photographic lighting

lighting for on-location photo sessions – pick your battles

When doing a photo session with a couple on location, I mix up the lighting often. With some photo sessions I may:
- shoot available light only;
- or I may decide with a photo session to use direct on-camera flash,
with some sequences available light only; or
- with some photo sessions I use off-camera flash with a softbox,
with some sequences just the available light.

Even in varying the way I may use the available light and flash, I still aim to have a consistent look to it all. My specific style has to be apparent. Or perhaps, in the way that I work, my style becomes apparent. The one way that I help make things easier for myself, and remain consistent, is that in working with the available light; or working with the available light and flash (both on-camera and off-camera) … I pick my battles. I don’t try and make *everything* work. Rather, I specifically choose where I pose a couple, or what I have as the background.  All of this in relation to the existing light and my flash.

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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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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 …

Learn more inside…

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My daughter, Janine.  She turned 16 in September, and I have so very few recent images of her.  None of which are of professional quality.  So I cajoled her into this, since we’re snowed in this afternoon ..  and she loved the results. “Facebook profile photo FTW!”

portrait session, using a beauty dish

The image is straight out of camera, aside from healing brush on a few skin blemishes.  This is how I had set up my B&W images to look in my Nikon D3 bodies.  I still shoot RAW though, so could always go back to the color image.  But I like these rich-toned B&W images.

A little more about the lighting:
The main light was  with the Profoto beauty dish (B&H), using the Profoto AcuteB 600R power pack (B&H). I used a diffuser sock (B&H) over the beauty dish.  The light on the grey backdrop is a Quantum flash, with the usual Q-flash diffuser disc over it .. pointed directly at the backdrop.

The sock over the beauty dish really helps me. It brings in more light into the shadow areas in how it disperses the light differently from the open beauty dish.  I’ve read elsewhere that with a sock over the beauty dish you’re essentially no better off than using a softbox of the same size … but I still prefer the look of the ‘socked’ beauty dish over the ‘unsocked’ beauty dish.

1/200 @ f10 @ 200 ISO
Nikon D3;
Nikon 105mm f2.8 AF-S VR (B&H)

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