I unexpectedly developed a fascination with Weston light meters a few years ago. I like using vintage photo equipment some of the time. It presents a challenge, provides a more unique look than the homogenized digital photo world, and I simply like keeping those skills and techniques alive. It’s the hobby part of photography for me.
In the process of buying old cameras and lenses I ended up with a couple Westons. I pulled them out of boxes with cool old 4X5 cameras or Bolex 16mm movie gear. I looked at their lovely shape and design, their glossy enamel. I hefted their dense mass, and I slung them by their lanyards over the edge of a shelf. They hung there for years until one day I pulled them down and started playing with them. They still worked after many decades. I downloaded instructions, and after being amazed by the detail and brilliant delivery of old magic knowledge in the manuals, I tested them. The three I had hanging there were all accurate to 1/3 stop. That’s well within the tolerance of a good exposure either for digital or analog images.
Curious, I paired one up with a camera of similar vintage and went out and shot some film in differing light to see how these little old paperweights would do. I developed the film to find some of the most tonally rich negatives I had shot. It made sense — they were designed for making beautiful negatives or Kodachromes. Their use was simple and logical, and required a quick-but-thoughtful approach to measuring exposure.
Fascinated, I started looking for information. Then I looked for more of the meters. I now have a complete collection of Weston Masters, all in working order and in good tolerance for a nice exposure. My gear closet is a funny sight as a dozen or more very similar meters hang by their lanyards from a couple old coat hangers, waiting to be paired with a camera of same vintage for a photo excursion. Some are more than 80 years old and still measure a perfect exposure.
I love them all for their differences and quirks, for the evolution of the design and usability. The greatest changes in the models through their 80 years of production was to the calculator dials that convert brightness measurements to shutter speed and aperture combinations. The earliest require a squint if not a pair of reading glasses to use. Some in the middle are insensible. Those at the end are quite quick and clear, and a real pleasure to use.
As I read up and sniffed around on the net, however, there was one Weston Master that stuck out for how much it was dismissed as junk — the Master 6. I had to get one.
I’ve become a fan of this meter. Perhaps it’s for the same reasons I like other misunderstood underdogs. The Weston Master 6 light meter was made in Japan from 1972-74, possibly by great Japanese meter maker by Sekonic, though that isn’t verified. It is likely, though. Sekonic had made Master IV meters under license, as well as budget (i.e. amateur) XM-1 and XM-2 models.
One complaint comes from its violation of the Weston number sequence. From the Master II to Master V, the series used Roman numerals. Why the sudden Arabic one? I hypothesize that it made for a clear differentiation. Roman numerals are hard to read and differentiate. Seeing the difference between IV and VI can be tough. And Roman numerals look out of place in mid-century, Helvetica-loving aesthetics.
Another is that it is plastic, and as a result, too light. We certainly get an illusion of quality from heft. The substantial mass of my Leicas still impresses all who hold them, of course. The same impression is given by the older Westons as they feel densely packed, like a stone or a brick. They imply indestructability where the low-mass, light weight of the 6 feels insubstantial. But the 6 was made on the heels of the plastic explosion of the 1960s. It was the wonder material of choice – easier to mold, design, craft and build than the metal and Bakelite used before. However, for me plastic has street-use advantages to be acknowledged.
Despite impressions to the contrary, plastic is more durable than metal. Just ask a landfill operator. This photo-gear advantage stuck home for me in the early 1990s. I was running to a spot news event when a new little autofocus lens hopped out of my camera bag and bounced, skipped, flipped and tumbled end-to-end down 25 feet of concrete sidewalk in front of me. On the run I grabbed it, tucked it into my bag assuming it was a gonner, and used other lenses on the shoot. When I returned to the office, I pulled it out expecting the worst. Surely it would have a bent focus helical. Maybe a lens element would be cracked or chipped. At the minimum one side of the image would be soft from smashed optical alignment.
I looked: No visible damage other than a bent metal hood. The focus ring turned easily. The AF worked well. The aperture blades opened and closed snappily. I shot a few test frames and found it still sharp edge-to-edge at maximum aperture.
I was stunned. My beautiful older manual-focus Nikon lenses made of brass and alloy would have been toast. The metal would have been bent out of round, the focus ring would not turn, and I would have had another disaster paperweight to hold down assignment forms on the desk. My grumpiness with the new plastic gear reversed instantly.
“I get it,” I muttered.
Mass has another compromise that is related. Why can a mouse fall three stories and just be stunned, but the cat chasing it would be mortally injured and the human lunging to grab the cat would be dead? Mass, if I remember my high school physics well enough, increases the shock of impact. I have dropped an older Weston or two by accident, fortunately not on concrete. Each time I winced with fear I’d killed its delicate meter movement. I doubt I’d have the same worry dropping the mouse-like Master 6. Low mass would lessen the force and the plastic would cushion more of the impact.
Weight matters too. After years of lugging a big Domke bag full of heavy brass and alloy gear I started stripping away all the weight I could, even paying twice as much for lithium AA batteries because between the batteries in motor drives, flashes and the needed spares I dropped 2 pounds from the bag in batteries alone. The feather weight of this meter is a nice savings.
Another area of complaint seems to be the Japanese origin on the Master 6, as if it didn’t count because it wasn’t made directly by Weston. However, no meter after the Master III was made by Weston. From the Master Universal (the “I”) Westons were licensed overseas to be made by Sangamo in the UK for the European market. By the IV there were no Westons made in the U.S. of the company’s origin. Highly-prized later models were made by Daystrom, East Kilbride Instruments, and Megatron. Adding Sekonic certainly isn’t apostasy.
A couple other fun advantages are that, unlike the Master V and later Euromasters, it reads light in candles per square foot, allowing some interesting and nerdy-fun mathematical exposure calculations. Another is that the high/low light baffle slides rather than flips, making it much less likely to get snapped off when mishandled.
But my favorite difference (also maligned by some) is in the meter’s calculator dial. This meter uses the same dial that was found on the Weston Ranger 9 CdS meter from the 1960s that Ansel Adams used. As mentioned before, the early meters have zeitgeist-charming, but almost impossible-to-read calculator dials. 1960s Masters are better than their predecessors but highlight even-by-then-obsolete and disproportionate shutter speeds like 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200. The last Masters — the Euromasters (gosh, another break in the naming convention, but somehow this one is OK) — have very readable dials. But the Ranger 9/Master 6 is still better. It is the quickest and most clear. It enables seeing 1/3-stop exposure increments without letting them slow down the reading of the scale, and the setting changes along with a change in the ISO. It’s brilliant usability design.
I am not arguing here that anyone should race off and upend their photo practice with a hard-to-find meter that slows process and is tricky to accurately use in low light (though you should read a Weston manual to learn how cleverly that can be done). I just empathize with this little underdog. If you have it and love it, feel empowered. If you come across this as you research your cheap collection of ubiquitous Westons, know my love.