flash photography tips

various scenarios: balancing flash with ambient light

Adding flash to ambient light – its’s a topic that can appear to be confusing. With advic that ranges from under-exposing the ambient light by a stop or two … or dialing FEC down for fill-flash, or advice that you should be metering for the background … it all appears confusing and contradictory.

What we do, and the thought-process we step through, depends on the (lighting) situation we find ourselves in. There isn’t one blanket do-all method. No single piece of instruction that will fit every occasion.

So let’s try to work through various general scenarios, to see how we’d approach each one:

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video clip: Direction & Quality of Light – your key to better portrait photography

The video clip of the presentation I did at B&H to promote my book – Direction of Light – has by now been viewed more than 137,000 times since it was posted in January 2013 !!

But as the saying inevitably goes, the book is always better than the movie. So in case you haven’t seen the video clip yet, it is a good introduction to the book, while also taking a few detours along the way. If you liked the video clip, the book contains even more, and for less than $20, you can own and hold and touch and smell the book. All yours!

You can order it from Amazon via this link,
or even directly order an autographed copy from me via the same link.

And for those of you who have already bought the book, a big thank you! The support is always appreciated. And if I could ask a small favor – a nice review on Amazon always helps.

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flash photography: using a grid with a speedlight

During this photo session with Austin, I wanted to get a spot-light effect on, similar to that of a video light. Now, I have played around with various speedlight grids before, but never liked the result. Speedlite grids generally they concentrate the light to the extent that the direct light from a speedlight, becomes too concentrated and hard. For dramatic light, I really like the look of a video light, with that dramatic quality to the light, and with more defined shadows. I do want that fall-off in the light as the light spreads away from the subject.

As part of my Spinlight 360, I had two grids – white grid and a black grid. Since I didn’t have a video light with me during this session, I tried the white grid on the spur of the moment, to see if the white part of the grid would sufficiently scatter the light to “defocus” the light beam from the speedlight, while the grid itself contained the light.

And here’s the result. I really like it – a look similar to that of video light, but with more power … and with the PocketWizard TT5 on my camera, I could control the output! For this photograph, I also gelled the flash with 1/2 CTS gel to have the flash’s color balance closer to that of the ambient light.

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What if you need more light from your bounce flash?

Because I so often use on-camera bounce flash, one of the questions I’m regularly asked is, what if there is nothing to bounce your flash off? There is also the variant – what if there isn’t enough light from the bounced flash?

In both cases, the answer is the same – you improvise!
Not only that, but you need to be prepared to improvise.

The photograph above is from a recent Bat Mitzvah, showing the big group shot of the kids. If you’ve photographed Bar / Bat Mitzvahs before, you know this is coming up, and you have to be prepared for it.

You’re prepared for it by:
– having a ladder handy to stand on
– a wide enough lens and enough space to move back into
– enough light!

You can not just be passive and go … oh, oops! You need to be prepared and have done some homework before any event you photograph. (It seems such an obvious thing to even need stating like that!)

This particular venue has a really awkwardly shaped ceiling, and it has a bronze color in places. So it makes bounce flash photography a bit of a challenge, but I was able to get pretty good results by pushing the ISO higher. Using a camera like the Nikon D4 is an obvious boost here!

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controlling bright sunlight with direct off-camera flash – (model: Molly K)

Working with Molly K as our model during an individual flash photography workshop in New York, we put in action the thought-process when using flash in very bright light. There’s a specific algorithm that gets us to optimal settings.

But, as usual, there’s more to a final image than just the numerical settings on the camera …

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bounce flash photography

An image from the archives – 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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direct off-camera flash photography – fill-light

I really like using a medium-sized softbox when photographing portraits. A softbox allows me to get soft, directional light pretty much anywhere. The most recent example I showed here, was Lucia and Alvin’s wedding in Central Park, New York. I do make it easier for myself  when using off-camera flash for photo sessions on location – I pick my battles. I don’t try to make everything work. With a photo session where I can control the light and background and setting for my subjects, I can make it easier for myself by not choosing tough lighting scenarios.

With Amy and Clark’s photo session, I brought along my usual set of gear … but left the Lastolite softbox behind. I brought the Lastolite bracket along, and the radio transmitters.  Everything but the actual diffusion box to fit over the speedlight. With that, I had to slightly change how I usually work to still get great results that look like my usual style.

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wedding photography: using high ISO and flash to retain ambience at the reception

Chatting with other photographers at the recent WPS convention in Chapel Hill, NC, I was again struck by how there are so many different ways of approaching lighting. In this case, lighting at the wedding reception. The one photographer I was chatting to, set up multiple speedlights around the reception room, and then controls which are fired, from his on-camera Master speedlight.  Very impressive.

In recent years, the wedding reception venues where I’ve shot on the East Coast of the USA, have moved away from being the dark-hole large rooms, by adding up-lighting, and making the places generally more vibrant and colorful. Coupled with the astonishing high-ISO capability of the last two generations of cameras, I really haven’t felt the need to set up additional lighting to lift the general light levels, like I would have in the past, as described in this article:
wedding photography: TTL flash with off-camera manual flash
A wedding from earlier this year, at the same venue … where I was able to effectively light the entire place with just an on-camera speed light.
bounce flash photography & the inverse square law

By using a higher ISO, and carefully bouncing my flash, I could get away with a much simpler set-up of a single on-camera speedlight.

Here’s an example of a recent wedding, where the reception was in a glass-house style conservatory. By shooting against the DJ’s lights, I was able to NOT have a dark background, but something colorful instead.

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lighting in photography – how complicated does it have to be?

During a lunch-time conversation, a friend told me that she felt intimidated by the on-location flash photography by other photographers. The way to use multiple-flash setups seemed impenetrable to grasp. How would one go about and where do  you even start. This made me wonder – just how complicated should photography lighting be? I don’t think it has to be complicated. It just has to be enough.

With on-location photography, my starting point is usually where I consider if I can improve the existing light with flash (or video light). What do I need to add to make it just a little bit better? And does it need something more to make it even better? The final image needs to look good. This is an iterative thought process, rather than a compelling desire that I have to use every flash that I own.

This straight-forward portrait of Anelisa,was taken during an individual workshop in New York. It might be a good example where off-camera flash was used for the tiniest bit of sweetening of the light. A bit of rim-lighting to separate her from the black doorway.

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off-camera flash in low light – choosing your shutter speed

In the article on maximum flash sync speed, a question came up whether this is where we’d be at even in low light.

The answer is, that we’d most likely be at a shutter speed where the ambient light shows up. To remain at max flash sync speed in low light, isn’t the immediate best choice, for the background would usually go too dark. And we would like context. Our photographs usually look best with our subject in surroundings we can recognize, or complements our subject in some way.

Regarding our choice of max flash sync speed, this is the best go-to camera setting when you use flash in bright ambient light. High-speed flash sync kills too much of our flash output, to be our first choice, unless we are specifically chasing the higher shutter speeds or wider apertures. If you use a softbox or umbrella (or some light modifier) with high-speed flash, then you stand the risk of the flash simply not being able to pump out enough light to match the bright light. For this, generally our sweet spot is maximum flash sync speed.

Shutter speed choice when using flash, will vary depending on what we’re photographing, or trying to achieve. In low light, we’re most often dragging the shutter. But we have to be able to adapt what we do, against what we’re trying to achieve with our photos.

As recap example of using flash in low light, let’s have a closer look at the top image:

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