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Metering for indoor ambient+flash

xenonxenon Member
edited June 2013 in flash & lighting
I've seen many indoor shots by NvN where he keeps the ambient lighting (incandescent, candles etc. and of course window lighting) and adds just enough flash to balance the darkest areas without making it look like flash. Beautiful!
But where should I meter the ambient light from and in which mode?

Naturally light from say a table-lamp varies enormously from its immediate surroundings and elsewhere in the room. I've tried spot metering along with both off-camera and on-camera (reflected by the ceiling/walls) Speedlite in manual and TTL modes but it still seems a little random what my result will become.


  • ZenonZenon Member
    Most pros set the camera on manual. Select the highest ISO you are comfortable with. I just use evaluative and try to keep the light meter at not less than two stops underexposed. That of course changes as I change aperture for the DOF I want. Then the flash comes in and I just expose for the subject.
  • xenonxenon Member
    Yes, camera M mode is a must in many situations. I used to use Av almost exclusively, but I've grown to like M so now it's mostly manual for me.

    So you meter (evaluative) for the whole scene (with the camera's light meter?), then adjust the exposure -2 stops below and add flash?
    That's pretty cool, and something I like if I want the subject to "glow" and "stand out" (looks great outdoors with a sunset or the sky), but for indoor shots like I described above I just want the whole scene to look natural, the way you'd see it with your eyes.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    Well I try not to go under -2 which is just a rule of thumb. Then the ambient gets a little on the dark side and the subjects start to look nuked but that is for event indoor event photography. There are no rules for creativity as long as the flash looks natural. As you can see the control you have between ambient and subject (link below). I work on ambient first, then add flash. Of course depending on the environment the flash may effect some of the surrounding ambient. I use AV a lot but indoor flash M. Outdoor too when I'm in the mood. If you shoot dark indoor venues be careful with AV. If your ISO so too low the camera will protect the aperture you selected and adjust the shutter speed to maintain it. I've seen people get into trouble because they could not figure out why the shutter would not go higher than 1/15, etc. AV is OK as long as you are prepared.

  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
  • xenonxenon Member
    edited June 2013
    Yes, both very good and informative articles as always. I understand the principle of mixing ambient with flash but actually I think my problem has more to do with big differences in the light and dark parts of my scene.

    The ambient part of the shot either has the lamps overexposed or the rest of the scene is severely underexposed.
    So in those kinds of situations should I just spot-meter the brightest parts (i.e. a table lamp in the room), then fill-in with the flash, spot-meter for what I can consider somewhere in between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene and use fill-in flash for the rest or is there a better way?
  • ZenonZenon Member
    That is a tough one because you really can't have both. Either the lamps are overexposed or the rest of the scene is under. When I look at a lot of reception shots the ones that look best are the ones where the ambient in general is well exposed, despite the lamps. Looks like the scene has more energy and the subject looks less nuked.

    Here comes the power of PP. The digital world and Adobe products have really taken us a step further than the old film days. Film was much more forgiving. How about a balance between the lamps and background? The highlight and shadow recovery tools on LR and ACR are outstanding. Did wonders for me when I did some real estate gigs one summer. Needed to rely on OCF a lot less. I would focus more on the background exposure because of noise and less on the lamps and then just use highlight recovery.

    My B&W mentor was Ansel Adams. I read all his books, purchased built a 4 by 5 field camera kit by Bender and and dabbled in the Zone System. Ansel must have been the most meticulous photographer on the planet. He spent a great deal of time keeping records of exposures and negative development for film types and the paper he was going to print on. This was to produce the perfect negative that had the perfect balance between highlights and shadows while maintaining detail in said areas. Despite all that I think he spent more time in the dark room, dodging and burning the prints than he did in the field. We have been PP long before the digital age to get the results we need or want.
  • xenonxenon Member
    In a recent wedding (see another posting of mine) I had the opportunity to try these suggestions out when shooting a candle-lit/some ambient window-lit table with food. I did several test shots without flash, raising the ISO until I got a nice exposure for the candles and nearby areas, then turned on the flash but set it around -1EV to -2EV, bounced off the nearby white wall (the roof was darkly painted). Looked great! Very natural looking as opposed to "a flash has been used here" type of shot.

    The key I found out, is to NOT light the whole scene with the flash but use it just to (slightly) fill in the parts which the candles are unable to light up themselves.
    I had the camera set to manual mode, the flash mounted in the camera hotshoe (but titled towards the wall for bouncing) in TTL mode. With a wide open aperture (f/2-8 or 4 as I recall it) I still had to raise the ISO in order to let in enough ambient (candle) light. A full-frame sensor would probably give me some improvement here over my crop-sensored 50D, but still not too bad as I didn't go above 400 or something like that.
    If I recall correctly I used spot or center-weighted metering, aiming at the brightest parts of the candles, but I still had to take several test shots and readjust. I assume this all comes with lots of practice.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    You got it. That is the key. Camera for ambient, flash for subjects. If you have a nice balance your subjects do not look nuked by the flash or like they are in a cave because the background is dark.
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