lighting tutorial

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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wedding portraits with multiple light sources

edited on Dec 08, 2010 :
contest winner has been announced, with feedback from Josh about this photograph

When we’ve previously featured photographs that we tried to reverse engineer, there was a great response by readers of the Tangents blog. Similarly, many participated in the recent Photoshop contest. So I’ve decided that we should combine the two. Maybe even make it a regular event.

The contest then is to reverse engineer this photograph in terms of the lighting.
The winner gets a $50 B&H gift card!

Again, the photograph to be analyzed was shot by my friend Josh Lynn. It was taken during the romantic portrait session during a recent wedding.  The setup featured 5 light sources, and Josh was kind enough to give us a head-start with this diagram of how the lights were placed:

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The previous article on the topic showed a more static set-up in how I light the formal portraits of the bride and groom and families on their wedding day.  But I try and get as many on-location portraits of the bride beforehand to bring in some variety to the portraits.  It is also a very good idea to get as much done as early on as you can on the day .. just in case the time-line gets compressed and things don’t quite follow the original plan.  Then you’ll be much happier for having some solid portraits in your pocket.  So it definitely is a good idea to shoot some formal portraits when you can just after the bride has finished her preparation.

In this example, I had the bride in the hotel’s foyer, but I specifically had the bride stand in a place where the overhead tungsten spotlights didn’t fall directly on her, but there was obviously enough spill light to give a strong color cast.  So she was relatively in ‘shade’ compared to the brighter background.  This was done on purpose, so I could use flash to light her properly.  In this case, on-camera flash in TTL mode.  And to make sure I don’t get an ugly color cast in adding “blue” flash to the warmer tones of the tungsten+daylight mix .. I gelled my flash with 1/2 CTS gel and had my white balance set to 3700K.  More about that on this previous post on using flash in a tungsten environment.

I bounced my flash to camera left, and used the Black Foamie Thing to shield any direct flash that would’ve fallen on the bride.  I specifically want indirect flash.  The moment that your subject can see any part of your flash tube, there is direct flash … and that would spoil the effect that I am after here … soft indirect light that is still directional.

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lighting and photographing the wedding formals

With this, the first in a loose series on lighting and photographing the family formals at weddings, I would like to show that with a simple approach it is possible to get clean results that work every time.

In lighting the formals, I don’t try to get all Rembrandt, but prefer a fairly flat way of lighting everyone.  I keep the lighting static for all the images, whether I am photographing one person or twenty.  With time usually being a real constraint during the wedding day, there simply isn’t the opportunity to play around too much with the lighting .. and I find a simple predictable way of lighting works best.

Before we get to the actual gear I use, let’s start off with exposure metering for flash.

Because I work with off-camera lighting, and everyone is static in relation to the lights, it is much much simpler to work with manual flash.  With TTL flash there is the chance (or risk, if you will), of exposure varying from image to image.  This will slow your post-production workflow down as you now have to correct exposure for individual images.  In the end it is just simpler to work with manual flash in this instance.

You can work with a flash meter, however, I use the histogram with as much accuracy by metering for the brightest relevant tone – the white dress.  Since the lighting setup is straight-forward and the lighting pattern quite even, metering for the flash exposure is pretty simple as well.

The flash exposure is chosen for a specific aperture and ISO – we need enough depth-of-field, and f5.6 is good for a small group of people in line with each other.   For our ISO setting, we need as low as possible to get the best results – the best color reproduction and contrast, and as little amount of digital noise as we can tolerate .. and on modern D-SLRs an ISO of 400 gives very good results indeed, and can even be considered a low ISO setting.

But these settings also need to be chosen in relation to our available light .. and for the image above, here is the available light only shot:

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