October 1, 2009

One of the final workshops for 2009, was the one held in Philadelphia in the prestigious Ritz hotel!   Working inside the  hotel and the surrounding areas, provided us with some stunning backdrops while photographing our models.

Still staying with the updated format with the flash photograph workshop, if I am guided by the response by those who attended .. then the workshop once again appears to have been a hit.  I had a great time as well, and I am sure there will be a few interesting photographs surfacing again.  Thank you again to everyone who attended, as well as our two models.

And as always with a report-back on a workshop, I like to add a little bit of useful info for everyone else.  So, about the image above ..

With an idea in mind of how I wanted to position the model in front of Philadelphia City Hall as a stark urban setting, I now had to decide on the exposure and lighting. The available light at that point was actually really good – the sun was covered by a layer of clouds, but enough of the sun was coming through to give some directional light.  However, we wanted to play with some off-camera lighting .. and I wanted to use flash to add a touch more drama.

Here is the starting point .. a grab-shot to check that the exposure settings for the existing light, as metered with our cameras, are correct.

[ 1/250th @ f5.0 @ 400 ISO ]

As always, there is a specific reason for starting with maximum sync speed.

The next step is to purposely under-expose the subject by 2/3rd stop or 1 stop so that we can add flash to the final set-up.  Here is the under-exposed test-shot ..

[ 1/250th @ f6.3 @ 400 ISO ]

Then it becomes a simple matter of metering for the manual flash until we get f6.3
and add the flash via a speedlight in a softbox.  And there we have it.
The lighting helps pop our dramatic looking model in this stark setting.


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{ 26 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Fred Silver October 1, 2009 at 10:24 am

Thanks , again for an ‘enlightening’ tutorial and attached Tangents.
What is your opinion on using an external flash/light meter; outdoors or indoors with multiple flashes?


2 Neil October 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Fred, a flashmeter is perhaps not as essential as it was in film days, since the digital camera’s preview will give you a fairly good idea of what you’re getting. However, the use of a flashmeter makes lighting, and the setting up of lighting a less mysterious task .. especially when using multiple lights.

Neil vN


3 Elizabeth Richardson October 1, 2009 at 5:33 pm

These really simple and visual explanations are perfect for me – thanks so much.


4 arnold October 1, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Any reason you closed down on the fstop instead of reducing the ISO to get the under exposure, to make the flash work at less power?


5 Neil October 1, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Arnold .. no particular reason. Since these were shot with the Nikon D3, an ISO of 400 is clean, and just one stop over the base ISO. So it isn’t as if I were pushing the limits of this camera.

Since choice of ISO affects both the ambient light and the flash’s exposure (when shooting with manual flash), changing the ISO does nothing to change the balance between (manual) flash and ambient light. The same goes for my choice of aperture. So with that, I won’t “gain” anything in terms of my ambient / flash balance by changing the aperture rather then the ISO. (or the other way around as well.)

Neil vN


6 Gregory October 2, 2009 at 9:34 pm

hi Neil,

The metering you took for the ambient light, is that the light on your subject for example with spot or matrix including the background?

Thx in advance.


7 Neil October 2, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Gregory .. in this case it was just matrix / evaluative metering for the subject and scene. Normally you’d meter with greater care if you were using only the available light. But in this scenario, we just needed a base exposure to which we’d add flash. So metering off the subject+scene like that worked well. No finessing needed this time.

Neil vN


8 Anthony R. Romano October 3, 2009 at 11:29 am

Hi Neil….I love the idea of you showing the equipment used on the shot in addition to you showing the photo underexposed as you explain…The third part which makes your new book “a must have” is that you show a picture of the setting with “you” the photographer and the models so we the reader can visualize everything….in addition to your explanation…thanks again…



9 Chris Ramsey October 3, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Neil, once again thank you for such a great post. That is an absolutely spectacular portrait shot.



10 joy Oxenrider October 5, 2009 at 1:05 am

Hi Neil!

I know that the softbox is on camera right, but is it at the level of the model or higher or high pointing down? I am starting some off camera, and was wondering for reference.



11 Neil October 5, 2009 at 8:51 am

Joy .. if you look at the direction of light, you’ll see that the softbox was held higher than the model, but pointing down at her. There is a kind of ‘sweet spot’ with the center of light coming from the softbox, and this is usually pointed at the meain feature of your subject. In this case, the model’s face.

Neil vN


12 Ernst October 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Hello Neil,

I hope this finds you well.

I have 2nd shoot a few weddings and noticed each main photographer has used different lighting for the group formals in the church; from on-camera flash bracket with 1-2 flash heads, a single umbrella to multiple off-camera flashes and umbrellas.

With your group formals, can you share with us what lighting you typically use? I’m thinking of buying a Q39 Softbox (medium size) for the softer diffused light, or perhaps a 60-inch umbrella as these appear easier to transport/setup. Your input would help me decide which route to take.

Thanks so much!



13 Neil October 5, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Ernst … co-incidentally enough, as your comment rolled in, I was busy prepping images for the first in a series on photographing the family formals.

Neil vN


14 Ernst October 5, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Ooh, I can’t wait to see the family formal series! I’m chugging along nicely photographing the candids as a 2nd photographer but I find lighting (and posing) the family formals rather intimidating. Can’t wait…


15 Neil October 6, 2009 at 11:43 pm

I just had to add this image taken by Sherry McCracken during the workshop!


16 Linda Kamholz October 9, 2009 at 10:48 am

Hey Neil,

I’m finally back in town after taking your workshop in Philly. Just wanted to say thanks for a great day. From the sumptuous surroundings of the Ritz, to the wealth of information and attention to detail that you provided, it was truly a memorable class.

Your efforts on our behalf are much appreciated!
Linda Kamholz


17 Sherry McCracken October 9, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I love this photo! Not because it’s my shot, but because it really captures the mood of your workshops. Such a fun learning environment! It’s a treat to spend time learning from someone who obviously loves what they do, is so talented and knowledgeable, and is willing to share all that they know! Thanks again for the fabulous workshop!



18 Neil November 6, 2009 at 12:16 am
19 mark crosby November 16, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Neil, I’ve been noodling around with OCF for a while now but there’s one thing that for some reason doesn’t sink into my brain and I’m finding tough to understand, I hear it often but can’t grasp the meaning.
In your description you say… “Then it becomes a simple matter of….. metering for the manual flash until we get f6.3″ … You’re adjusting the power of your flash manually until the subject is lit to your desire, but where does the f/6.3 come in? like I say, this never seems to sink in with me!
many thanks, mark.


20 Leo Dj November 21, 2009 at 1:15 am

Hi Mark,
If I can answer your question, based on my understanding and my experience. We setup the speed to 1/200 just enough to darken the background/ambient, but also because it is the max sync speed. Once you decided which ISO you want to use, then you decide what shutter speed to control the ambient light (how dark or light you want it to be). The flash is using manual setting (not TTL). So either you manually set the flash power (full, 1/2, 1/4, etc) or use your aperture to control the amount of flash exposure you want to have. We did use a light meter to get the aperture setting, though. But you still can do a series of shot to decide which aperture is best for you, given the same power flash setting.

I find that if the ambient light is not dark enough for our taste, since we can’t go past the max sync speed (1/200 or 1/250 depending on your camera), I would have to make the aperture smaller, like f/11 or even f/16. Then your only option is to set the power on the flash manually to have the subject exposed as desired. Of course the distance of the flash to the subject will also have an influence on the exposure level. In other words, you don’t have room to play around with the aperture to control the amount of flash.

I hope this helps.

Leo Dj


21 Neil November 26, 2009 at 5:42 am

Mark .. Leo has it there in his description.

As for specifically behing f6.3 .. if you go back in the description at the top, I metered for the general scene using my camera’s built-in meter, and got to an exposure of 1/250th @ f5.0 @ 400 ISO .. and this also looked good on my camera’s LCD.

Then, as I mention there: “The next step is to purposely under-expose the subject by 2/3rd stop or 1 stop so that we can add flash to the final set-up.”

So I decided to go 2/3rd stop under on the ambient exposure (f5.0), and this is f6.3 .. and that is how we decided on f6.3 and metered for f6.3

We may just as well have decided on f7.1 or f8 … anything that we will then meter for with manual flash to give us correct exposure.

I hope this makes sense now.

Neil vN


22 mark crosby November 27, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Neil, Leo, thank you. I understand OCF and the way you went about getting the shot, I think for me it is more the terminology that confuses me…I think I’ve got it now.
thanks again,


23 Charles Henry February 4, 2010 at 8:46 pm

I know this thread is a few months old, but I’m going to make a reach here. Is this the Mark Crosby from 49th and Walnut Street in West Philly? If so, this is a very old friend who would love to hear from you.



24 sam March 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm

hi neil, love your blog. i’ve learned so much thank you. my question is, after metering at 5 at max sync speed, than underexposing to 6.3, how do you determine the flash output on your speedlite? I’ve been shooting with ttl mostly and it’s still tough for me to determine where to put the flash power. I shoot with a 7d w/ 580ex ii w/ mostly the 70-200 f2.8 using pw to trigger. Is there a “rule of thumb” of to where to start? I’m sure you have a tangent blog about it somewhere, but I probably can’t find it. Thanks again. Hope you can help.


25 Neil vN March 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Sam .. the article on Flash Photography tutorial covers the through process behind this. See if it makes more sense then.

Neil vN


26 Stephen Cox November 4, 2011 at 1:10 am

Thank you for publishing a clear, concise and practical guide to photography. I have sincerely learned more about taking pictures in the 30 mins I spent reading some of your material than in all the classes and experience I have had prior. It is one thing to be able to take a good picture, it is another ball of wax to relate how you took the picture, what your thoughts were, and why you made those decisions. Thanks again.


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