shooting in low light – flash and incandescent light

using flash in an incandescent / tungsten environment

I have used this photograph several times in the past to illustrate various aspects of flash photography in low light, so it might be time to discuss this image more thoroughly.

We’ll also pull together a few other topics and see how it all comes together at this one point:
dragging the shutter,
– gelling your flash,
bounce flash technique,
direction of light,
– the advantage of using TTL flash,
working alongside a videographer

While I often insist that scrutinizing the specific camera settings afterwards don’t necessarily hold much value, they are pertinent in this instance.

1/200th @ f1.6 @ 1600 ISO … TTL flash, gelled for tungsten with 1/2 CTS

As an aside, the lens used was the magnificent Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II (vendor), and the camera was the Canon 1D mkIII along with the Canon 580 EXII speedlight.

I think what is interesting about my choice of settings here, is that the tendency for most photographers would be to take their shutter speed lower to bring available light in. That’s the method behind “dragging the shutter“, where you bring in more available light by taking the shutter speed lower and lower. I often go another route to bring in more available light when I use flash – I raise my ISO and shoot with wide apertures. This allows the available light in and give my photographs some context, since the background didn’t go black.

Since I am shooting in TTL mode with my flash, my flash works with me and follows my settings to give me correct exposure. Or close enough that I can nudge it with Flash Exposure Compensation.  This way I can ride my ISO higher and go with wider apertures. I can change these settings at will, without having to adjust my flash output like I would’ve had to do with manual flash.

The reason then why I choose shutter speeds that are higher than normal for indoors … I personally don’t much like ambient smear or subject blur. And that’s a real risk with a videographer at the wedding. The video light adds enough light that the flash would not freeze movement like we are used to when working in darker environments. So the higher shutter speed gives me sharper images since it minimizes camera shake and subject movement. This would’ve been quite prevalent working alongside a videographer.

Also, the gel will mean that I am working in the same range of color temperatures as the videographer and every other light source in that environment. I usually gel my flash for Incandescent light when working indoors.

In this photo, you can see the video light giving a rim-light on the groom’s face.

Note that I worked at a 90 degree angle to the videographer, specifically to use his light as a rim-light or back-light. It is important though, that we don’t appear in each other’s footage. So I will never shoot directly across from the videographer. As vendors at a wedding, we don’t want to appear in our clients’ images or video footage. It is advice that I give my 2nd shooters as well – not to work directly across from me.

Note though, that the videographer’s light is a neutral color and doesn’t appear as that orange grunge that you get when you mix un-gelled flash with tungsten.

My white balance at the time was 3700K, since I was gelling my flash. But I do adjust this in post-processing of the RAW file. Because the bounced light picks up different colors from the surfaces that the light is reflected from, it is necessary to finesse this when editing the RAW file.  (It really isn’t an option to shoot in JPG format here.)


on-camera flash modifier – the black foamie thing

I use the black foamie thing (BFT) as a truly inexpensive flash modifier to flag my on-camera flash to give me lighting indoors that truly look nothing like on-camera flash.The piece of foam (Amazon), can be ordered via this link. I cut the sheet into smaller pieces.

The BFT is held in position by two hair bands (Amazon), and the BFT is usually placed on the under-side of the flash-head.

The linked articles will give clearer instruction, especially the video clip on using the black foamie thing.


With the image at the top, I wanted the light from my flash to spill onto the bride’s face. So I wanted the light to come in from my right-hand side. That’s what would make the most sense … to lift detail there. So I bounced the light to my right-hand side, flagging it with the piece of black foam.

Bouncing my flash to my left wouldn’t have made sense, since I don’t want to light her hair in more detail and leave her face in shade. Also, bouncing behind me would’ve given a more flat look to the light. Therefore, bouncing flash to my right made the most sense in terms of placing my light source in relation to my subject.

I bounced the light into the large reception room. There was no wall. The light bounced back from part of the ceiling, part of the furnishings and table, and even the back wall. Just off stuff there. No specific area. But I did create a softbox effect, and controlled it with my camera

The shallow depth-of-field that the f1.6 aperture gives me, doesn’t concern me here. I really just need one point in focus here – the bride’s eye(s). Your attention is immediately drawn to her expression anyway. The rest is just context.

To overcome the chances of mis-focusing or the couple moving out of the plane of focus, it is necessary to shoot a number of frames. Then, the decisive moment is chosen in editing the sequence of images. Often, it all comes together in the post-production workflow.



With this photograph, I wanted to give an overview of several on-camera flash photography techniques. These techniques all play a part in creating an image which really captures a moment, without the technique being ‘intrusive’. It is always about the moment.


gelling your flash

Since I frequently gel my flashguns to turn the WB of my flash much warmer (usually for  Incandescent light), I use these gels that I cut up and tape to the top of my speedlight’s head. One of these sheets (which aren’t expensive), will give you a lifetime supply of these filters. For me, these gels are an invaluable part of flash photography.

Tape the gels down on your lens hood when not using the gels.


15 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    I just wanted to say to anyone who’s ever read Neils blog, this is where I learned how to shoot weddings. By reading his blog and tutorials, I learned about speedlights and bouncing flashes of the walls and ceilings, how to use a gel on a strobe and how to make beautiful images of happy days.

    I’ve found more information, practical information on Neils blog than in most wedding photography books. I now use his techniques in my boudoir photography sessions.

    Thanks Neil!!!

  2. 2fotografii aniversari says

    I never used this “route”, but certainly I will. Everything you say it’s so logical, it makes perfect sense. Your blog is pure gold, thank you!

  3. 3Gillian says

    Hi Neil

    I stumbled onto your site yesterday and could not stop reading, so much valuable info to be found and learnt for me just starting out in photography.

    I recently bought a Nikon D7000 and am looking at getting a speelight. What would you recommend? I love taking photo’s of children and have recently had some wedding requestes.

    Thanks for sharing your valuable insight

  4. 5AlanB says

    In a situation like this, would you be in AI Servo focus mode or one shot? The former is better for moving subjects, but can have a difficult time locking focus in low light situations.

  5. 6 says

    Alan .. for this I would typically be in One Shot / Single / AF-S mode so that I have specific focus. But it needs a camera that can focus fast and accurately.

  6. 7Roel says

    in addition to you comment on AlanB, I’m more a believer of using continuous focus, especially when shooting consecutive frames.

    My main reason is that the subject is never still, always slightly moving towards or away from the camera. With only single focus, I experienced more than once that as of the second frame the focus is (slightly) off, especially when working with large apertures / long lenses.

    The only solution would be to refocus before each shot. Is that what you do?

    On the side: you probably can rely on the D3’s advantage of speed with… I’m only slightly behind with a D300. ;-)



  7. 8Kevin says

    When you are gelling for Tungsten, is the white balance setting on the camera changed as well? After following your site for some time now, this is the technique I grapple with the most….When to gel, WB settings when gelling, and expected results with the gel. Can you elaborate? Perhaps this has been covered and you can drop a link or maybe post a tangent about it. Color temperatures would be great too…

  8. 9 says

    Kevin .. you set your camera’s WB to your dominant light source. In this case – as mentioned in the article – my white balance at the time was 3700K, since I was gelling my flash. But I do adjust this in post-processing of the RAW file.
    There is a link right at the top to another article about using gels with flash.

    If you think about it .. at a wedding reception, the light sources are all from the warm side of the spectrum – the room lights, the videographer’s light, candle light, and so on. We’re the only fools there adding blue flash to this. So if we want our flash to blend more naturally with the existing light .. gel your flash!

  9. 10 says

    Hi Neil,
    I read and re-read your posts and always seem to learn something new or suddenly things click, not sure which! Anyway, your blog is one of the most interesting and informative I have yet found so thank you for so generously sharing your knowledge!


  10. 14 says

    Neil… I’m always awed by how sharp you are at such wide open apertures! Amazingly beautiful! If I was at 1.6, she may be in focus but he would be soft. Is it your distance from the subject that allows you to get both of them sharp?

  11. 15 says

    Amanda .. the photo has been reduced in size here for display on the webpage, so the out of focus areas look sharper than they would appear as a larger print. So that does change the apparent DoF here. As mentioned in the article, I really only need her eyes (or eye closest to the camera), in focus.

    The distance to them also does help with DoF, compared to taking the photo closer-up at the same aperture

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