Mixing flash with Ambient Light in Bright Situations

balancing ambient and flash

Have you ever wondered how to balance your flash with the background? Are you taking photos with a flash and finding that your subject is illuminated but the background is dark as hell? Well, you're not alone. There are many people out there in the same boat - I couldn't answer this question myself for quite a long time, but after trawling through blogs and magazines, it finally clicked. I've managed to condense this information into something smaller and more manageable, so that you won't have to bore or frustrate yourself as you attempt to recreate this style. 

What You'll Need

This tutorial is going to focus on off-camera flash. As such you'll need a flash that can be fired away from the camera and in manual mode. There are dozens and dozens to choose from and we'll be speaking in general terms, so it what I say will apply to whatever flash you should have. 

1. This is about making photographs not taking them

Any chump can press a button and declare themselves to be a photographer, these days. I know I got away with it long enough, anyway. When you're balancing flash and ambient however, you're taking the fundamentals of photography to the next level. You need to know how aperture, shutter speed and ISO work together to really get the best out of this tutorial, so if you don't know the basics, I suggest you check out Understanding Exposure arguably the best book on beginning photography. This piece is about making photographs, not taking them, but the first step is well, taking one.

2. Take your photograph

It starts pretty simply. Take the photo you want to take. It doesn't matter if you're using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual for the moment, just take your photo and look at the readings. 

ambient exposure test

I'm a relevantly recent convert to Aperture priority mode and use it quite a lot these days. Using it to take a photograph of Devin, it threw up something fairly average, exposure-wise. Devin's face is what I took the reading from and it is decently lit I suppose, but the sky is pure white and the back of his head and shoulders are 'blown out' or entirely white from the sun's rays. You can't blame the camera really, I asked for an exposure for his face and sure enough that's well exposed. So what can we fix?

Looking at the exposure reading, I had dialled in f5.6 and the camera settled on a shutter speed of 1/200. My ISO of 800 which I'd forgotten to change was obviously compounding the brightness issue. To be honest, this is all relatively irrelevant - don't get bogged down in these specific numbers, just know that they are wrong because they are causing the image to be too bright - if we were to add a flash now, Devin would be little more than a pair of floating eyebrows in a sea of white. So how do we fix it? 

2. Expose for the background only

Your main focus at the moment is getting the background exposed for correctly. You may have gotten lucky with your initial exposure, but it's not always the case. Regardless, take whatever steps you need to get a correct background/ambient exposure, with one caveat: Keep your shutter speed to a maximum of 1/200*

ambient light flash strobist

Grand. It's not exactly setting the world alight yet, but it's a start. You can work from here, should you wish, but I'd always make it a little darker, for the purposes of impact. This also helps with the sky too, which is usually brighter that the overall scene, and going darker really brings out the detail in the heavens above. So lets go ahead and make the image darker - but still keeping your shutter speed at a maximum of 1/200. I recommend putting your camera into Manual Mode at this stage, if you haven;t already. This will ensure you have full control over everything and will fix it so that your camera doesn't try to change any settings during the rest of the process. Manual Mode is where you want to be with this type of photography work very often. It leave less room for error.

correct ambient exposure

So we moved our aperture and ISO to make the scene darker. It looks incorrect, but in this instance, it isn't. The detail in the grass is there, the sky looks great and the light on Devin's back and the side of his face isn't absolutely white, so that part is correctly exposed. Now we're ready to add the flash. 

3. Add the Flash

I'm a sucker for highly positioned flash. It's flattering and creates great lines of light across the face. I guess we're all used to seeing faces lit from above (y'know, with the sun), so it just makes sense to continue that trend. In this instance I was trying out a new Budget Beauty Dish with a sock on it (not a literal sock, a piece of thin-ish fabric that diffuses the light). I positioned it only about a foot, if not slightly more away from his face. Putting a flash closer to a subject will make the light appear softer and this is something I like the appearance of.

Power-wise, I'll always start pretty low and work my way up. In this instance, I went with 1/128 power (the lowest power my beloved Godox AD360 can put out) and other than moving it in a little closer, it was more-or less on the money. Sometimes you'll need to jump the power up or move your flash further back, or put a modifier on it, but sometimes you luck out at the start. 

Here's one of the first test shots (no editing)

sunset photography

So I position the light about a foot higher than Devin's eye-line, off to the left at about 45 degrees to the camera. You can see the height of the flash means that there's definition under the chin and similarly, because it's off to the left his face has a shadow on the right-side of the image (Devin's left), from where the light is not reaching and it really emphasising that 3D look. You can also see that the background exposure is creeping in on his ears and hair, but because we correctly exposed for it earlier, it looks great. 

Better still is that we can move Devin around and with minor tweaks, we can get great looks from similarly exposed shots. Here, I moved to the left, so that the light and sun were cutting a straight line through him, and allowing the blue and yellow to really punch in some colour contrast too. Because we're in Manual Mode, all I have to change if I want to change anything, is the flash power. Everything else is as it is!

positioning the speedlight

And that's essentially it. People will wax lyrical about other aspects, but the three main points are:

* Establish your shot - take a sample reading
* Make your exposure darker, but maintain a shutter speed of max 1/200
* Add your flash and change it's power accordingly

Here are some other examples of balancing the flash with the ambient light:

Flash and natural light
flash and dusk balance


Footnotes and FAQs

* What's the deal with the 1/200 max speed?
Well, most flashes will only work with a flash up to 1/200 of a second. Setting your shutter speed any faster will result in black banding across your images. It's to do with the mechanical nature of your cameras shutter and how the flash outputs it's light. It's relatively technical and not essential knowledge, but if you are interested, I recommend checking out ExposureGuide's Post on the subject. There are workarounds to this, such as leaf-shuttered cameras and HSS flashes, the latter being the more popular. There's a great piece (unsurprisingly) over on Neil Van Niekerk's page here, which deals with HSS and how to get working above 1/200.

*Can't I just use TTL?
You could and some would argue that all this is unnecessary, but I'm not a fan of TTL in instances like this at all. TTL is an incredibly intelligent and impressive piece of technology. It does most the groundwork for you. I'm a big advocate of knowing why it's doing these things - knowing this process will not only prepare you for flash disasters, or tricky situations, but they'll allow you to get creative. If you want to get creative, you have to know the limitations and possibilities of the technology in your hands!

If you have any other questions, ask them in the comments and I'll reply quicker than the flash of a bulb!