a question about exposure metering & TTL flash

a question about exposure metering & TTL flash

A question I was asked in an email about exposure metering in relation to flash, and I want to reply to it here and perhaps help others as well.

Let’s say I use M mode and have adjust my aperture and shutter speed so that my meter indicator have returned to zero. At this point I know at least i have “correct exposure”. I would either choose to over expose and under expose depend on circumstances.

My question is, will my picture get over exposed if fire my strobe even thought my indicator already point to zero ? I have no idea how should I integrate flash setting into my routine I always use when in M mode.  I did not see u mentioning about the exposure indicator in your blog.

This is a tough one to give a definitive answer to.  Firstly, simply dialing your camera’s meter to zero doesn’t necessarily mean your exposure is correct. My pages on exposure metering explain some of this.  Sometimes your camera’s meter need to show over, or sometimes under, for you to have correct exposure.  The essential concept here is that you need to expose for your subject or a specific part of your scene.

One of the instances where just zeroing your camera’s meter would very likely not give you correct exposure, would be with a strongly back-lit scene.  What makes it even more difficult is that the camera’s meter could then show you different settings depending on your composition.  If you zoom in and out or shoot vertically or horizontally, your camera’s meter will tell you different things.

So let’s look at the photo at the top as an example and see where it leads us …

This near-candid portrait of the groom will hopefully give you some insight into the thought process.  But, do keep in mind that this would be but one example out of a myriad of possibilities we can encounter.  We need to be flexible.


My settings: 1/200th @ f3.2 @ 800 ISO … flash exposure comp +1.3 EV
Canon 1D mk3, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS

Those are my settings, and the immediate question might be, how did I get to them.  Firstly, the original image is about 1/2 stop under-exposed for my subject.  It was a  quick portrait as I walked past where the groom was talking to guests.  I saw the evening light on the windows, and then asked him to stand there.  I bounced flash off the wall way behind me.  You can see by the way his face is lit up, that the bounced flash was soft and directional. As always, when I work indoors, I try and make on-camera flash look like simple studio lighting.

But back to the settings.  I got my initial exposure settings by checking my camera’s metering display, and then doing a test shot of the windows.  I made sure I was at an aperture and ISO setting where I’d be fairly successful in bouncing flash behind me into a very large room.  The FEC was cranked high because I knew that back-lighting tends to heavily influence the Canon’s TTL flash metering.

Now, without flash, he’d be completely silhouetted.  No detail at all.   So I had to add flash.  But instead of setting up an off-camera flash with a softbox, I used my on-camera speedlight for the same effect.   And this resulting image is very much the specific effect I wanted to achieve with this simple portrait.

So back to the question.  Will adding flash over-expose my subject if my camera’s meter is zeroed ?  Not necessarily, as you can see in this example.  What my camera’s meter was showing while it was pointed at the back-lit subject, I have no idea.  It’s largely a trivial thing for me to even notice then.  And the reason for this is, I already have good exposure for the background, and this I determined before composing the portrait.  That’s as far as I care about what my camera’s meter says.  And then TTL flash took care of the rest.

Two things helped me here in working fast – the background would look good with a fairly wide range in exposure.  It wasn’t critical. Not like skin tones would be.  And what also helped, is that I shot in RAW.  That gives me a lot of flexibility in post.   ( Yes, yes, I know that in this case I could’ve pulled up the exposure on a JPG as well, but you’d be missing the point.)

As I mentioned, the original image was about 1/2 stop under-exposed and this is mainly due to me being ambitious about bouncing flash off a stone wall about 15 or 20 feet behind me inside this castle.   The wall didn’t reflect as much light as I ideally would’ve liked … but the final image with just the exposure and WB touched up in RAW, looks pretty good.

This is a broad topic – ambient exposure metering while using flash – so I intend returning to this topic over the next few weeks with more examples.  But I hope that with this explanation, a few things might click into place already.


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68 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Frank Herrman says

    So you are actually saying: make sure the background has the correct exposure (being over- or under exposed according to the lightmeter is not relevant) and then flash the subject without watching the meter again? That might be a bit more difficult if the subject isn’t a moveable object/person though.

  2. 2 says

    Frank .. Yes, that would be the thought process in this situation. But as I mentioned, there are many other scenarios we could encounter, and the approach might very well be different.

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “being over- or under exposed according to the lightmeter is not relevant”

    I do want correct exposure for the background. But in THIS scenario, since the background is stained windows, there is a fair amount of latitude in what we’d accept as good exposure.

    What other situations are you thinking of when you say that “it might be a bit more difficult if the subject isn’t a movable object/person though.”

    Neil vN

  3. 3Tomasz says

    So the bottom line is in spite of all the advances in technology TTL flash metering does not really work, especially with bounced light…

  4. 4 says

    Tomasz … I have no idea how you came to that broad an assumption. TTL flash technology works.

    If you’re saying that TTL flash technology doesn’t work because:
    the original image was under-exposed by 1/2 stop, then your assumption is wrong. As I explained, I was most likely at the absolute limit of what that speedlight could put out, and still expect enough light to bounce back from a non-white stone wall some distance from me. If there is a failure here, it is in me expecting too much from a small speedlight. But then, 1/2 stop isn’t that much of an issue in terms of exposure accuracy.

    If you’re saying that it doesn’t work because:
    you still have to adjust flash exposure compensation … well, that’s just the nature of this technology. It’s an automatic metering mode, and hence is influenced by the tonality of the scene. You have to ride your flash exposure compensation if you use TTL flash.

    If you’re saying that it doesn’t work because:
    I typically shoot, and then adjust .. you’d have to work in a similar fashion with manual flash. Manual flash is accurate for a subject that is STATIC in relation to the light source, and is accurate once you have in fact set up your light and made a test exposure or used a flash-meter … and all of this implies that you’d still have to “shoot and adjust”, or at least, “meter and shoot”. And in a fluid situations like the one here, I can still work faster than if I had used manual flash.

    Neil vN

  5. 5Rene Skrodzki says

    You know all these articles have really helped me come to grips with my on camera flash work. I look forward to more of them.

    Excellent write-up.

  6. 6 says

    Here we have the case that the foreground is darker than the background and with the flash we kind of bring the subject to the same level of the background (or something more or less depending on our wishes).
    But what about when the subject and the background are evenly lit? Assuming correct exposure for the subject and background (which is the same in this case, without flash) – does the additional flash then overexpose the subject?

  7. 7 says

    Martin … if you’re already exposing correctly for the ambient light in the scenario you describe, then you will over-expose if you add flash as if the flash is the main source of light. However, if you more realistically just use flash as fill light in that instance, then the flash will just lift shadow detail and help the contrast, and not add significantly to the overall exposure.

    Neil vN

  8. 9Neil says

    Matt .. that’s correct. The light from the flash also reflects off other walls, giving a similar effect as a reflector would in the studio.

    Neil vN

  9. 10Frank says

    In short I read this:
    – use normal metering for background or ambient light
    – use TTL flash for the subject, with compensation for influence of background/ambient light on TTL metering

    My conclusion:
    – flash does not influence the background/ambient light
    – but, background/ambient light may influence TTL metering

  10. 11 says

    Frank .. close, but if I may add …

    TTL flash is mainly affected by the tonality of the scene / subject, and we need to adjust FEC for this.

    re your observation, that flash doesn’t influence the background lighting … it depends on HOW you bounce your flash.

    In this example below, I have surprisingly even light from my flash from the bridesmaid in the foreground, to the bridesmaid in the background. I do this by being very specific which part of the ceiling or room I bounce my flash off. By keeping the distance from my light source (wall / ceiling) the same for the background and foreground, I get even light.

    Neil vN

  11. 12Rachel says

    I have discovered that the best way to “get” this is to practice this.
    It is so difficult to put out a definitve solution and anticipated result considering all the variables that may be involved.

    When I began I used Neils settings often as a starting point and then went from there, just to get me started, but the more you use the techniques the better you understand how your settings need to be adjusted to work within the variables of each location.
    If you shoot in RAW then chances are that if yoy have fallen short of the mark the image will be able to be corrected enough to look great, as the above portrait does.

    Practice, practice, practice – it works, I know!!!

  12. 15Fred says

    Neil, why did you choose a +1.3 ev flash exposure comp. Why not a +0.5 (under-expose metering for the subject) ?

  13. 16 says

    Fred, as mentioned in the main text, a flash exposure compensation setting around +1.3 or +1.7 is my usual starting point when I have strong backlighting.

    Neil vN

  14. 17Duncan Bell says


    Martin said;
    “But what about when the subject and the background are evenly lit? Assuming correct exposure for the subject and background (which is the same in this case, without flash) – does the additional flash then overexpose the subject?”

    you answered;
    “Martin … if you’re already exposing correctly for the ambient light in the scenario you describe, then you will over-expose if you add flash as if the flash is the main source of light. However, if you more realistically just use flash as fill light in that instance, then the flash will just lift shadow detail and help the contrast, and not add significantly to the overall exposure.”

    It’s my understanding that unless you have specifically disabled auto fill flash reduction in the custom functions then any ambient reading of EV13 of brighter will result in the ETTL system reducing the power output by 2 stops to provide fill only (thus not overexposing the scene). Any ambient reading or EV10 and lower the system will deliver fully illuminate the subject. There is an un-documented (non linear it seems) ramp down between EV10 and EV13.

    Is this correct or is my research bogus? I’ve been working with that in mind and it does seem to be the truth? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Thanks for all your articles, great reading.
    Kind regards

  15. 18 says


    At the risk of being called out for wearing Emperor’s Clothes by the more knowledgeable and tech-savvy photographers .. I must say upfront that I have absolutely no idea whether that is correct or not.

    Being so specific about the values and conditions, one can only assume that the observations were made after a lot of tests and after anecdotal evidence showed the patterns to exist.

    I have seen the article in mention, but for my photography work (and specifically the way I work), it would be an overly technical consideration. For me to be constantly aware of my camera’s lightmeter reading, then translating it into EV values, and keep track of when the TTL output will be affected like this .. all this would take me away from concentrating on the actual photography.

    Assuming the observations there to be true .. has it affected me without me realizing? Quite possibly .. but if I had seen on my LCD screen that my TTL flash output wasn’t quite what I had expected, I would have shrugged my shoulders .. adjusted the FEC accordingly, and kept on photographing.

    Hopefully all this doesn’t sound defensive for not-knowing .. but I do believe that as much as an understanding of the technical aspects of photography is essential, an overly technical approach could very well keep us from intuitively responding to our subject or the situation.

    Neil vN

  16. 19Bennet says

    I took a private workshop with Neil last year. He was able to clear this topic in couple of minutes since he was explaining while we were taking pictures of the same scenario. Thank you Neil !!!

  17. 20Stephen says

    Hi Neil,
    You stated this in the blog: “I got my initial exposure settings by checking my camera’s metering display, and then doing a test shot of the windows”

    What did you meter off of? Based on your lessons and blog, I would have metered off the groom’s white shirt, recomposed the photo so the groom and the windows are in the photo, and then think to myself:
    “Neil said that within a certain range, ISO and shutter speed don’t have a great effect on the photograph’s exposure when TTL flash is used.” With that in mind, I probably would have chosen a wide aperture to make sure the windows in the background would be better lit. (i.e. your posts on “dragging the shutter”)

  18. 21 says

    Stephen … I metered off the windows. But it was a quick check, not a thorough Zone System based approach. A test shot showed that I had good exposure, and I was ready to go.

    Metering off the groom’s shirt and using the histogram method there to get good AMBIENT exposure on him, would work … except that with the low light in the venue, I’d be at a high ISO and using apertures like f1.4 on fast primes. And the windows would completely blow out in the background … all of which makes this an entirely different image than the want I was after.

    There are a few different ways that you could’ve shot this portrait and the one I am showing there is but one choice .. and it just happens to be exactly what I wanted this time. : )

    Neil vN

  19. 22Gene says


    Thank you for your great explanations. I have got a lot of good info from you blogs.

    I shoot with a Nikon and find that I can’t always trust the image on the back of the camera to give me reliable info on the exposure. This is especially tough outdoors in bright light. I use the histogram to attempt to avoid burning out the highlites but to get the required exposure for the subject in your 1st example might be challenging. Can you offer any better insight into chimping techniques?

    Thank you.

  20. 23 says

    Gene …

    The LCD preview is really tough to see on a bright day. So no real insight there on chimping techniques, but a reliance on other metering methods that will get me to good exposure.

    I don’t use the Hoodman or anything like that. I just rely on blinking highlights, and the histogram and the camera’s meter … and RAW. ; )

    Neil vN

  21. 25Mohanpreet Singh (MP) says

    Hi Neil
    Great blog. Thanks for tons of useful info.
    One question – i read somewhere that TTL flash meters off the center of sensor. So if your subject is towards the edge of the image (left or right , and not in center), the TTL flash might be metering off something away in the background. Do you use Flash Exposure lock (I think it is called FV lock for Nikon), to lock the flash exposure while subject is in center , and then recompose the shot ?

  22. 26 says

    MP … you’re correct there in that the flash metering (like any automatic metering) works best if the subject is large and central in the viewfinder (and of average tonal values) … but evaluative / matrix metering does a fairly good job of interpreting it. But with a subject closer to the edge of the frame, TTL flash metering is likely to over-expose the subject.

    I personally don’t use Flash Lock, preferring to shoot, check, and adjust if need be. For me it is a faster way of working, but is obviously a personal choice in how I shoot.

    Neil vN

  23. 27Val says

    You used FEV +1.3
    But the pic was 1/2 stop underexposed:

    1) does flash metering also use the same stuff as ambient metering? ie if using evaluative, flash will see the bg and dial down, whereas spot may not do so as much?
    2) since the flash was /probably/ at full blast, would that mean changing FEV from 0 to +2 wouldn’t have done anything?
    3) in this case, only ISO can make the fg brighter?

  24. 28 says

    Val …

    1. Yes, TTL metering works the same as ambient metering. However, I wouldn’t say that spot-metering would imply less (flash) exposure compensation. That depends entirely on what you are pointing the spot-meter to. Also, some cameras are not influenced by the camera being set to spot-metering.

    2. Most likely. In that sense this image isn’t the perfect example, since I was most likely at the edge of what the speedlight could do.

    3. ISO and aperture. : )

    Neil vN

  25. 29Harry Simpson says

    Please don’t demote me back to bounced flash 100 but doesn’t the TTL try to be smart and give amount of light it thinks it needs for correct exposure. That said if you’re having the bounce off a far wall or ceiling, that’s the reason you bump up the flash comp….?
    I did go back and reread flash and ambient before posting this ;-)
    It was amazing to look at your beautiful sample shots again!!

  26. 30 says

    Harry ..

    You’re correct, in theory TTL flash metering should give you correct exposure if you’re bouncing flash, and within the means of what the speedlight is capable of. (Assuming a subject with average tonality.) The reason why I bumped up the FEC as a matter of course, is because of the strong backlighting.

    Neil vN

  27. 31Val says

    Some stuff I don’t understand about TTL. TTL flash metering should give you correct exposure unless its power is maxed out.

    So why is it for indoor shots I often have to turn FEV up/down?
    And I did an outdoor shot 1m from severely backlit subjects, and had to turn FEV way down too?

    It seems true whether I’m in M or Av mode.

  28. 32 says

    Val … you need to control TTL flash exposure via the FEC since it is an automatic metering mode, and will be influenced by the reflectivity / tonality of your subject and scene.

    If you’re 1m away from your subject, you might very well be too close, and outside the working range of your TTL flash for your specific ISO / aperture choice.

    Neil vN

  29. 33Ivan says

    The original question was my question as well… so it’s great to see this discussed. I’m just starting out with external flash, and I’m really glad I found this blog.

  30. 34 says

    Hi Neil – Thank for your this website – I have really learned a lot by reading your techniques.

    For bright backgrounds and darker foreground (subject), your general technique appears to be:

    1 – With cam on spot meter adjust your manual f, shutter and ISO to get the level of detail required in the background – take a test shot and confirm with LCD and blinking highlights and/or histogram.

    2 – Once you have correct exposure for background with cam settings you would then use flash to expose the subject (which would otherwise be underexposed). Typically you would use bounce flash to create a more natural light and use TTL to send the general appropriate amount of light – then using FEC to fine tune.

    Question 1:
    Do you shoot the test shot of the background without flash turned on? You give this impression in your last post with the picture. Wouldn’t you need to take into account what the flash will do to the background exposure when setting up your camera?

    Question 2:
    How do you ensure TTL meters off of the correct point when actually shooting your composed shot. Say the foreground object is off to the right in the picture (with the rest of the frame filled with background light). Will TTL meter off of my spot meter (if thats what my cam is set to); or does TTL have its own metering system?

    If its evaluative of the whole scene, would you just knock up the FEC to compensate for all of the background light?


  31. 36 says

    Brad, the way you describe the technique there would be the way to distill it into a specific description of the thought process .. however, in practice it is usually much less methodical and step-by-step as all that.

    It actually gets close to “just doing it”. Take the shot and see.

    So on to your questions:

    1. Do I turn the flash off when taking the test shot?
    Yes, usually. But not always. The easiest and most obviously logical way to see what the ambient light looks like without the effect of flash, would be to switch it off.

    But sometimes I will just do the test shot with the flash on, and see if my educated ‘guess’ about the exposure is good.

    2. How do I ensure that the TTL flash metering measures off the actual subject, when my composition might change?

    You can’t. So there is a level of educated guesswork here. Or let’s call it anticipating your approximate settings .. and then adjusting your FEC if it can be improved.

    Unless you go to manual flash, where the light output from your speedlight is fixed, there is no way to consistently and accurately get TTL flash exposure every time. Even if you use Flash Exposure Lock / Value .. you’re still taking a guess as to what they most neutral part of your subject is that you’re doing the test metering of.

    So in that sense it is unrealistic to expect every TTL metered image to be spot-on. There will inevitably be a process of checking and adjusting when you use TTL flash. But once you accept that can pre-judge your FEC .. and work this fluently into your shooting rhythm, you can work very fast.

    In fact, in many situations I will be able to get results comparable carefully metered manual flash .. but in a shorter time.

    So what I am trying to say is that with TTL flash, you need to accept a certain flexibility in your technique … as opposed to expecting every image to be perfectly exposed from the very first frame.

    As to whether the camera will use the spot-meter .. that depends on the individual camera’s design.

    Mostly I just keep my camera to Matrix / Evaluative metering. But since I shoot in manual exposure mode on my camera, the metering pattern I choose has no real effect on my final settings I choose.

    Neil vN

  32. 37Ellery says

    From what I’ve learned in your wonderful site is first to meter for ambient, in this case the glass window behind. Would it work if I used a grey card (or spot metering on the window frame which looks medium toned) and then move into position and take the shot? That would give a perfectly metered window structure and a subject (lit by flash). I have also read that underexposing the background by 1-2 stops would also retain enough detail in order to avoid subject overexposure (or keep the subject in a shadow area). The main point being to use a grey card near the window frame to get the starting exposure point.


  33. 38 says

    Ellery … metering off the dark wooden frame wouldn’t make sense. I’m not particularly chasing detail in the wooden frame. (Also, it is darker than a mid-range tone.)

    What I want here is the window behind the groom to appear bright enough. There is probably about a 2 stop range in what would be quite acceptable exposure for the window.

    So I would still meter for the sky there, and open up a stop to make it brighter than mid-tone … and then just use TTL flash to expose correctly for my subject.

    Working with a grey card here wouldn’t work, since the window is much brighter than the interior.

    Re this statement:
    >> I have also read that underexposing the background by 1-2 stops would also retain enough detail in order to avoid subject overexposure (or keep the subject in a shadow area).

    I’m not sure how under-exposing the background avoids over-exposure of the subject? So I don’t think we can even pull a general rule out of that.

    But back to the grey card. It makes sense at times to use a grey card, but more so, a light-meter .. but quite often it is a slower way of working, especially at a wedding. You’re better off shooting faster, get the shot! and move on. As opposed to delaying the bride and groom while you take meticulous meter readings. : )

    Neil vN

  34. 39 says

    Can I assume from your lesson, that as long as the background is exposed to what you desire, the camera will “take care” of the rest when the bounced flash hits the subject? It seems your main concern is the background, yet your skintone of the groom are great and even his black jacket has beautiful detail.

    Also, do you know if you were using center-weighted, matrix or spot metering? Is it more ideal to use matrix when using TTL? I assume spot metering would almost “confuse” the camera/flash?

    I’m extremely comfortable with available light photography and always using the zone system. However, seems like the zone system goes out the window when it comes to Speedlite flash photography.

    Normally, I would have “zoned” for the background window light (on the picture with the groom) to get good exposure, setting the meter to probably +1.5 on spot. But, I don’t sense you “zone” for the background’s exposure. You said “I got my initial exposure settings by checking my camera’s metering display”. If your camera was already set to ISO 800 and f3.2, then you dial your meter based on what? I assume you are not in spot metering?

  35. 40 says

    Amanda, yes, in scenarios like this .. I expose for the background (when the subject is relatively darker than the background, and then I use flash to expose correctly for the subject. In this case, with TTL flash.

    My main concern is actually always my subject.

    I use Matrix / Evaluative metering and rarely stray from it.
    Some cameras are indeed influenced by setting the camera to spot-metering. I just stay with Matrix and adjust-to-taste accordingly.

    But that is simply how *I* do it. And ‘simply’ might be a keyword there … for I would rather just shoot, and then adjust my settings getting closer to an ideal … rather than over-thing and analyze it and then lose the opportunity.

    Re the Zone system … actually, the Zone system, when used as an absolute, goes out the window when you use slide film, or use digital, or for that matter, when you use colour print film.

    With the Zone system, Caucasian skin is usually set to Zone 6 … one stop brighter than average. However, with digital, you could be on the verge of over-exposure there. (And no, I don’t think it relates directly to latitude.)

    With digital (and colour slide film would be very similar), I place white at 1.7 EV or 2.0 EV over what the camera would meter as grey.

    So if you set your camera to expose 1.7 stops more than it would meter, you’d blow out your window and have little detail.

    This kind of considered step-by-step approach in metering would be too slow for a situation like this. Quickly metering to get a base setting, and then shoot–check-and-adjust would be the way to get the shot before the groom decides to move on.

    Now, about the 1.5 thing. If you’re able to set your Nikon to 1.5 EV then you need to immediately set your camera back to 1/3 stop indents, instead of 1/2 stop indents. You really need that finer control of 1/3 stop settings.

    Back to the Zone system .. although I don’t believe you can directly apply the Zone system to digital, a working knowledge of the Zone system is invaluable. It is what I based my own metering techniques on for years when I shot with slide film, and it is what my pages on metering technique is also based on.

    Neil vN

  36. 41 says


    Thanks for your detailed response.

    Question.. and pardon if this is Basic101, but… Since I have been using Zone, I would simply spot meter anything in my frame and set my exposure to exactly what I want. It has been fail-safe for me… but I want to expand beyond that.

    Thus, if using matrix or center-weight, and if the background is brighter than the subject, how would you set your exposure to give near correct exposure for the background? Would you zoom into just the background and set your exposure so the only subject in the frame would be the ambient background so matrix doesn’t meter anything else? What if you have a fixed lens?

  37. 42 says

    Spot-metering like that will only give you accurate results when you meter off a neutral / average tone. The moment you meter off a darker or lighter tone, then your exposure will be off.

    Just using a spot-meter without any thought as to *what* you’re metering off, doesn’t really get you much further than shooting in an auto mode and using Matrix metering.

    In addition to my camera’s meter, I also use the blinking highlights and histogram and the LCD preview. There’s a number of ways to check that your exposure is good.

    Neil vN

  38. 43 says

    one other question… in reference to the most adorable bw candid of the kids above. You said you “used the Black Foamie Thing ™ to flag my flash and not hit people behind me in the face with a strong burst of flash.

    I thought you use the Black Foamie Thing with the longest part closest to the subject so not to spill light onto them but rather have bounced light be the only light hitting the subject? Thus, you would have hit the people behind you with the strong burst of light, no?

  39. 45Roy says

    Hi Neil:

    First I would like to thank you for educating us with flash photography. Your blog is very useful for me. I would like to get suggestion from you what to do with the following situation.

    my family and I was in a beach city at night. The background was dark , and so was my subject (my family). I would like to get both my subject exposed properly and at the same time it showed the city light and the building on the background. My subject is about 3-4 feet away from me, and there is no light around me. The beach was behind me and the city was behind my subject

    I am using wide angle lens, with evaluative matrix metering, and flash. I use high ISO 1000, M mode, 1/45 and 1/60 speed,

    I metered the whole field seen on view finder, and use flash compensation EV -2, and what I got was TERRIBLE over exposed subjects. with sort of OK background

    What do you do in this situation?. If I did not use Flash my subject face is not exposed properly either (darkish ugly face)


  40. 46 says

    Hi there Roy

    Where you using direct flash?

    You don’t say what aperture you used. But I suspect you were simply too close to your subject (if you were using direct flash), for your flash and camera to react appropriately and shut off the burst of flash in time.

    Looking now at my D3 and SB-900, for 1000 ISO at f4 (in TTL mode), I get a minimum distance of 2.8 meters. You were shooting at half that distance.

    So just double check what your speedlight is telling you on the back of the LCD display.

    Neil vN

  41. 47Roy says

    Hi Neil:

    Thank you for responding

    Yes I was using direct Flash to the subject. I have no choice, I have nothing to bounce the light. I was at broadwalk, where the beach was behind me, and there are open space to my left and right. My subject is in front of me about 3 meter away, and the city light was behind the subject

    I try to practice what you thought us, using M mode, metering the ambient city light with ISO 1000 and I got F 3.5 and speed 1/15 th, so it was pretty dark. I under exposed the ambient light by setting the speed to 1/30. and keep apature the same

    I use my flash (guide number=54) on TTL, directed straight to subject with FEC -2 and -2.5, and I got way overexposed subject, with sort of OK city iight.

    I did not check my speedlight minimum distance.

    I am now confused as to what guide/ method do I use to shoot M mode at night. in open space such as park, beach, large field etc.

    Would you shoot in Tv or Av (speed or apature priority) in this setting?
    If you still use M mode, what your guide to set your speed and apature? ( I know your iso should be at least 1000-1600) + your flash

    I am looking forward to hearing what you would do?
    Thanks again


  42. 48 says

    Roy, I would do as you suggest there. But I would make sure I don’t go outside the range that my flash is capable of. A flash diffuser might just have solved the problem by cutting down on the flash’s power.

    Neil vN

  43. 49Joy Oxenrider says


    Oh..After searching for advice on Flash Photography on the internet for I don’t know how many weeks..I feel I have found the holy grail of Flash Photography information and more!

    Bless you 1000 and 1 times for your posts and site. How generous you are with your knowledge!

    Thank you!

  44. 50 says

    Hi Neil,

    I’d be very interested to learn more about how you decide the angle to give to your speedlight. I’ve searched about this on your blog but never have found any useful information about this (you generally say “I bounced it behind me and to the left”, but what angle?, why?, …). I know of course about angle of incidence and angle of reflection, but when you shoot, do you precisely analyse your environment and decide the angle your speedlight will have or is this more about “feeling”?

    Thanks for your help and once again, thanks for the great info you share with all of us.


  45. 51 says

    Ed, that sounds like it should be the topic of an entirely new blog post .. or even a video clip. I’ll add it to the list of topics that could be covered, and make for interesting material here.


    Neil vN

  46. 53Lydia says

    “And the reason for this is, I already have good exposure for the background, and this I determined before composing the portrait. That’s as far as I care about what my camera’s meter says. And then TTL flash took care of the rest.”

    Neil – this is exactly my problem with photography – how did you determine “good exposure” (if you don’t care about the camera’s meter)? Experience? What is your line of thought when determining “good exposure”?

    Would so appreciate an explanation.
    Many thanks

  47. 54 says

    Lydia .. “good exposure” is going to be a variable quantity. It will depend on scenario to scenario, and also how YOU, the individual photographer, want to interpret the scene.

    This is definitely a topic that I will tackle in future with a series of posts.

    Now, about this specific image at the top, I got to what I deemed to be correct / good exposure, but taking a cursory look at my camera’s meter, and then taking a test shot and looking at how the window area looks on my camera’s preview. Simple as that.

    Someone else might’ve liked it to be more blown out or more saturated. There is a wide range of what would be acceptable here. I liked this version. If I couldn’t get enough flash on my subject in how I bounced my flash, I would’ve opened my aperture or raised my ISO to get enough light on him from bounce flash .. even though this would’ve let the background blow out some more.

    Neil vN

  48. 56Marianne says

    Hi Neil,

    I’ve had a few issues recently with TTL on my flash. I’m fine when it comes to bouncing, but occasionally I’ve had to use direct flash, either to overpower harsh sunlight outdoors or in an outdoor evening portrait scenario. I exposed the shutter/aperture/iso for ambient light, or slightly under, and then I dialed down the FEC on my speedlight as it was direct and I didn’t want to overexpose the face.
    However, regardless of what I do to the flash FEC, it comes out dazzling bright and blows out the subject’s face. Even when I set it to -3 on the flashgun, I’ve noticed when it fires, my flash kind of automatically changes the number whilst it’s firing, and then returns to show -3. I don’t know if this means I’ve done something wrong in the settings or if my batteries are too strong. I am quite close to the subject sometimes but these were in scenarios where I didn’t have room to move back. Is it possible I’ve been close than a sort of minimum distance so the flash will always be too bright?
    I’ve managed to get it so the background looks fine, but there flash is notable on the subject, or when I try to increase shutterspeed/close aperture on camera to try and reduce the brightness on subject’s face (because I’m already at -3 which is my SB-800’s limit) that just results in the ‘cave effect’ and the subject is still overexposed.
    Do you have any ideas about what could be going wrong?


  49. 57 says

    Marianne .. I have an idea of what might be going wrong.

    What is your shutter speed with the flash switched off? And what is your shutter speed with the flash switched on.

    Neil vN

  50. 58Marianne says

    Errrm, I can’t remember to be honest, but I know with flash on I’m usually around 1/250-1/160 depending on my aperture/iso/the situation, because of the max sync speed. I usually meter for the ambient light/a bit under. Do you think it’s because when my flash goes on it cuts me to 1/250? I have found even after putting flash on, and having the settings 1/250 combined with iso and aperture so the backgrounds not blown out, and then changing only FEC, it is just too bright with every shot, so I don’t think it’s the change in max sync.

    I once stood next to another photographer and we were both shooting nightclub/gig crowd. He was using TTL direct flash, and he had the nice dark but showing background with well flashed subjects. With mine, the background looked fine but the people’s faces were pretty much all bright white.

    Sorry I know that’s not given you any more info, but if you suggest your idea, it might occur to me how I might have made my mistake!

    Thanks x

  51. 59Trev says


    I think you have the flash sync speed in your camera’s menu set to a specific value; to say 1/60th, and the moment you turn on the flash, it will automatically go to 1/60th hence the blowing out. Look in the menu for Flash Sync Speed and choose 250th Auto if it has it.

    I am on a D3s and I chose the “1/250s (Auto FP)” for my permanent setting which means when I turn the flash on it will auto follow my settings, regardless of my shutter speed, even into the high speed sync range. [Above 250th]

    I presume [cannot speak for Neil] that is the reason why Neil asked what do your settings say when you turn on the flash and turn it off. Test it, set your shutter to say 250th, [manual mode] turn on flash, see what the shutter speed goes to.

    Even in manual mode on camera, if your Flash Sync speed is set to say 1/60th in the camera’s menu, no matter what you set the shutter speed to, it will automatically revert to whatever you have the Sync Speed set at, ie: 1/60th, when you turn on the flash.

    I just tested on mine, and it will revert my manual shutter speed to the 1/60th I temporarily enabled it to instead of the 250th Auto.


  52. 60Trev says

    I also have another thought with the Nikon, if in manual mode, you can also compensate flash by using the normal exposure mode, which won’t show up in the LCD on camera unless you actually look via the compensation button, you may have also changed that sometime, since Exposure Compensation on the camera does NOT affect ambient exposure when in manual mode, but WILL affect flash.

    Check that also, you may have it set to +2-3 even, cancelling the -3 on your flash itself.


  53. 61Trev says

    When I said: I also have another thought with the Nikon, if in manual mode, you can also compensate flash by using the normal exposure mode, which . . .

    I did mean the “. . . using the normal exposure compensation mode . . .” of course. :)

  54. 62Marianne says

    Hi Trev,
    Thanks for your helpful suggestions, I checked my flash settings and I am limited to 1/250 (rather than high sync) but I have still had the flash problems when my ambient light was metered to within 1/250, i.e. when I knew the shutter speed would stay fixed at that.
    However, I think you may be onto something there with the compensation on camera body affecting the flash, I reckon I may have pressed one too many buttons and wiggled one too many dials! I have just had a test of this function and it is affecting my flash as you say it does.
    One remaining mystery is what I’ve noticed before is on the actual SB-800 display, when the flash fires, it changes the FEC number i.e. I’ll set it to -3, pop the flash it blinks +2, and then after firing goes back to displaying -3. When testing the whole camera body compensation thing, this didn’t happen, which still makes me wonder if my flash gun is broken/my batteries are too overpowering?

  55. 63Trev says


    Then I am afraid I am out of ideas, since I don’t have an SB-800, and maybe Neil can shed more light on the subject, [sorry for the pun] and hopefully help you.

    Have you read the flash manual, anything in the flash itself which may allude to changing settings regarding shooting flash TTL and camera manual?

    I take it that’s the only flash you have otherwise I am sure you would have tested another one, or borrow another, even an SB900 see if it behaves the same way.


  56. 64Trev says

    Oh, did you also do that test with the camera on manual mode with the flash sync speed and the camera’s shutter speed?

    ie: Set the flash to anything in Flash Sync Speed on the camera, but set the camera to another number. eg: Set the Flash Sync Speed in your camera’s menu to say 60th, then set the actual camera shutter speed to say 125th, then turn on the flash, and turn off the flash while looking at the LCD on the camera, does the shutter speed you manually set on the camera remain the same when turning on/off the flash?

    If it does not, then that is still a problem, it should stay the same since you *want* that ambient light you set manually to be those settings and just a touch of flash.


  57. 65Larry says

    I am puzzled why I cannot get Spot metering with D300 and a hot shoe TTL SB-800? (never could)

    I set the D300 focus area at Single Point (or Dynamic, I think both ought to work, but neither does work for Spot). I set camera to Spot metering, and the SB-800 shifts from TTL BL to TTL. I set out three letter size cards side by side, black, white, and gray (distance is seven or eight feet, so that each card is about 1/2 height of viewfinder, well larger than a spot). I put the center focus point in middle of each card, and press the shutter on each. All three cards are visible in each frame, but shifted so that black is center of one, and white is center of one, and the other cards just fit.

    All three frames look alike, very little difference, but well exposed, for both direct or bounce. It acts like it is metering a much larger area, including all cards. I was thinking with Spot metering, both black and white would become middle gray in their turn, but they don’t, they stay very black or very white in all frames.

    Any hints about what I am missing, or how my understanding is wrong, would be appreciated. Thanks

  58. 66Marianne says

    Hi Trev, when I set a sync speed so it’s limited to 1/250, if I had it on higher say 1/640, turning my flash on changes my settings, but I have been aware of this and accounted for this change by doing my ambient light settings with the shutter speed at 1/250. I generally tend to work with that sort of shutter speed or slower so I’m not surprised by the sudden need for flash.

    I’m hoping Neil will say what his idea was, as he so tantalisingly alluded as to what he thought might be going on!

  59. 67Dylan says


    Quick question…. Does the metering mode that ypour camera is set to affect the way that TTL flash is metered? IE – evaluative vs spot vs CWA? does this setting also change the way that TTL flash is metered?


  60. 68 says

    Dylan .. not that I have encountered.

    Of course, there might be camera models out there, which I’m not aware of, where the metering pattern for ambient does affect the TTL flash metering.

    Neil vN

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