On Assignment: Shade is Your Friend

One of the first things to consider when balancing strobe and ambient light is whether or not you can knock the ambient down a bit, to give you more options with your small-flash lighting ratios.

And for my money, nothing does that quicker and easier than the shady side of a building.

If I am doing a strobed outdoor portrait (as in the above photo of two prep football standouts) I will typically use a building as a "sun gobo" whether I include it in the photo or not.

Even if I am including a bright sky in the background, I'll use the shade of a building to drop my subject to near black when underexposing a stop for the sunny sky. You get more lighting control this way.

If I am starting in full sun as my ambient, there are only a couple of stops of wiggle room before I get to my tightest aperture and max synch speed. No matter how powerful your flash is, that's the end of the light balancing line for you.

You can cheat it a couple of stops with an ND filter, but that is another story (and the subject of an upcoming post.)

But the fact that the shaded area was 2-3 stops darker than the area in full sun allowed me to drop the ambient down some for a more dramatic effect in this photo. When you realize that this photo was taken in the middle of the afternoon of a sunny day, you start to see the lighting ratio advantages that shade can give you.

I had my flashes set on half power, and placed them as seen below.

(FYI, the front/left strobe was on the 85mm beam setting, allowing me to let the light fall off below the guys' faces.)

For you home-gamers, the thought process is as follows.

1) Set the camera on max synch speed.
2) Cross light the two guys, with the flashes on manual at half power (full power if placed further back.)
3) Fire some quick test shots while adjusting the aperture until the lit subjects are properly exposed in your cool little cheater screen on the camera back.
4) Your ambient-lit areas will be very dark. While keeping the chosen aperture constant (to make the strobe happy) open your shutter speed up until the lighting ratio looks as smooth (or dramatic) as you'd like.

With a little practice, this is a very fast process, and does not require a strobe meter.

And with the money you save on the flash meter, you can get another light...

Next: Sometimes it's Not the Photo, it's the Process


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is beyond awesome! i love your tips youve opened up a new world of ligting for me!

November 03, 2006 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean moving the (mark to move from set just before) aperture to match the shutter there on the last tuning step?
Sorry, exposure with apertures and shuter speeds - especially in text - make me all dizzy and confused, I will never learn. >_>

Stupido Perry

November 03, 2006 2:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great set up, i also like the way the red bricks on the wall behind, great composition 'tie' the two players together. As an aside, i recently used some strobist techniques on a group shot of some volunteer workers, when the Manager saw the shot she was really pleased, she actually mentioned "how nice the lighting was" I owe you one David!

November 03, 2006 5:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ive never used a flash with zoom settings..if you're using a sunpak or metz flash how can you achieve the zoom effect of the SB's - just gobo them? - is there a way to feather the loght rather than have a harsh line - like for example with a snoot?

November 03, 2006 9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ive never used a flash with zoom settings..if you're using a sunpak or metz flash how can you achieve the zoom effect of the SB's - just gobo them? - is there a way to feather the loght rather than have a harsh line - like for example with a snoot?

November 03, 2006 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Missread and didn't think. Sorry david!
Great shot and up as always.

Stupido again

November 03, 2006 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Darien Chin said...

Love the great tips. You are really helping me to get an understanding of light, and how to work different sources of it. I am really interested to read your upcoming article on grads, as I shoot with them pretty much all the time.

Thanks for the great site David,
I appreciate it.


November 03, 2006 11:51 AM  
Anonymous kevinv033 said...

the simplicity with which you work and the drama of the effect never cease to amaze. yet another great tip.

November 03, 2006 11:58 AM  
Blogger David said...


A snoot would work just fine to restrict the beam.


I am not a big fan of shooting with grads. (Dropouts work for far less money...)

@ Kevin-

The drama usually centers around whether I will actually make deadline with the turned-in pix...

November 03, 2006 1:20 PM  
Anonymous Joe Reifer said...

Great shot, and thanks for the informative setup notes. I'm not clear on why you prefer to use the flashes in Manual mode rather than using e or i TTL. If you adjust your aperture to the fixed flash output of 1/2 power, you may end up having less control over how blurred the background looks in some situations?



November 03, 2006 1:30 PM  
Anonymous ABQdiver said...

Great stuff as always!! The setup photo and notes are VERY helpful hone the process.

Thanks for all your efforts!!

November 03, 2006 4:16 PM  
Blogger David Tejada said...

Another fine example for your readers David. I think what you have here on your blog is wonderful. I enjoy seeing your photography and the creative in-put you provide your readers. Good Job. I really think the production stills of your set up is terffic. Just love your site. DT

November 03, 2006 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is a dropout?

November 06, 2006 2:10 PM  
Anonymous kurt said...

I, too, use this method of setting up correct flash/ambient exposure. I learned this from the great Zack Arias of Used Film and the OneLight Workshop. I love it.

November 08, 2006 12:23 PM  
Anonymous zim4image said...

So you need a tranceiver for every strobe and one for hot shoe? What about the new SB 800 strobe with control..

November 10, 2006 8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zim -

You can do this all with the Nikon Creative Flash System. The advantage of Pocket Wizards is you can use them in situations where line-of-sight isn't possible. Personally, I'll use the pop-up flash in the D200 to set off my SB-800s and it usually works like a charm. (Surprisingly, my built-in Speedlight often does a better job of triggering SB-800s than an on-camera SB-800.)

November 19, 2006 4:43 AM  
Blogger Ken Lopez said...

I wish you would've added a "rim" light to the football player on camera left. It definitely adds depth and definition to the arm of the football player on camera right.

All in all, a good photo, sound teaching and technique.


April 24, 2008 2:40 PM  
Anonymous photografika said...

Thank you for sharing details on flash/ambient balancing!
It is much easier than I thought.
Will try it this weekend.

Toronto Wedding Photographer

April 28, 2009 4:15 PM  

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