exposure metering

exposure metering for a backlit subject, using the histogram  (model – Olena)

When our subject is backlit, we have a number of options:

  • expose for the background, and then either:
    – go for a (semi) silhouette,
    – add light to your subject to balance their exposure with that of the background.
  • expose carefully for our subject, and let the background blow out. This is the “ambient-light-only” option.
  • anything somewhere inbetween those two choices, where *we* decide how we want to balance the exposure between our subject and background.

Exposing for our subject, very often gives us this kind of ethereal look as the strong light from the background causes internal lens flare.

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exposure metering & observing the available light

As a photographer you’ll often hear instruction to just “look at the available light”. Great. But this advice is also often given without clear examples of what we’re actually supposed to be looking at. So let’s explore that a little bit using a sequence of images of our model, Aleona, photographed during a recent individual photography workshop.

This is also keeping with the loose theme over the past few weeks, that for a photographer “using the available light” is not a random thing or just a meaningless catch-phrase.

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photography exposure metering – expose for your subject

In preparation for my upcoming review of the Fuji X-100 camera, I met up with Anelisa to see how this little camera performed during an actual photo shoot. The image above was one of the photographs we ended up with. Now, there is something specific about it that I wanted to explain in a separate article, instead of it being glossed over deeper inside a camera review.

The composition is simple – I do like my compositions fairly central, it seems. Similarly, the lighting is simplicity itself – all available light. There were two main sources of light – the light inside the shopping mall entrance; and some very strong back-lighting flooding the place.

While the technique here hinged on specific exposure for the available light, there are a few crucial ideas here that I’d like to underline:

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off-camera TTL flash

May 20, 2011

off-camera TTL flash

This image of Amy, one of our models at the Treehaven workshops, came up for discussion with the group of attendees. As a straight-forward on location portrait using off-camera flash, it is ideal for an overview again of how easy the ambient & flash exposure metering is.

The basic approach with this portrait was to expose for the ambient light in the background, making sure our subject is somewhat under-exposed … and then to add off-camera flash with a softbox. The first question that came up was – how did I meter for the ambient light?

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photographic composition – finding and framing your best shot

Strolling through Green Park in London, I saw these rows of winter-barren trees. The way the snow clung to the trees and branches from the morning’s snow storm, white against dark brown, gave a posterized effect already – the crazy patterns of the branches starkly etched against the white snow.

I took several photographs, finally liking this photo above the most of all. Aside from resizing, it is straight out of camera … my iPhone 4. And therein was a lesson for me that I mulled over the rest of the day, while further exploring the urban landscapes of London …

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balancing flash with available light / ambient exposure

Since many of the questions I get on the Tangents blog relate to balancing flash with available light, I want to pull the replies together into a single article.  A reference point again, instead of the replies scattered throughout this website.

The questions most often revolve around:
-  exposure metering for available light ,
-  exposure metering for TTL flash and ambient light,
-  whether to use manual flash or TTL flash,
-  flash exposure compensation (FEC),
-  choice of aperture,
-  maximum flash sync speed,
-  metering for off-camera manual flash and ambient light
-  choosing our settings to balance manual flash and ambient light,
-  whether to drag the shutter, or not.

The answer to the questions about how to balance flash and ambient light, is often along the lines of “it depends”.  It really depends on:
- the scenario you have, and
- what you want to achieve.

Now that all sounds quite vague.  Being told that you can pretty much “do what you want”, doesn’t help if you don’t even quite know where to start.  Most of the answers are in the linked articles there, and on this page on my Top 20 Flash Photography Tips.

But, let’s look at one specific image, and analyze what our options are, and see if we can make sense of it all …

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balancing flash and ambient exposure

This topic – balancing flash and ambient exposure – seems to one that many newer photographers struggle with. The big hurdle seems to be the basic starting point – how do you decide on the exposure for each?

I’d like to explore this topic a bit with this post.  The trigger for this was a question that someone emailed me regarding an image in my book on flash photography. Instead of answering the question directly, I thought that a wider answer might be more illuminating. We’re still on that perpetual quest for more aha! moments. So let’s see where we head with this. (I’ll come back to the specific question and answer at the end of this.)

But why do we even want to add flash to a subject when the available light is soft?

The answer is that with flash we can control the direction and quality of light, and create a more dynamic image.

We don’t necessarily just use flash to avoid camera shake and / or poor exposure in low light. We use flash to create better light on our subject. We can ‘clean up’ the light that falls on our subject. Or to create more dynamic and interesting light. It’s about control. We decide.  So where do we start?

The simplest approach for me, when I work in fairly flat and even ambient light, is to under-expose the ambient light by a certain amount.  Then we add flash for correct exposure.  So how much do we under-expose the ambient light by?  Well, it depends. Usually a stop is good. Two stops can also work. If you’ve seen some of the images in fashion and music magazines where the subject is in a pool of light .. yet, the sunlit cityscape is darker, then that is because the photographer under-exposed the ambient light by 2-3 stops. Even in bright sunlight.   So we have some leeway.  That should ease some of the anxiety.

Under-exposing the ambient light by a stop, and then adding flash …  is but one scenario, and one recipe. This approach won’t apply to every possible situation you might encounter .. but it’s a good starting point in grasping that Big Question – where do we even start in balancing flash and ambient light?

Let’s start of with an example where the previous method wouldn’t work:

settings: 1/125 @ f3.5 @ 800 ISO
lighting:  Q-flash T5D-R, in TTL mode diffused by medium softbox to the right

(A speedlight in the softbox would’ve worked just as well here.)

Here’s the image without flash, just so we have a reference ..

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Zones of Light ..

October 23, 2009

A recent thread on the Flick group on flash photography techniques dealt with exposure metering .. and the questions revolved around  understanding your camera’s built in meter.  One of the group members, Arnold Gallardo (Zeroneg1), replied with a lucid explanation on exposure metering, relating it to the Zone System in a clear understandable way, using images from my blogs.  I’d like to present this article by Arnold Gallardo as the latest guest spot on this blog.

I might not have such a specific linear approach to metering any more during the actual shoot, since with practice it becomes near instinctive .. but this analyzing of a few images might make an interesting outside perspective to the thought-process in exposure metering.

Zones of Light – an approach to exposure metering using the Zone System

by Arnold Gallardo  (Zeroneg1)

We all have made a picture where we didn’t get the representation we wanted it was either too dark or too light or not quite there in terms of how we wanted the camera to capture the scene or how it imparts an emotional element to the image.  Then we realize how professionals do it ‘so easily’ when thinking about well exposed and composed images. Well, a Pro would have developed an innate sense of tonal placement and tonal awareness that has been developed through experience as well as ‘seeing’ and not just looking and solving things on the fly.

Okay let us talk about tonal placement and what does that term really mean?
Let’s look at a series of images from a recent workshop:

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A question that came in regarding material covered in the book on flash photography techniques ..

Sven Pohle asked:

I am reading through your book (second time already) and have a question about metering plus adding the flash. I do meter for a white tone in my image and add +1.7 or 2 (I’m on Nikon) to my exposure. Now without flash my image is exposed correctly. But if I add the flash then the white starts to blow out as it does add flash light to it. So this is there i am confused. Would you rather go and meter for the background to get that right and then just add the flash to bring the subject up ?

I’d like to answer this here, since I am sure this is a widespread question or point of confusion …

First, to anyone who is confused by the question – part of the metering techniques explained in the book, revolves around using your camera’s built-in meter.  We use it to calculate ambient exposure by metering off the brightest relevant tone of your subject if they are wearing white.  And in order to do so, we have to adjust our metering so that it places white correctly on the histogram. In other words, we have to correct for our camera’s tendency to expose for everything as a medium toned grey, by pushing up our exposure by around +1.7 stops.

Back to the question about adding flash to available light ..

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