flash photography technique

flash photography tutorial: 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 one of my books 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.)

Why do we even want to add flash to our subject? 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?

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bounce flash photography

An photo of a jazz trumpet player during a session in a club, lit by on-camera bounce flash. Since it’s a perfect example of how I use on-camera bounce flash so that it looks nothing like on-camera flash, I’d like to use it to illustrate this summary of on-camera bounce flash technique:

The light in this image is nearly all from my flash. The red hue in the background, and spilling onto part of the trumpet and his skin, is from the strong red lights in the night-club. To eliminate this, I under-exposed the ambient light, by choosing my camera settings accordingly.  (See the comparison photo below.)

By under-exposing the ambient light, the flash becomes the main source of light … and this allowed me to control the quality of light.

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using the guide number of your flash to determine flash exposure

GN  =  distance  *  f-stop

Your flash’s Guide Number (GN) is determined at 100 ISO, when it gives correct exposure at a certain distance, multiplied by the f-stop

The idea that we can figure out the manual flash exposure by the combination of distance and aperture (for a given ISO setting), was covered in these recent topics:

– getting the most power out of your flash / speedlite / speedlight
– practical tutorial: controls for manual flash exposure

In these articles, we relied on the display on the back of the speedlight to show us the distance we need to hold the flash from our subject. A flashmeter / lightmeter would’ve given us a similar answer. (There might be a discrepancy, since the manufacturers tend to be a little bit optimistic about what the flashgun is capable of.)

Now, the question is, what do we do if our speedlights don’t show the distance / aperture relationship on its display, or if we don’t have a lightmeter on hand?

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off camera flash for portraits of the bridal couple

My friend, Josh Lynn, just posted this spectacular wedding photograph.  It does look like he used flash there, so I thought this would make a another good example to see if we can ‘reverse engineer’ a photograph in terms of his settings and setup.

I first had a guess at how he set this up; and then had a look at the EXIF data, and this revealed the true story.  See if you can decipher this image yourself, without scrolling down at first …

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using neutral density (ND) filters with flash to control depth of field

Working in bright light, the limitation of having a maximum flash sync speed forces a small aperture on us.  That small aperture means more depth of field than we might like.

There are two ways to force a high shutter speed / wide aperture combination:
– go to high speed sync (HSS) mode.
– use a neutral density (ND) filter.

Using HSS dramatically cuts down our power of our flash, so if we’re working in very bright light, we might be past the edge of what our flash is capable of. Then we need to bring it back to maximum flash sync speed, but force the wider aperture with a neutral density filter instead.

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first curtain vs rear (2nd) curtain flash sync

A topic that has been briefly discussed on the Tangents blog before, is that of first curtain flash sync vs second curtain flash sync.  First curtain sync is also often called front curtain sync; and rear curtain sync is often called second curtain sync. (This is also covered in my book on flash photography).

Since it is an important topic in flash photography, let’s look at what this entails and the difference between the two ways we can sync our flash .. and why would the one way would be preferable over the other.

To help us with the explanation, we have a great subject who was quite willing to pose for some comparative photographs.

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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 …

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tutorial: balancing flash with available light / ambient exposure

Many of the questions I get on the Tangents blog relate to balancing flash with available light, and I want to pull it all together into a single article.

The questions often revolve around metering for the ambient light, and how to balance flash with the ambient light. Tied in with this, is how to make the decision about which camera settings are the best. It’s a juggling act, balancing all the factors quickly enough … and still being able to deliver solid photos.

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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wedding photography: flash and low ambient light – adapting during the shoot

I’m often asked what I would do when I encounter a situation where you need to use flash, but there is no easy way to bounce flash.  My flippant answer is … you’re screwed!

Well, not really. My advice is that you have to improvise and in some way of finesse your use of light.  In tough situations, you still want to try and shy away from using direct on-camera flash whenever possible.  Direct on-camera flash as the main source of light is rarely aesthetically the best choice.

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combining flash and ambient light

Going by the emails that I receive, one of the areas that many photographers struggle with is that of combining ambient exposure and flash exposure.  This question  is also expressed in other ways.  It can be a frustrated, “where do we even start?”  I also often see it expressed as an involved step-by-step deconstruction of technique, making the entire process more complex than it is.

In reply to that, and many other emails I’ve received in the past few months, I’d like to offer an analysis of a few images from a recent shoot.

One of my favorite clients has the most adorable baby boy that she wanted some portraits of.  I had to shoot fast, since his attention span was .. oh, zero.   He’s still a baby!  I also wanted to be able to cover myself in getting some available-light only portraits, and some with bounce flash.  I didn’t want the flash to be overwhelmingly bright.  And in bouncing the flash, there was also less chance of disturbing the baby.   So I had to mix it up in order to get some variety, and be sure of images that worked.

The image at the top was shot with the Nikon D3 and the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S
Lighting here was a combination of available light and bounce flash.  And as usual, I used the black foamie thing to flag the flash so NO light from the flashgun fell directly on the child.

camera settings:  1/100 @ f4.5 @ 640 ISO, using TTL flash
The FEC was not recorded, but would’ve been around 0EV because my flash isn’t merely fill-flash here, but fairly dominant.

Now where the settings look like they might be informative, I also often feel that these numerical values are a diversion.  Too many photographers will get hooked on the choice of f4.5 over another aperture.  Whey 1/100th of a second?  Why 640 ISO?

The truth is that this could’ve been a different combination of settings.  What is important here, is the quality of light.  It is our major concern here, and should interest us more than f4.5 at this moment.

The light on the baby’s face is directional.  There is more light coming from camera left .. and from this you should be able to deduce that I did indeed bounce my flash to my left.  Using that piece of black foam to flag my flash, I was able to get directional light like that.

The light is soft. Since I bounced my flash into the room, and it bounced off the walls, and furniture, I will have soft light.

So those two aspects of the light from my flash is easily understood – soft directional light.

Now let’s look at how I chose to balance my flash with the available light …

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