background exposure and flash

flash photography – background exposure and flash

When I saw this dramatic sky with the approaching storm during our recent shoot at Coney Island, I knew I wanted to photograph our model against it.  By the time I actually started taking photos, the raindrops were already spattering around us. So there was little time to work.

I knew I wanted a brooding sky.  Now, depending on how I chose my exposure, I could’ve had a much the sky appear much brighter, or just a little bit brighter than shown here.  There’s a whole range of possibilities in how I could’ve exposed for my background, and we can choose a wide range of settings.  In this sense there really isn’t any “incorrect exposure” for this particular background. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to choose our settings such that we’d over-expose our model.

This is idea holds true while we consider the sky as our main background.  The street areas, and the amusement park areas are indeed under-exposed.  They do appear too dark if I had chosen that as my specific background. But the sky as such, isn’t under-exposed.  This might seem a semantic difference, but it is an important distinction to make, in that quite often there is no specific under- or over-exposure, but just a way that YOU decide to expose for certain tones.  I simple chose to expose for the sky as darker tones.  And I could’ve placed them “anywhere”, even as near-black.

Here is the test shot without flash …

Now it becomes a simple matter of adding enough flash to our subject for correct exposure.  For me, in this case it would be where the skin tones appear bright enough.

camera settings:  1/250 @ f11 @ 200 ISO
flash: direct off-camera manual flash without a modifier.

About the post-processing of the image at the top:
I cloned out some distracting details such as cracks in the road, and the lamp-posts to the left.  Then I used Imagenomic’s Portraiture plug-in, and Topaz Adjust (Spicify), and  Nik Color-Efex Pro (Tonal Contrast) on various layers at different opacities.

This article also relates to two recent posts:
balancing flash and ambient light – where do we even start?
balancing flash with ambient exposure.

More articles on off-camera flash …

7 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Brad Reid says

    Thanks for the great site! And I do quite often use B&H, so I’ll be sure to link there through here next time I’m buying.

  2. 2Gorka says

    Hi Neil,another nice post,who has helped me a lot with my exposure measuring method.I used something like this,in fact,last weekend: my girlfriend (sorry,no models available :P) in open shade,and underexposing for the bright background (a distant mountain).Then,I added flash to the mix (direct flash with FEC at -3).I was really pleased with the results!

    By the way,I was searching the net looking for a review of a PIECE of software called Dxo Optics Pro and look what I found…it was you :-).What a coincidence hahaha

  3. 3Val says

    Neil, you do a lot of PS work on your pics, clone, plug-ins, etc. That sounds very manual. How do you deal with having to process 200 files like this?

    I find clones on things like lamp-posts which have uneven bg very hard and time consuming.

  4. 4Neil vN says

    Val .. this kind of attention to post-processing isn’t something that I would do for an entire shoot, whether it is a wedding or any other kind of shoot … unless the time spent is worked into the fee.

    For this site, I’m just doing it on individual images for fun.

    I would do it for individual images that I display or send it for competitions, and such.

    Neil vN

  5. 5 says

    Hey Neil, I noted that you used the Profoto AcuteB 600R power pack for this photoshoot for the “juice”, which I assumed matched by Profoto lights? I’m wondering if this “juice” was what I was missing when I used my Speedlite off-camera in a softbox during a baby photoshoot on the beach in the afternoon.

    I used Rembrandt lighting and metered the flash, and got 5.6 so I set my camera to 5.6. But my shots were very flat rather than dimensional that I thought the Speedlite would give.

    So, my question is… Are the speedlites just not powerful enough to be within softboxes in afternoon light?

  6. 6 says

    For this photograph I used a Quantum flash without a softbox or beauty dish. Just the bare Q-flash with a single diffusion disc over it. So a speedlight would’ve worked just as well in this case.

    But for bright light outside, a speedlight in a softbox is generally not strong enough. Then you need to shoot with bare (off-camera) flash.

    Neil vN

  7. 7Michelle says

    I love the posts I have read! I was directed to your site by a fellow photographer and I have learned a ton about off camera flash techniques as well as using my 580 ex II to it’s potential as a fill. My biggest question right now is can the results of off camera flash be achieved outdoors using a shoot through umbrella? I don’t have a decent softbox yet. The one I DO have is an octobox and is kind of large and bulky. Does the size of the box matter? I would love to put these techniques into practice this evening with a family shoot I have lined up! Any guidance appreciated!

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