My New Favorite Meter: The 478 (A Review)
As you can tell from the title of this post I am very impressed with Sekonic's latest meter- the 478. Over the last couple of years I have been able to offer my insights into how I, as a cinematographer, use their light meter (The 758) and where it could be improved upon. And, in my opinion, the 478 addresses just about all of my critiques. Read on for a detailed listing of the new features as well as what to be aware of when using this new meter.
If you prefer watching a video over reading text, here is a short interview I did for Sekonic about what I like about the 478. The full spec sheet can be found at Sekonic's Site.
(If you want to know how to use a light meter & why it is important even with digital cameras, check out my tutorial video, as well as my tutorial on how to use the Sekonic DTS software.)
- Getting Rid Of The Clutter
One of my constant gripes about the 758 is all of the additional modes and settings I had to cycle through to get to the settings that I really wanted. As I'm not a photographer at least 50% of the settings, if not more, I have never used. I have always wanted the ability to remove them from the meter. With the 478, I can do just that. I can customize the menu system so that I only see the options that I care about (HD and Cine modes).
- HD & Cine Modes
I am like the ability to easily and quickly switch between these two modes. With the HD mode all of my settings match what I find on most, if not all DSLR's, and in Cine mode I have all of the settings that I'm used to working with on the higher end cameras.
- Unlimited Frames Rates
With the 758, I was limited to frame rates of up to 1,000 fps and the choices were only in predetermined increments as given by Sekonic. With the 478, I can use the same default predetermined frame rates, or I can go in and specify any frame rate I want up to 9,999.999 frames a second. Yep, that's right, you read that correctly- you can dial in frame rates up to one thousandth of a frame. Not that you are going to notice an exposure difference between 23.976 and 24.000, but it is nice to know that there is that level of precision and control.
- Unlimited Shutter Control
Just like the frame rate, the 478 allows you to dial in any shutter angle you want, in measurements as finite as one thousandth of a degree. So if for some reason you find yourself with a camera that will allow you to shoot at a shutter angle of 276.555, you can match it on your meter. Again, this level of precision is rather ridiculous (in a good way) as you will never notice an exposure difference between 275 and 276- but the control is there. :)
- Unlimited Control
Are you sensing a theme yet? ;) Sekonic has given me a choice of controlling all of the meter settings and menus either through the touch screen, or by using the DTS system. If I click on the User Setting or the Custom Setting tab in DTS, I can view and change any of the settings within the meter via my computer.
- Store up to 10 separate, labeled profiles
This is a big deal to me, as I have been creating a library of profiles to use with my 758. However, one of my frustrations with the 758 was that it was limited to three profiles, and that the names on the meter always read Camera 1, Camera 2, & Camera 3. So I had to be VERY diligent about remembering what camera profile I stored with what camera number. If I was only using one camera for that days shoot, it wasn't a huge deal, but more and more these days I find myself using multiple systems on one production. I recently shot a series of spots for Adidas where in one day we used an Alexa, C300, 1x 5D MKIII, 1x 5D MKII, and 2x 7D's - I would have really appreciated having the 478 ... Now that I have the ability to store up to 10 different camera systems on my meter, and read their names, I'll be able to keep my head on straight.
- Store up to 30 separate, labeled filters
Another important feature for me is the ability to store up to 30 different filters, add four of them to a custom filter pack, and have that value automatically be calculated in the final exposure. Now when I'm on a location scout, or on set, all I have to do is to dial in the filters I'll be using and I know that my exposure value will be correct. No more counting, and no more mental math. With enough other variables on set, it is nice to know that I can offload this task to my meter.
- Calibrate My Meter At Home
The DTS system is genius in my opinion. While I can send my meter in to Sekonic to have them calibrate it, all they are going to do is to make sure it is calibrated to their factory specs. This may or may not line up with my camera system. If I use the DTS system, it will not only calibrate my meter, but it will calibrate the meter to match the camera I am using. I can't get more accurate then that. (I have a tutorial on how to use the DTS system to calibrate your meter on my Sekonic Profiles page. It is the same process for the 478 and the 758).
- Slimmer, Sleeker, Smaller
My guess is that the 478 is about 50% smaller and lighter then the 758, which I gladly welcome. I wear enough tools around my belt, that anytime I can shed some weight and bulk, I am all for it!
- Incident & Spot Metering
The default configuration of the 478 comes with the incident sphere. If you want to also have a spot meter, you can buy the 5 degree attachment that replaces the sphere. Swapping out the sphere and spot meter is quick and easy. :)
What To Be Aware Of:
- Battery Life
The 758 has a simple black and white LED screen that doesn't consume much energy. I have been able to go a year plus with heavy use of the meter without having to change the battery. So it was a surprise to me when I ran out of batteries on a shoot during a bright sunny day with the 478. On this shoot, I had turned up the LCD screen to it's full brightness, and I was using the supplied batteries. This turned out to be a bad combination. The supplied batteries are the cheaper manganese batteries which do not have much life in them to start with, and at full brightness the LCD consumes a lot of power. So the first thing you should do when you get your 478 is to relegate the stock AAA batteries that come with the meter to a TV remote you have somewhere and go get alkaline instead. These batteries should last for 10 hours of continual (button constantly pressed & measuring) use. So with the LCD screen on full brightness you should be able to get several days use out of it before having to replace them. And of course avoid setting the screen to full brightness whenever possible.
Sekonic is aware of the issue, and it is just a part of the nature of a full colored, touch screen LCD. I know they are researching additional accessories that may allow the meter to be powered longer. But for now, stock up on alkaline AAA batteries, or be kinder to the environment and go get some rechargeable batteries.
- The Case
The supplied case is small, sleek, and slim- all qualities that I like. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it does not have a convenient place to house the spot meter when it is not in use. This is a big problem for me, as I know the spot meter will be the first thing to get lost in my pockets or on set somewhere. Hopefully, something better will be released by Sekonic, and until then, I'll be looking around for a case to better fit my needs. If you do not plan on buying the spot meter accessory, then this will not be an issue for you.
- 5 Degree Spot Meter
For those of you who are like me, and have been using the 1 degree spot meter of the 758, the 5 degree spot meter will take some getting used to. You cannot treat it like a 1 degree spot meter, as it is not as precise, and this can be frustrating to deal with. (I am developing a list of best practices on my Sekonic page that should help you overcome some of these differences.) I've talked with Sekonic about the need for a 1 degree meter, but the cost for that accessory will push the cost back up to the price of the 758. The size would also make the smaller meter more cumbersome to use. For now, that means I have to pay extra attention to what I'm spot metering and make sure that it is not inadvertently influenced by another object. If you need the precision of the 1 degree reading, then the 5 Degree spot meter, is probably not the right answer for you, and the 478 should be treated like an incident meter only. (If you desire absolute technical precision, go with the 758Cine.)
- Filter Compensation Values
I assume that this can be fixed via a firmware update (hopefully). And I've expressed my concern to Sekonic. As of this writing, the maximum filter compensation value is limited to 5 stops. For the majority of filters out there, this will suffice. However, there is one crucial set of filters that is hampered by this limit: Neutral Density filters. As cameras continue to get more and more sensitive, I find myself using stronger and stronger neutral density filters. I have found myself in some extreme occasions using an 1.8 (6 stop), 2.1 (7 stop), or even on one occasion a 1.5 (5 stop) + 0.9 (3 stop) for a total of 8 stops of ND. Fortunately, this is not every day- but it does happen enough that I need the flexibility of a higher compensation value.
- The Touch Screen
I have never been a fan of the touch screen - ever - on any product geared towards cinematography or filmmaking in general. So I am very critical about touch screens. While I think their interface and the concept is great, in practice all the touch screens I've worked with on any device have had problems. These problems range from general responsiveness, to failure to work in cold climates. I haven't used the 478 in a cold climate yet, so I can't comment on that, but just like all other touch screens I've used, sometimes general responsiveness can be a bit slow. So if you are expecting the same responsiveness from a touch screen that you get from a physical button, you will be disappointed. But overall, 90% of the time, it responds great. (And I'd advise against putting on a protective screen on this meter, as it impedes the responsiveness of the touch screen.)
- Turn On Time (minor quibble)
Now that the meter has a mini computer in it, it takes longer to turn on then the 758. With the 758 it was instant on, and instant off- just how I like it. With the 478 it has to boot up, which only takes 4-6 seconds, so it isn't really a big deal, but as I'm used to the 758, it has taken a little getting used to. If the 478 is your first meter, then you'll never notice this delay as you'll have nothing to compare it against.
With the ever changing camera market these days, I think the 478 is the best meter out there that will allow you to quickly and easily nail your exposures and shape your light regardless of the camera system(s) you are using. With the more affordable price ($389) of this meter ($109 for the spot meter attachment), the barriers to owning a highly sophisticated meter have been lowered, allowing many more people access to a tool that I see as vital to the success of creating compelling images on set. Now, if Sekonic would take the technology from this meter and apply it to the 758, that would really be THE ultimate meter ...
So which meter should I get- the 758Cine or the 478d? It depends on your needs. If you want the highest level of precision in spot metering, then the 758Cine is going to be the right choice for you. If you want the ultimate in control, customization, the incident meter will cover most of your metering needs, and your are tight on cash, get the 478d. The 478d is a great meter to start with, and will most likely meet your needs until the 758Cine is updated with the feature set of the 478d.
If you are wondering if all of the profiles that I created for the 758Cine work on the 478- the good news is that they do! I haven't found any noticeable difference between profiles created with either meter. You can see the test I did, and download comparison profiles in the FAQ section of my Sekonic Page.
Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer