Various scenarios: Balancing flash with ambient light
Adding flash to ambient light – its’s a topic that can appear to be confusing. With advice 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:
The general situations how we’d use flash with ambient
1.) You just need a touch of fill-flash to open up the shadows and reduce contrast. Then you’re adding flash at around 3 stops under, or 2 stops under, or 1 stop under. If you do this via manual flash, then you’ll have to meter for the flash. If you use TTL, then you dial your FEC down.
for example: on-camera TTL fill-flash
2.) Flash and ambient are about equal and you’re doing some excellent balancing there of light levels. This is where you can delicately balance flash with the ambient light, and make it nearly imperceptible.
for example: NYC portrait photo session – Tatiana, violinist
3.) The ambient light is too low. Then you add enough flash for the camera settings you need. i.e., enough depth-of-field; decent ISO; shutter speed where you don’t get subject movement or camera shake.
for example: photographing the wedding processional with extreme bounce flash
4.) You need to balance your subject who is in shade, against a brighter background. Then you meter for the background, and add the right amount of flash.
for example: overpowering the sun with off-camera flash
5.) The ambient light is uneven, or not flattering. Then the simplest approach is to under-expose by a stop or two. Then your flash is the main source of light. As long as your ambient light is under, you can adjust your settings as you please, and TTL flash will follow.
for example: wedding photography lighting – shooting in partial sunlight & shade
With scenario (5), you would generally meter that your SUBJECT is under-exposed to an extent. I use my camera’s built-in meter, but I do interpret it for the subject and scene’s tonality. (i.e., lots of dark areas, or lots of bright areas.)
This is a basic summary, and shows that you have to adapt your thought-process. Sometimes the flash is mere fill-flash, and other times it completely dominates.
Direction & Quality of Light
I wanted to distill the essence of what we, as photographers, work with – light! Before we can truly grasp on-camera flash and off-camera flash, and really, any kind of photography, we have to be aware of the direction and quality of light. We need to observe the light that we have, and then decide how best to use it, or enhance it.
With this book, I try my best to share those “aha!” moments with you, and I do believe this book can make a difference to your photography.
The book is available on Amazon USA and Amazon UK, or can be ordered through Barnes & Nobles and other bookstores. The book is also available on the Apple iBook Store, as well as Amazon Kindle.
About the image at the top
The portrait of Catherine, a model at one of the photography workshops, is a relatively simple one. I metered for the background – early evening Manhattan. Then at those settings, I added TTL bounce flash. Catherine would’ve been under-exposed at those settings.
Note the light pattern on her. It’s due to a combination of bouncing my flash into the direction I want the light to come from, and using the black foamie thing to flag my flash. This gives me controlled bounce flash and great results that are easily achieved. You can’t get this result with a plastic diffuser cup on your flash, regardless of who endorses it!
camera settings and equipment (or equivalents) used
- camera settings: 1/80 @ f2.8 @ 640 ISO; TTL flash
- Nikon D3
- Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II / Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
- Nikon SB-910 Speedlight / Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite
- Nikon SD-9 battery pack / Canon CP-E4 battery pack
- a BFT (black foamie thing)
On-camera flash modifier – the black foamie thing
The BFT is held in position by two hair bands (Amazon), and the BFT is usually placed on the under-side of the flash-head.
The linked articles will give clearer instruction, especially the video clip on using the black foamie thing.
- Flash photography tutorial – balancing flash and ambient
- Exposure metering and adding flash
- Flash photography tutorial: balancing flash and ambient exposure
- Bounce flash tutorial
11 Comments, Add Your Own
1Jon Palmer says
Let’s say I’ve metered for my subject and, as a random value, the exposure is 1/125s @ f/4 ISO100.
I then want to add some off-camera TTL fill flash, so I dial the FEC down accordingly. How much FEC I apply depends on how it looks on the LCD?
What happens if I add off-camera flash in manual mode instead of TTL, but meter the flash so it’s giving me f/4 @ ISO100? Is that still technically fill flash?
2William Ng says
Great summary. You made it look so easy but it is really difficult to pull if off !
I think that more important is does your image looks good on LCD and histogram (no blinks on shadows and highlights)
So Neil, all of this 5 points is a matter of balancing with two exposures, right ?
5Neil vN says
The title is “balancing flash with ambient light”.
6Jon Palmer says
Sorry, I’ve just re-read the post for the umpteenth time and the penny has dropped. If I want to add manual fill-flash I need to meter the flash a stop or two under. So in scenario #1 if I’m shooting at f/4 ISO100 the flash needs to be metered at f/2.8 ISO100. Or thereabouts. Would probably never do that, so much easier to use TTL and FEC, but wanted to understand the process from a manual point of view.
7Neil vN says
Jon … I’m glad you figured it out! Now you have it.
Is it safe to assume this technique only works in relatively wide open spaces? I find when I bounce flash around the house that I’m pretty much lighting up the entire room, making it appear impossible to “balance” since I’m overpowering the ambient to start with.
9Neil vN says
“this technique” being bounce flash: yes & no.
1.) yes, you’re going to need some distance to your background to balance ambient and flash … if your background is bright enough, and your subject dark.
2.) no, not necessarily, if your subject and background is equally dark and needs to be brighter for correct exposure at decent camera settings.
So it really depends on the context.
can You show some more examples on the differences between 1 and 2 ?
11Neil vN says
You will have to follow the numerous links deeper into the website, and then do some homework yourself by testing and trying it out.