50-percent readout signifies that the flash and ambient light are equal components. A 20- or 30-percent readout means the flash intensity is between one and two stops below the ambient light exposure (my preferred target). When the readout is 10 percent, the flash throws a catchlight in the subject’s eyes but little else.

This feature has taken a lot of guesswork out of my portraits. Say you’re working indoors, shooting a portrait lit by sunny window light. To keep the shadowed side of your subject’s face from appearing inky black, a little fill flash could help. To find just the right amount of fill flash, roll the Sekonic’s control dial until the meter’s proportional reading changes to 20 or 30 percent. This means 70 to 80 percent of the exposure is coming from ambient light (the window) and 20 to 30 percent is coming from the flash-enough to assure that some of the details in those murky shadows will make it into your shot. Much more flash, and the lighting would look artificial.

The best part? Once a reading is taken, you simply roll the shutter speed wheel to change the f-stop, shutter speed, and fill-flash percentage displays simultaneously. No trial and error is necessary to find the exposure that will deliver the optimum mix of ambient and flash light.

The Minolta VF displays flash- and ambient-proportional readouts, too. Graphically, it shows four wedges that comprise the slices of one exposure pie. Two wedges mean the flash and ambient components are of equal intensity. Three wedges and the fill flash is one stop less than the ambient light. Four wedges translates to a two-stop difference. But if the difference is more than two stops you still get only the four wedges, so you’re on your own, and back to guesswork. After much experimentation, I’ve found that fill flash somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 stops below the ambient light is about right for opening up the shadows without screaming “fill flash.” The Minolta’s system is too blunt a scalpel for the hairs I want to split.

Buy or bye?
Both meters have features and attractions that make neither a clear winner nor a poor choice. If your criteria are feel, LCD readout, battery type, power consumption, and weight, pick the Minolta VF. If you shoot a lot of flash/ambient mixes, as I do, then the Sekonic gets the nod. Of course, if you have a pocket full of Pocket-Wizards…well, then the Sekonic is the only game in town!

Sekonic L-358 Minolta VF
$250 street $220 street
5.4 ounces 4.4 ounces
2.4×6.1×1.8 inches* 2.6x6x1.6 inches
Built-in retractable receptor dome for broad or narrow-angle readings Interchangeable receptors for broad or (optional) narrow-angle readings
Ambient reading range EV -2 to 22.9 Ambient reading range EV -2 to 19.9
Memorizes up to 9 readings on an analog scale Memorizes up to 2 readings
CR123A power source AA cell
Averages up to 9 readings Averages up to 2 readings
Flash/ambient analysis in 10-percent increments Flash/ambient analysis in 5-percent increments
Additional features: backlit LCD, battery check, weather resistant, dual ISO settings Additional feature: highlight- or shadow-biased readings
* with dome extended

Want to know more?
Minolta: 201-825-4000;
Sekonic (div. of Mamiya Corp.): 914-347-3300;