The other day I came across something that reminded me I have a light meter collection.
The item in question was a Weston Master III light meter – but in a less common black body with a white dial configuration I hadn’t seen before. Aha, something new to acquire!
Then I realized I should share with you the rest of the collection, and my fascination with the darn things.
I don’t remember which light meter started off my Weston collection – the only brand I collect. All I know is that 20 years ago, they were common fodder at camera shows, and often came in with older traded-in equipment.
Basically, Weston kicked off the whole light meter thing. The first viable electrical light meter with a light-sensitive cell was the Electophot of 1931- but it was bulky and needed a battery to get readings off the selenium cell. It wasn’t a success – which makes it a super rare and valuable collector’s item today.
Weston, the same company that made those big dials and meters that adorned the walls and control panels of hydro electric plants in the 1920’s, jumped into the photographic market by making a light meter with two selenium cells and a gauge in the middle: the model Universal 617 of 1932. These too are pretty rare, and I’ve never seen one in person. The last time I saw one up for sale on eBay, the price tag was too rich for my blood.
Soon, however, Weston was able to run with just one selenium cell with the model 617 type 2. We did have a nice working one here years ago, but I never put my claim on it, and it went to some other collector. A more common model is the Model 650, with its octagonal bakelite case with 1935 art deco styling.
But I think the breakthrough meter for Weston was the original “Master” of 1939. The cell was now sensitive enough to have a pinhole cover over it for bright light. Flipping it open changed the meter scale to the low range, and you could make accurate light readings indoors. Gasp!
You can’t really discount the importance of such advances like this in the 1940s. Now the serious photographer could measure the real, actual light available in most settings. Film could be exposed reliably, not wasted. If you could afford a good meter like the Weston, you were king of the photographic world.
Before the invention of the solar/electric light meter, knowing how to set your shutter speeds and apertures was a lot fuzzier process. There were charts and tables to cross reference your film with lighting conditions. There were little bits of paper that you timed to see how long it took to turn dark. And there were “extinction” meters, that you peered into to see which letter or numeral you could clearly see in the light you had. All methods were very subjective and
prone to error. Electric meters were the way to go, if you could afford one.
The main competitor to Weston in those early days was good old General Electric, who also made flashbulbs. There are those who concentrate on GE collections, but I’m partial to the Westons.
1946 brought the Master II: a trimmed down version of the original, but in a tough metal case. Gaskets kept out moisture and dust. I’m always impressed how well-made these things are.
The very similar Master III updated the cosmetics a bit, and looked a bit more 1950s appropriate.
The Master IV of 1960 or so, was further trimmed down, now in a stainless case, and a switch to lock the needle’s reading. It was also the first to go with proper ASA (now ISO) film speed settings. The earlier versions used “Weston” speed, which was only 1/3 stop off from ASA.
The IV also had a much cleaner, easier to read dial – so you’d be forgiven for thinking the V of the 1970s actually looked older as it reverted to the tiny, hard to read, markings of the earlier meters.
Each generation seems to have benefited from more sensitive selenium cells, and I’ve found you can’t really interchange the cells between models. Oddly enough it’s common to come across an ancient Master II that works perfectly, but a IV or V will have a dead meter cell. I can only conclude that the older style varnish or coating put over the cell to stop it oxidizing and dying was longer lasting. The newer cells often get spider web cracks on them and no longer make voltage.
About 15 years ago I got ambitious about rescuing the old Master IV and V by replacing the selenium cells with silicon cells you could buy at Radio Shack. Yes, they put out more voltage, but I reasoned that with the right neutral density filter over top, I could dial them in. Well, they worked; sort of. With some tweaking I could get excellent accuracy in daylight, but indoors under tungsten light they would over-read by about 1.5 stops. I traced this to the stronger sensitivity of the silicon solar cell to infrared – which regular light bulbs pump out in abundance.Still, for outdoor work, they were fine. I marked these conversions with a little “si” on the dial, and used them often.But back to the collector’s items. There are quite a few variants of the Weston meters, even if you’ve got Masters I to V collected. For instance, the case and dial colours do vary, especially if comparing those made in the USA to those made in Great Britain (sometimes marked “England”). I don’t believe I’ve found a Master IV or V from the USA, but I recently found a IV marked “Japan”, which I didn’t know existed.My collection also has a Master 6, which I bought on an early eBay auction. I paid way, way too much, only to discover the 6 is not a true Weston, as it is lightweight plastic. Oh, and didn’t work either.
The last true meter in the Master line was the “Euromaster” which was apparently made in England after Weston lost interest in the photo market. Pretty much identical to the V, it soldiered on for some years, bought by photographers who still wanted a no-battery, reliable meter.
There were other Westons over the years, including many less-costly models. But the only ones to challenge the Masters were the Rangers – a line of battery CDS celled models. I have admired them, but never bought one.
It appeared Weston was out of the photo market by the time silicon cells and digital readouts became the norm. Well, no, I suppose the “norm” by then was the in-camera meter, already hooked up to electronic controls of shutter speeds and/or apertures.
Those who did need a hand-held meter began to prefer something like the Gossen Lunasix with its near-darkness abilities and narrower measuring angle – even if it did need a battery. The sun had set on the Master series.
Still, I love to pull out the Westons from time to time, admire their build quality, look over the artwork of the instruction manuals, and think back to a time when a solar cell and a meter movement was honest-to-goodness state of the art.
It’s also nice when testing out a vintage camera to bring along the appropriate era Weston – say, a Master III when trying out a Leica M3, for instance.
I know, I really should seek help.