In this final article in my series on using your flash, you will learn how to balance flash with ambient or natural light for better results in your photos. Getting just the right amount of light from both sources is critical for making the photo look balanced and more natural.
Too much flash and it will look obvious and over-flashed. Not enough flash may result in a dark subject or dark eyes. So let’s dig in and talk about how to find just the right balance in any shooting situation.
Read these flash articles first
If you are brand new to using your flash, I highly recommend you start at the beginning and learn the basics first before you attempt this more intermediate concept.
Read the following articles, and practice with your flash. Then come back here when you feel more confident and are ready to take the next step.
- How to Use Your Flash – Tips for Total Beginners
- How to Use Your Flash – What all the Buttons and Settings Mean
- How to Use Bounce Flash for Better Photos
- 8 Common Flash Photography Mistakes You Need to Avoid
If you’re ready to give this a go, let’s dig in and get to it. Following are several examples of different shooting locations and scenarios and how flash was used in each case to enhance the photo and brighten up the subjects or models.
Scenario #1 – Flash plus daylight outdoors
In this first example, the models are posed under a bridge in the shade. But the sky and background behind them are fairly bright. So flash was needed to even the lighting out.
The image above shows the lighting as it was naturally occurring in the scene. Notice how dark the subjects are and how they are almost lost.
So I go out my flash (aka speedlight) and added that into the mix. But in these first shots with flash added, it was placed near the camera and aimed directly at the models with NO modifications added (no softbox or umbrella).
You can see in the image above that the models have been brightened up a little bit, but not enough to balance with all the ambient (available) light in the scene. So I turned up the flash power and took another shot, which is shown below.
Now the lighting is actually fairly balanced. There are approximately equal amounts of light on the subjects and the background. But this is just a better version, it is not the BEST option!
To adjust the flash power you can use either TTL or Manual flash mode.
Read more about that here: How to Use Your Flash – Tips for Total Beginners. In TTL mode use the FEC or Flash Exposure Compensation to increase or decrease the amount of flash. In Manual Flash Mode adjust the power of the flash up or down (if it’s at 1/8th power and there’s too much light from the flash adjust it to 1/16th power, or 1/4 power if you need more light, etc.).
There are two problems with the flash images above that make it less than optimal lighting.
- The light direction (coming straight from the camera angle) makes them look flat and cut-out. The portrait lacks three-dimensionality.
- The quality of light is hard and not flattering for people photos. You want to use soft light for portraits. It shows less texture and flaws than hard light.
To solve those problems I moved the flash more to the side (about 30-45 degrees from the camera) and bounced the flash into a 32″ umbrella to soften the light.
Read more about Exposure Compensation
Can you see how much more depth the lighting has now on their faces? It makes them look more like they fit into the scene and aren’t just cardboard figures. That is what off-camera flash can do for you.
Read more on this advanced topic here:
- Off-Camera Flash Tips for Beginners
- How to Use Off-Camera Flash to Create a Dramatic Night Portrait
- How to Use Off-Camera Flash for Outdoor Portraits
The final adjustment I made was the posing which was pretty stiff. Here is the final portrait and the setup.
Take a good look at the final image above. If I didn’t tell you that flash was used here, could you tell? I hope not.
The goal is to create an image with well-lit subjects that match and fit seamlessly with the background and the rest of the scene.
Make sure the flash is also positioned so that the light is coming from the same direction as the natural light in the scene. See how the bridge is also brightest on the same side? So it fits together well. If the flash was coming from camera-right it would feel off.
Here are two more examples with the same models in the same location. In these images, I added flash so that I could darken the background.
I could have just increased my overall exposure to get the models to be properly exposed. But then the background would have been really overexposed and blown out. Notice in the second image above where I added flash, I actually used an even faster shutter speed to capture less ambient (natural) light.
Below you see the result of what happens when you set the exposure for the subjects. The light on them is pretty good but the background is still pretty bright.
Notice once again the faster shutter speed which controls the amount of ambient or available light captured. That has darkened the overall image exposure and the subjects have been lit correctly using the flash (off-camera bounced into an umbrella).
Below is another example of adding flash to light the subject and keeping the background darker.
Scenario #2 – Flash as a fill light indoors
The second scenario is about using flash indoors as a fill light. The idea here is that you use the flash not at the main light on the subject, but to just add a touch of light to fill in dark shadows.
Getting the right balance here is critical. Let’s look at some examples of what it looks like when the balance is correct, and when it’s wrong. There are two ways to adjust the ratio of flash to natural light.
1) Adjust the balance of light using Flash Exposure Compensation
The image above was taken using just the light that was naturally occurring in the room. There is a large window to his right (camera-left) providing light on him. There is also a light in the hallway behind him.
This is a perfectly acceptable portrait. But if the shadows are a bit dark for your tastes, you could use a reflector to add a bit of light to fix that, or you can add flash.
With the flash in TTL Mode (the camera and flash talk to one another to automatically set the flash power) and the FEC (flash compensation) set to zero the result is fairly natural-looking. You can see that the shadows have been lightened a bit but the image doesn’t look overly flashed.
Lowering the flash power (FEC) means that the camera is using more ambient light than flash to make the exposure. So the shadows are not lightened as much, but the flash blends more seamlessly with the natural light.
Compare the image above at -2 FEC to the one below at +1. What do you notice? In the image below, the flash has taken over and is overpowering the natural light. It doesn’t appear nearly as balanced or natural-looking.
NOTE: If you are using flash on-camera and you just want to use it as a slight fill-flash (to lighten dark eyes or dark shadow), set the flash to TTL and -1.33 FEC. That will give you a pretty good result in most situations.
2) Adjust the ratio of flash to natural light by changing the shutter speed
Look at the following series of images and the exposure settings for each. The ISO and aperture were the same for all four frames, only the shutter speed was altered.
Can you see how adjusting the shutter speed has affected the resulting images? The faster the shutter speed, the less ambient light was captured. As a consequence the more “flashed” the overall image looks as well.
Look particularly at the light in the hallway in the image directly above. The entire hall now looks dark and the light is quite dim. Also observe the harsh shadow under the subject’s chin from the on-camera, direct flash.
Compare that image to the ones above and look carefully at his face and the hallway and see if you can spot the differences.
Scenario #3 – Using flash for creative effects
The final scenario I want to cover is using flash for creative effects. In this case, you may want the flash to actually overpower the natural or ambient light to make a more dramatic image.
Let’s look at some examples.
Freezing motion in dim lighting
If you are attempting to photograph a moving subject in dim or low lighting conditions you may have trouble keeping the subject sharp. In the first image below, using only natural light worked just fine because she was standing still.
But when she jumped into the air, the same shutter speed of 1/60th was not sufficient to freeze her movement. I didn’t want to go even higher with the ISO because it was already at 6400 by then (getting darker by the minute as the sun set).
The solution to that problem was to use flash and a faster shutter speed which both froze her motion.
NOTE: In order to shoot at 1/1000th of a second you will need to use the high-speed sync setting on your flash.
Below is another example of using flash to freeze a moving subject. Even at 1/200th of a second, she is frozen in midair. That is because the flash is creating almost all of the light in the image and the flash duration is so fast it freezes her.
Using flash for more dramatic lighting
This final example is about taking it to the next level and using flash as the main light. You can overpower the natural light and really use flash to highlight the subject in a dramatic way.
To set the exposure for a shot like this, you need to first take a test image like the one above. My friend Daniel was doing his best ballerina imitation as a stand-in here – thanks, Dan! I wanted to make sure the background was dark and there was detail in the clouds and sky.
Then I added in the flash (which Daniel was holding out on the balcony to camera-left) and the model and took the following images.
See how much more dramatic these images are than they would be without the flash?
NOTE: When you’re using this technique just make sure the placement of the flash works to create nice lighting on the subject. Don’t be afraid to take test shots and adjust the flash position as needed, and try a few different angles.
Conclusion and action plan
The bottom line lesson I want you to take away here is to NOT be afraid of using flash. Yes, there are many cases where you can just use natural light and make great photos. But by avoiding flash altogether you’re limiting yourself and your photography.
So in order to reach your full potential, get out your flash (or buy an inexpensive one, you can get one for under $100 see link below), and just go use the darn thing! I dare you to go make fabulous images!
Need to buy a flash but don’t want to break the bank? CLICK HERE
Please share some of your flash photos in the comment area below. If they didn’t turn out as expected, I can help you troubleshoot the issue. If you love the result, I want to see it!
If you have any questions about the information in this article, put them in the comment area below as well and I’ll answer the best I can.
If you want to learn more about using both natural light and flash for people photography and portraits – then my online course PORTRAIT FUNDAMENTALS is what you need!
The course covers using both available light and flash with practical demonstrations including on-location photo shoots with live models. See me and my co-instructor Bruce in action as we teach you how you too can master lighting. You can do it, I believe in you!
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