This is a supplementary article to a video I made over on the YouTube channel, check it out below!
1- Embrace the fear of getting it wrong
The first and most important rule is to embrace the fear of getting it wrong. Realise that even with a light meter to fall back on, you'll often get exposures you aren't happy with. Look at failure as a positive thing, because it's the best way to learn. When you make a mistake, rather than beat yourself up about it, think things like "Yes, I got it wrong. This is how I think it could be better. Excellent, this will help me improve" We're more likely to learn a new skill faster if we adopt this psychological strategy. Plus, photography should be fun, so there's really nothing to worry about!
2- Learn the Sunny 16 Rule
This is non-negotiable. You need to be able to recognize when f4 at 1/60th of a second is way off when pointing your camera at a sunny bright scene on the beach. Or, that using 1/250th of a second with f11 just isn't going to cut it when your subject is in the shade on a cloudy day. Whether you use a meter or not, it helps to have a general idea of light and exposure. The best way to do this is to learn the sunny 16 rule. There is a multitude of resources out there on Sunny 16, so I won't explain it here. But if people can learn entire languages, every photographer can learn and develop a working knowledge of the Sunny 16 table.
3- Get a base reading
When you're first starting to build your confidence and proficiency with metering by eye, it pays to use a light meter at the beginning of your session, or whenever the light changes significantly. This gives you a baseline to work with and adjust from, according to the scenes you encounter and shoot. It also serves to help you reinforce the ability to read light going forward. As you progress and gain more confidence, you can pull the light meter out less and less, and eventually leave the house without one and forego this tactic entirely. When the light is tricky though (or if you just have the luxury of time) I would still recommend having a light meter or phone app on standby at the very least- to get the occasional reference or base reading.
4- Meter before you shoot
This will tie into the subsequent rule a little, but what I suggest is that you read the light and input the settings before you've noticed a frame you'd like to shoot. Ideally, you don't want to be inputting and changing the settings with the camera to your eye unless necessary (this does happen, especially when you think you were off, or, want to take additional shots with different settings for technical/creative reasons). In summary, you want to be as ready as possible. The best way to do that is to employ the following rule:
5- Always be Metering
Get in the habit of constantly reading the light and guessing the meter reading while you walk around. Don't just think about the ambient light, but practice thinking about the difference between areas of light and shadow, as well as idiosyncrasies such as the time of day, the presence of many tall buildings, weather elements like haze, the season, and the colour/reflectiveness of surfaces.
This should go without saying, but you have to practice. Everything takes repeated practice and this is no exception if you want to become proficient. It could take years! And don't expect yourself to ever be perfect. But, if you can get to a point where you can confidently shoot a roll of negative film out on the street without a meter and come back with 80% well-exposed images, you should be happy with that. Slide film is less forgiving, but that can be done too if you keep at it!
If you want to get really advanced I think this takes years, and I know I'm certainly not there! You need to ideally start thinking about the difference in exposure between different areas of the image (essentially the "zones") and whether you're exposing for the middle grey or skin tones, for example. You can even learn to understand when to expose for the shadows in your scene, or the highlights, etc. A great way to supplement this advanced growth is to pay attention when you ARE using a light meter and start to notice trends in the various readings and resulting images you make. Perhaps if I gain enough confidence I will put out a resource for a more nuanced skillset when it comes to reading light (let me know if this is something that interests you!) ...but for now, I hope this simple toolkit helps, and remember to have fun out there!