Finding the Best Laser Measuring Device for You

Finding the Best Laser Measuring Device for You

You can only sneak around set as a tape measure ninja for so long before it gets old. Sometimes you just want need to stay next to the camera and get your marks. Introducing the laser measuring device: a technological godsend for the camera assistant who doesn't have the time to walk on set with their soft tape measure.

Laser tape measures are incredibly useful tools. They allow quick and accurate measurements to be done almost invisibly and are small enough to easily fit into a pouch or pocket.

But with so many brands, models, and features out there — not to mention high prices — it can be tough to pick the right one.

Which Laser Measuring Tool Should You Buy?

This is a question I get asked a lot and I always deliver the unsatisfying, “it depends,” along with a list of features that are important:

  • The ability to mute it. Many of the laser devices make a small beeping noise when you operate them. You want to purchase one that can turn this noise off or else you may be annoying people during rehearsals/quiet times on set.
  • Long Range. In my opinion, the greatest feature of a laser device is its convenience. The 2nd greatest feature is being able to measure distances that aren’t practical with a tape measure. So definitely go with something that has a sizable range.
  • Quick response time. When you’re grabbing marks during a rehearsal, an actor may move from their marks as soon as they land on it. If the device doesn’t respond quickly enough, you will miss those opportunities.

When searching for a laser measuring device, you will quickly realize almost all of them are designed with construction purposes in mind. Many of the features designed for these tasks become moot.

What you want to focus on is what I mentioned above and look for devices that will suit a rough life on set.

Popular Laser Measuring Devices for ACs

I’ve put together a run down of the most popular laser devices other camera assistants use as well as some alternatives to the admittedly pricey standards.

Hilti PD-40/PD-42

Hilti Laser Measuring Device Tape Measure PD-40 and PD-42

  • Range: approx. 600 feet (200 meters)
  • Can be muted: Yes
  • Response time: Less than 1 second
  • Pros: Very rugged, quick response time, built-in level
  • Cons: PD-40 lacks optical sight
  • Price: Varies

The main difference in the two main Hilti models is the optical scope/viewfinder on the side of the PD-42 that helps you take long distance measurements in daylight without searching for the red laser dot.

I personally recommend the Hilti series of laser tape measures because I own a Hilti PD-40 and am very happy with it. It measures quickly and accurately, has a built in level, and can even give measurements in real time.

Coupled with the nice features is the fact that the device feels rugged. I have dropped it on set without ever worrying anything was damaged. It’s sturdy casing was designed to be used and to be used often.

This device isn’t sold on Amazon and is actually quite hard to find online. Please leave a link in the comments if you find a place to purchase one. You may have better luck on eBay.

Leica Disto Series (D2, D5, D8)

Leica Disto D8 Laser Measuring Device and Tape Measure

  • Range: 197 ft/60m (D2), 650 ft/200m (D5 & D8)
  • Can be muted: Yes
  • Response time: “Quick,” no specific data
  • Pros: Reliable, color screen and camera (certain models)
  • Cons: Expensive
  • Price: $179.00 (D2), $499.00 (D5), $799.00 (D8)

The Leica Disto series of laser tape measures is a family of devices that span a range of prices and features. Though the Disto family is made up of many models, I’m going to highlight the D2 (low-end), D5 (mid-range) and D8 (high-end) models.

Those looking to buy a serious laser measuring device on the cheap would be interested in the Leica Disto D2 which measures about 200ft for the price of $179.00. The device is also built to be splash and dust proof which could pay for itself the minute you find yourself under a rain tower.

For most, the mid-range Leica Disto D5 should suffice with a hefty range of 650 feet (200 meters). The D5 also has a full-color screen and viewfinder combo that shows you the object you’re measuring to, which helps when measuring long distances outdoors.

At the high-end is the Leica Disto D8 with all the bells and whistles. It has the same features of all the other models plus computer sync technology for actions such as creating blueprints from measurements. It can also measure angles with its tilt sensor.

All of the Leica Disto models come with a three-year warranty so long as you register. They are the premiere brand in laser range finders, so if you’ve got some money to spend and want the best, go for a Disto — I have yet to hear anything bad about one.

Shop on Amazon: Leica DISTO D2Leica DISTO D5Leica DISTO D8

Bosch GLR Series (GLR225, GLR500, GLR825)

Bosch GLR225 Laser Tape Measure Rangefinder Device

  • Range: 230ft (GLR225), 500ft (GLR500), 800ft (GLR825)
  • Can be muted: Yes
  • Response time: 1 – 2 seconds
  • Pros: Very long range, built-in level, sturdy casing
  • Cons: Slow response & screen not backlit (for GLR225)
  • Price: $149.99 (225), $288.99 (500), $348.99 (825)

Bosch used to only offer the DLR series of laser measuring devices (see below) but recently premiered this new line of devices to compete with the higher end models of competitors.

The entry level device in the GLR series is the GLR225 which features the same small size that Bosch is known for. The GLR225 measures about 230ft, but is limited by the lack of a backlight and complaints of painfully slow response times.

On the other hand, the GLR500 and GLR800 devices solve both of those issues and are the top-of-the-line when it comes to Bosch laser measuring tools. The sturdy casing, absurd distance (up to 800 feet on the one model!) and backlit screen make these worth a second look.

If you were drooling at the mouth with the Leica Disto series above, but quickly slapped yourself after seeing the price, consider the Bosch GLR series. They have the range of the Distos without the price and features you don’t want or need.

Shop on Amazon: Bosch GLR225, Bosch GLR500, Bosch GLR825

Bosch DLR Series (DLR130K, DLR165K)

Bosch DLR165K Laser Rangefinder Measuring Device Tape Measure

  • Range: 130 ft, 165ft
  • Can be muted: Yes
  • Response time: Less than 1 second
  • Pros: Pocket-sized, continuous measuring, price
  • Cons: Limited range, no optical sight, non-parallel laser
  • Price: $79.88, $219.99

When it comes to laser rangefinders, the Bosch DLR series devices are fairly affordable. The two models have similar features, the main difference being the range each can measure up to.

The drawing power to getting a Bosch laser measuring device is going to be the comparatively low price of the DLR135K model. It is one of few sub-$100 devices out there that is built to be rugged, pocket sized, and even has some great features like continuous measuring.

I worked with a camera assistant who used a Bosch device and he was more than happy with it.

The only drawback is a limited range of up to 130 feet. That may sound like a lot, but if you’re shooting on really long lenses, you may be at distances much further than that.

If you want a bit more distance (up to 165 feet), then Bosch offers another model that ups the ante — the DLR165K. With a similar design, the DLR165K is also pocket sized but packs a bit more oomph. It also more than doubles in price which means the DLR165K is $50 more than the Leica D2 but features 32 less feet in range.

If you’re looking to get a cheap laser device, go with the DLR135K, but if you were eyeing the DLR165K, I’d recommend switching brands and getting a more robust tool for a similar price.

Shop on Amazon: Bosch DLR130K, Bosch DLR165K

Stanley FatMax Tru Laser (CST/Berger TLM100)

Stanley Tru Laser CST Berger TLM100 Laser Distance Rangefinder Measuring Device

  • Range: 130 ft
  • Can be muted: Yes
  • Response time: Sporadic
  • Pros: Affordable, simple to use
  • Cons: Feels cheap, less accurate, slow response
  • Price: $109.00

The Stanley FatMax Tru Laser is something you might recognize. If you were to head to a Wal-Mart or Target to find a laser measuring device, this is likely what they have on their shelves. Why? Because it’s cheap and simple.

Of course, cheap and simple don’t necessarily qualify this device as good.

Before I owned my Hilti PD40, I used one of these on a feature film. It worked for scenes that were relatively close in doors, but it never felt as robust as I would’ve liked. Instead it felt like a plastic toy and would turn on all the time while resting in my pouch and shine into my eyes.

The response time, I found, was sporadic. At times it would respond quickly, other times it wouldn’t respond at all. There were multiple occasions where I went to measure an actor and by the time I finally got the thing working, they were off their mark.

If you’re serious about adding something valuable to your toolkit, don’t settle for the Stanley FatMax Tru Laser. I only included it on this list so I could explain to you why I don’t think it’s worth the money.

Shop on Amazon: CST/Berger TLM100

Price vs. Power vs. Need

Don’t think that you are going to go out and buy a measuring device on a whim. It is a serious investment towards your toolkit and will take a good chunk of your wallet.

Because of that, I recommend holding off on purchasing one if you’re just starting out. There are other ways to measure for focus than a laser and I wouldn’t say it is an essential piece of a toolkit. Wait until you are making enough money off camera assisting to justify the cost.

If you decide you absolutely cannot wait or you decide to invest on a budget, you may be able to find a good deal on a laser measuring device on eBay. Since these tools are built to last in rugged environments, purchasing one used is often not a detriment to its quality.

Ultimately, the laser measuring device you decide to purchase will depend on three factors: price, power, and what you need out of it.

Weigh the options I’ve presented above and figure out which one is worth your money, provides the power necessary, and is able to do what you need it for.

  • 1stAC

    Great work. You should do one for Camera carts, size, portability, features, accessories..etc. 

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thank you! Good idea.. I will keep it in mind

  • Adam Richlin

    For the Hilti, go to a Home Depot. That store has a smaller hilti store inside the tools department with seperate sales reps.

    Also, I love the Hilti PD-4, which is the smaller brother of the PD-40. One button, one number, much sleeker, but not as great range. (I figure once it passes 60ft, it doesnt matter anyway. One of the others has an 800ft range? when is an AC ever gonna need that) 

    PD-4 is silent, has continuous monitoring, comes with a black reflector for daylight, and im still using the original battery from when I bought it two years ago. I love just having one button… its stupid simple and I cant possibly screw up settings and get it confused like I have with the PD-40.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks for the intel Adam. I didn’t have any experience with the PD-4 and wasn’t sure about it. 

  • E Gunnar Mortensen SoFT

    Small correction the Hiltis are backlit and have a sensor that automatically turns on if it judges if it is required. In my opinion don’t but anything but the pd42 you need that scope for daylight.

    Best,

    E Gunnar Mortensen SoFT
    ICG600 Focus Puller

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks for the heads up — it is fixed now. The optical scope would be nice to have on my PD40, during the summer sunlight the other day it was killing me not having it.

    • Barth

      Love my PD 42. Scope (optical sight) is fantastic. Levels are nice to have too. 1/4 20 tap on bottom is very handy too.

      Hilti sells from stand-alone stores in large cities. Use Google Maps (or iPhone)  to locate, web presence is not very good.

      Personnel are very helpful and seem very generous regarding any problems after purchase. YMMV.

  • http://twitter.com/kyle_peters Kyle Peters

    I’ve been really pleased with my Leica Disto 210XT, however I agree a sight for bright outdoors would be nice. I did see a pretty slick DIY “sight” made simply by taping a monocular onto the side. It worked surprisingly well, however it was still limited to the range of the rangefinder, which in my Disto’s case is 200 ft.

    Question for those with the longer range rangefinders, when have you actually found that extended range useful?

    Also, I wrote a more in-depth review on the Disto 210XT: http://silentpenguin.blogspot.com/2011/03/leica-disto-d210xt-review.html

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Great review, Kyle! That will be very helpful to those wanting to get a Disto without breaking the bank.

    • http://twitter.com/chrisgruggen Chris Gruggen

      Do you have anymore info on the DIY sight on the Disto? I’m looking at the D2 or the 210XT, but worried about not having the sight on it.

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  • Chris Reynolds

    Another option for someone on a budget could be to pick up an older Disto model from eBay. I’ve had a Classic 5 for seven years, no problems. It can silence the beeps, backlight for the screen, has a sight and a range much longer than any focus puller needs. Added retro appeal, like having an 80′s brick cell phone. Two AA batteries last about two years in it.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I agree, eBay is a good place to check if you’re looking to save some cash.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Locke/100003373158802 Michael Locke

    Any protocol on using these devices during setups? Does anyone ever ask “Hey! Are you pointing a laser on set?” Just from a safety concern…

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Nothing beyond common sense: don’t shine in eyes, don’t use during full rehearsals, use when the path is clear. I’ve never had anyone give me crap for using it.

  • Jamin

    To practice, I used to travel with it in my truck. When stopped at stop lights, I would practice guessing distances and then check them on the botch lazer. Reeeealy hard in daylight

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey that’s a pretty good idea! Thanks for sharing. How good did you end up getting?

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  • Distanciometros Leica

    I declined by leica, quality and accuracy of the equipment is perfect

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  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    While I would highly suggest you stick to Evan’s advice about price vs. power vs. need, if you know you want to be an AC and this tool will come in handy with your work, you might as well pick one up. You can deduct it on your taxes.

  • slateboy83

    My choice: Stanley TLM 300, 200 ft range, optical viewer, calculate surfaces, volumes etc. Cons:not cheap, about 400 euros but you can find it second hand for 200/250. For me, it worth spend some more money to have a optical viewer, lasers without it are almost useless when shooting ext.

    Cheers!

    • galushales

      I have no idea if this idea would work or the Pros/Cons of it but has anyone used a GOLF RANGE finder for any on set surveying? I know they are meant for sunlight 5m to 400m i believe.
      Again, just speculative but curious as they can be found for a decent pricetag.

      L

  • galushales

    I have no idea if this idea would work or the Pros/Cons of it but has anyone used a GOLF RANGE finder for any on set surveying? I know they are meant for sunlight 5m to 400m i believe.
    Again, just speculative but curious as they can be found for a decent pricetag.

    • galushales

      Ok…I guess I have to admit i am not a golfer. I tested out a rangefinder and although it was pretty amazing, it is accurate only to the meter. Which for vfx work is a little sketchy. Having the viewfinder scope was great though compared to the constructon laser meters as you really could tell what you lock onto. oh well.

  • Kyriacos

    Hey Evan,
    What about doing an update for this article…I’m looking forward to buy a laser meter but some of the ones you are describing above are not available any more and some others not available in the European Union zone. Thanks

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hm an update might be worthwhile or a follow-up article. My only issue is, how would I know which aren’t available in the EU?

  • JET220

    Thanks for the info. It’s so nice having someone’s opinion on these. I found the Hilti PD series at Home Depot. The PD 40 is $359.99

  • http://www.sauloliveira.com Saul Oliveira

    Hi Evan, that´s a nice compilation of data. My thoughts about it:

    I would add as important features a laser ideally should have:

    -Light in the screen, very convenient shooting nights.

    -Posibility to change from metrical to imperial units (meters to feet). Not all of them do.

    -The posibility to add an offset amount to the measure (it means the machine will add or substract, for example, 10cm or 20″ from the actual measure. Very useful because normally taking the front or back of the device to the focus plane mark can be tricky (head of the operator in the way or remote focus device cables and stuff, and also some other accesories in the direct line to the subject to measure). With this feature you can measure from the mattebox, which is far away from those things and nothing is in front of it, hopefully :)

    -Also the range of the lasers are always enough by far for us. The simplier one can reach 30 or 50 meters, measures that a camera assistant focus by eye because there is no exact mark for those distantes in the lense.

    Best regards amigos

    Saul Oliveira
    AC
    Spain