Cameras

GE PR-1 Exposure Meter

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I’ll bet that when you press your camera’s button, you get a crisp photograph. I’ll bet you take it for granted.

There was a time when photographers had to actually know something about exposure to get a good shot. Except on cheap cameras, which fixed exposure for passable photos under most conditions, photographers had to answer two questions correctly: How far away is the subject? How much light is on the scene? Guess wrong and botch the photo. Somewhere along the way, cameras gained the ability to figure these things out. Until then, photographers relied on external tools to help them. One such tool was light meter (sometimes called an exposure meter). When aimed at the subject, it gave information the photographer used to set the camera’s aperture and shutter speed for proper exposure.

My camera collection became a photographica collection not long ago when I found this GE PR-1 Exposure Meter in an antique store. I paid five whole dollars for it.

GE PR-1 exposure meter

This meter fits into the palm of my hand. While I wouldn’t call it heavy, it does have surprising heft for its size. The body is plastic, probably Bakelite. The dials might be aluminum. Its heart is a little selenium cell. Selenium has photoelectric properties; that is, light causes it to emit electrons. More light means more electrons. The meter measures this electricity and reports it in a way a photographer can use.

This meter’s usage is actually quite clever:

  1. Set the film speed. Press the little tab on the black inner dial (it’s at about 7:00 in the photo) and twist until the film speed clicks into the little window above the GE logo.
  2. Twist the outer dial – counterclockwise in low light, clockwise otherwise – until you see three little pointers (“tines”) pop up.
  3. Aim the meter at the subject and press and hold the button on the left side. Let go when the needle stops moving. The needle stays in place.
  4. Twist the outer dial until the center tine lines up with the needle.
  5. Look at the f stop numbers on the outer dial and the shutter speed values on the inner dial. Set your camera to any matching combination of f stop and shutter speed and you’ll get a properly exposed photograph.

These are just the basic instructions; there’s quite a lot more to know about exposure. That’s why the PR-1 came with a 47-page manual, page 42 of which explains how to use the screw on the back to calibrate the meter.

GE PR-1 exposure meter

GE made bazillions of PR-1 meters starting in about 1948. I’m not sure when GE stopped making PR-1s, but I do know they got out of the light-meter business by 1960 as selenium gave way to cadmium sulfide (CdS) and as better cameras increasingly came with onboard light meters.

My PR-1 still registers light with gusto, but I haven’t tried it out yet to see how accurate it is. One day I’ll load up my Kodak Retina Ia or maybe one of my Argus C-3s and take the PR-1 along for some shooting.


Why do I write about photographic equipment? Because I like old cameras and I like taking pictures with them.

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14 thoughts on “GE PR-1 Exposure Meter

  1. Lone Primate says:

    Hey, you’ve changed the look and feel of the blog. I like it. :) Not that I didn’t like it before; this just strikes me as a little cooler. :)

    Fascinating find, really. I’d love to have a look at something like that. But, to be honest, listening to what’s involved, I think that would be daunting enough to have photography a less attractive hobby for me. I like the spontaneity of it, and the better a setup is for capturing a moment, the better. Too much process suggests to me staid results, especially with living subjects (trees notwithstanding). I don’t think I would have enjoyed it or invested the kind of time I have in the digital age. Other people, I know, love adjusting dials and taking command of every aspect of their camera, even today. This kind of thing would have been the bee’s knees to them. :)

    How lately would something like this routinely have been in use?

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    • I’ve wanted a new look for the blog for some time. I’ve seen other blogs with this template (Vigilance) and have liked them, and then found that it’s relatively newly available via WordPress.com. It shares some layout cues from the old theme (Pressrow), which I like, but offers some customizability it lacked.

      There’s always been two broad tiers of photographers: serious and casual. Casual photographers have been able to just point and shoot as long as there have been cameras available to them, going all the way back to the original Brownie, the slogan of which was, “You press the button, we do the rest.” More serious photographers wanted greater control, which meant more complex cameras; they used tools like accessory light meters and accessory rangefinders to help them. I’m not sure when the first cameras with coupled light meters and/or rangefinders became available, but they were certainly widely available by the late 1950s. This actually led GE to get out of the accessory light meter market. I think that by the 1960s anyone who fell in the serious camp would have bought a camera with an onboard rangefinder and an onboard light meter, a la the Canonet series.

      You can still buy accessory light meters today. They’re digital, of course.

      I loaded my 1951-ish Kodak Retina Ia yesterday, grabbed the PR-1, and headed outside. It started to rain before I got very far, but after two or three shots I learned that metering doesn’t really take that long. I’m certainly not going to get action shots of children playing or of sports competition if I have to meter (and guess at focus) — but let’s face it, 98% of my photographs are of things that don’t move. These things that slow me down also cause me to stop and think about my shot a bit more. With my digicam, I shoot with abandon, and am frequently disappointed that I didn’t think more about composition. That’s less a problem when I’m slowed just a bit by needing to think about the shot’s mechanics.

      The one thing I dislike about film cameras is that there are just 24 exposures on a roll of film. When I’m on the road, I can shoot 24 exposures of a single subject!

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      • Lone Primate says:

        I know what you mean about the exposures. When I used to have an SLR in the late 80s, I remember having a roll of film meant you’d probably have it around for months before you used it up. You’d plan a shot, take it, hope it was good, maybe take another. Then in a few weeks, you’d do it again with some other subject. Getting the photos back could be like recovering memories after a concussion. :)

        The Toronto Public Library and Toronto City Archives have both put up big collections by amateurs from the 50s-80s. And the thing I keep finding frustrating is how few shots they took of anything. You find a subject and you get one or two views of it, and that’s all they took. As you pointed out, that was the nature of film photography. You had to be a lot more conservative. But if your camera holds a couple thousand exposures that don’t cost you a penny to “develop”, you have a whole different philosophy. In that case, you hope the quality of composition will poke its head up high out of the broad, even field of quantity… :)

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        • I gave my sons digital cameras last year in hopes they would capture far more childhood photos than I did. The cost of film and developing always stopped me back then. My kids can snap photos until their batteries run out — and I always have more in the closet.

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  2. I rarely use the Auto mode on my Canon P & S. I usually use shutter priority unless I’m going for a particular depth of field shot. Sometimes I have to use full manual mode (including focus) to get the shot I want. Definitely hard to do with wildlife sometimes, but most of my shots have non-moving subjects as well. One thing I’d like to start playing with is automatic exposure bracketing to do HDR processing.

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    • The shutter/aperture priority modes on my Kodak Z730 aren’t very flexible, but those on my Canon S80 (thanks, LP!) are better. HDR is interesting — easy to overuse, but when well done it can really make things pop.

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  3. Lucia says:

    Hi Jim. Love your blog! I’m hoping you can help me since my google searches haven’t been very successful.I have a vintage GE Exposure Meter and I think the model no reads 8DW40T (it’s so tiny I can’t be 100% sure). Do you maybe know where I can find it’s instruction manual on the internet?

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  4. Jim, great article, great blog :-)

    I love my PR-1 meter for all the reasons you mentioned – got it about 2002 and used it quite a bit to shoot with my Glorious Soviet Cameras – Zorkis, FEDs and Kievs. It was still accurate after all those years and, as you said, has a nice heft to it. I also bought various East bloc lightmeters with names like Leningrad and Smolensk… the Leningrad-2 was close to the PR-1, but not up to its ruggedness and dependability.

    I don’t shoot film anymore, and I got ride of almost all of my Commie Cameras and light meters, but I still have my PR-1

    Best regards,
    SteveR

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post! I’ve used my PR-1 a whole bunch since I wrote this, and it has been a faithful and reliable performer. But I’ve recently switched to a meter app for my iPhone, since I always have it in my pocket anyway! It lacks the charm of my PR-1, though.

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  5. Duncan says:

    Playing with my PR-1 today. First question; is what you call film speed actually a GE index that’s not equal to ASA/DIN/ISO? Also, my needle is very slow to react, taking as many as 6 button pushes to reach peak. I’m thinking the pivot needs to be oiled. Any thoughts on that?

    It reads very close to my PR-3. Thanks for the blog.

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    • The film speed scale is ASA, which corresponds to ISO. Or at least that’s how I remember it; I haven’t used this meter in a long time! I don’t know enough about repair on these things to advise you on the slow reaction, unfortunately.

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  6. Pingback: No light meter? No problem! | Down the Road

  7. ludwigvan66 says:

    Hey Jim. Funny, I keep running into you on Twitter and Flickr. I too have a GE PR-1 meter that I got in a box with a Pony camera from a garage sale. It came with manual and incident panel. I use it almost every day and it’s dead-on accurate, at all speeds and I’m amazed by it’s sensitivity, even in fairly low light situations. It’s an amazingly well built instrument. Almost 70 years old, and still going strong.

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