Equipment Lighting & Composition Outdoor

Using flash—Addressing Problems and Basic Workflow

Even though your flash is technically smarter than you, it has no idea how you want to light the scene. You need to give it some direction. Before blasting away, you need to ask yourself a few basic questions about how you want your photo to look.

Here are the five main concerns that you need to address when going into any scene where you intend to use flash. I’ve included some image examples to see how you can address specific problems and turn them into solutions that give you a final, workable image.

1. Background: How bright or dim do you want your overall scene to be? Do you want your subject to be lit up against a dark background or against a field of white? You control the background by raising or lowering the overall brightness of the ambient light with your camera exposure, using ISO and shutter speed.

I want a slightly darker, more saturated look than what I have on the left, so I’ll slightly underexpose the background.

2. Amount of light: How much light do you want from the flash? Are you going for gentle fill, or do you hope to rescue your subject from the shadows? You control this through your flash exposure and with the aperture value on your camera.

Although my background looks good, I’ve got too much light, so I’ll need to dial the flash exposure down.

3. Direction: Where do you want the light to come from? Are you trying to complement the natural ambient light, or do you want it to shine in from the other side for enhanced effect? Placement is key to great lighting.

In the above shot, the straight-on light is too obtrusive. I’ll move the flash so that it gives me more subtle sidelight.

4. Quality: Hard or soft light? Close or distant? Small light or big light? You control the quality of your flash with the use of specific light-shaping tools that we discussed in the previous section, as well as with careful placement of the light.

In order to make the flash more invisible, I’ll add a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) warming gel to match the evening sunset light.

5. Coverage: Will you have enough coverage with one flash? Is it zoomed wide enough to throw even light on your subject? Unlike the sun, light from the flash falls off drastically with increased distance, which makes for that “obvious flash look.” To prevent this, you may need a wider zoom setting on your flash, a second light, or a larger diffuser or soft box.

To avoid the obvious light falloff effect when shooting too wide, I’ll move in close and eliminate the ground from my shot.

Once you’ve established these simple parameters, you need to set proper exposure. Although TTL usually does a pretty good job of balancing flash with the ambient light, it’s not a failproof system. Remember, it’s based on the values of reflected light, not on your creative desires. More often than not, you’ll need to make adjustments to the flash and/or the background exposure in order to achieve a look that matches your own personal vision.

Basic flash workflow

So, once you’ve completed your checklist, follow this basic flash workflow. As you become more experienced, you’ll develop your own workflow and learn when to deviate as needed.

1. Set your camera exposure: Meter on the background and set your camera exposure as desired. You can use an auto exposure mode, but the advantage of using Manual is that you can dial in your exposure for the background and keep it locked in. As long as your ambient light doesn’t change, your exposure will stay the same regardless of how you light your subject.

2. Place the flash: Position the flash where you want it to go and modify it as needed, based on the direction, coverage, and quality of light that you’re going for.

3. Choose your desired flash mode: Either choose TTL or Manual. Remember, with TTL the camera is controlling the amount of light that’s being emitted by the flash, based on the information it gained from the flash right before the shutter opened. With Manual flash mode, the flash puts out a fixed amount of light that you control by adjusting the value.

Either mode will give you good results and which one you use may ultimately come down to preference. I probably use TTL at least half of the time and go to Manual when I’ve got a little more time to set up the shot and dial in the exposure or when I know the overall lighting scheme of my scene will not change. Ultimately, Manual gives you the most control.

4. Set your flash exposure: Even though straight TTL flash exposure may be “correct,” it doesn’t always look right, and it may not be exactly what you’re going for. Chances are it will still be too bright, so you’ll probably want to dial it down.

Under normal circumstances, dropping flash exposure by about one and a half stops generally gives you good results. Depending on your scene, you may find that dialing down anywhere from _.3 to _3.0 stops on the flash gives you the best look. However, if you’re underexposing the background, you might even need to compensate on the plus side, especially if you’re using an auto exposure mode. Remember, flash output is factored into the camera’s auto exposure setting.

In Manual flash mode, you simply dial down through the different power settings until you get the desired look. No matter what mode you use, in addition to the specific flash setting, the actual amount of light that hits your subject is also affected by distance to the subject, aperture, and ISO.

5. Do a test shot: Fire away and then study the results. You should be able to quickly determine if you need to change your camera exposure, adjust the light output, or move the flash. Make your changes quickly and then do another test shot. Once you’ve got the right look, take off the training wheels and go for the money shot.

Like everything else, this all just takes practice. As you become more proficient and confident, things like flash placement, metering, and exposure compensation will become second nature.

Keep in mind that although I list the specific gear and setup that I used for some of these shots, they’re by no means the only options, or even the best options; it’s only what I chose at the time. In some cases, I might have been limited with gear, time, or even the forethought to try something else. You might choose a different way to photograph any one of these subjects, and that’s OK, as long as you get a great shot, or as long as you learn something in the process.

Here is another series that shows the evolution of the flash workflow and the final image.

Excerpt from Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography by Dan Bailey © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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