Lighting in the Dark: Summer Reading

It's still technically summertime in Maryland. But the temps are down, the humidity has eased and -- best of all -- the mosquitos are history. This is prime evening porch time for Emily, my nocturnal bookworm.

I walked out to visit, and to my eye the scene looked great. Unfortunately, it would look like crap in the camera. The tonal range would be far too much for the chip to handle.

But lighting is about controlling that contrast range. And when there is just a tiny bit of ambient, you need an even tinier bit of flash to fix it.

Think Backwards

Here's a straight shot with no flash. It looks nowhere near the way my eye saw it, because my eye can see shadow detail that the camera can't. And I wanted that shadow detail, but I also wanted to preserve the ambient light that drew me into the scene to begin with.

Normally when we balance flash, we drop the ambient until the scene looks good, then sculpt the subject with light. But this is different. The subject is already in the neat light -- it's the deep shadow area we need to fix.

Get Your Ambient Exposure First

So first, you would set your ambient exposure for those neat highlights. (If you can call a flashlight off of a book a highlight.) The light was cool, but it was dim. The reflected flashlight on Em's face was ~1/30th at f/1.8 at ISO 1600.

Fine, I can handle that.

Next, I'll need to add some bounce fill flash at about 2-3 stops down to bring up the deep shadows in scene. I know it won't take much strobe, either. So I placed an SB-800 on the camera and bounced it off of the ceiling at 1/128th power.

The result was a nice, full flash exposure. Which is exactly what I do not want.

What I want is for the flash to support the neat ambient light without taking over the scene. So we need to get rid of at least 2 stops of flash. But I am already at my low limit of 1/128 power, so I cannot just dial it down.

There are several other ways to do this -- ND gel, cover part of the flash with my hand, etc. But I have no gels on the porch, and I need both hands to steady the camera at the slow shutter speed.

Of course, you also can lessen the flash's effect by closing down the aperture. By going from f/1.8 to f/4, I kill 2 1/3 stops of flash. But I also kill that much ambient, too.

So I open up my shutter speed to compensate, which means I am now shooting at 1/5th of a second at f/4. Not ideal, but that's where I am at. The aperture (f/4) was the magic number where both my ambient and my flash could be balanced the way I wanted at the same time. And the correct shutter speed for the ambient at f/4 was 1/5th of a second.

If it sounds complicated, it really is not. It is the same process that we normally use to balance flash and ambient, only the roles of the two have been switched. And this allows you to make a quick snapshot that preserves the quality of the ambient light while compressing the contrast range.

Soup to nuts, this balancing process took way under a minute, which all comes down to practice. And that leaves more time for the important stuff, like hanging out on the porch on a summer night.

Next: Stink Bugs


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Blogger Dave said...

Any gels on the flash? Or did you just use a tungsten-ish colour balance to make the light from the flash look a bit blue?

September 13, 2010 12:07 AM  
Blogger David said...


With no gels on me (this was a grab shot) I had to make a choice. So I set the white balance to make the ambient more realistic (set on incandescent) and let the fill flash go cool.

Ideally, I would have had a CTO on the flash, but sometimes you have to go with what is on hand and make a choice!

Short answer, the light on Em's face is more important to me than the light on the chair.

September 13, 2010 12:14 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I actually like the cool blue light, it makes it look more "nightish" without making it dark and also brings out the lantern and torch. I know there weren't mosquitos, but it also looks kind of like the light you get from one of those blue fluoro bug zappers.

Let me add my thanks to the many who have thanked you over the years for this site. As a result I of what I have learned here the photographic memories I have are much better than they would otherwise would have been.

September 13, 2010 12:30 AM  
Blogger Nik said...

I actually like the blue light, it gets cooler this time of year out on the porch and the blue light portrays that quite nicely.

September 13, 2010 12:30 AM  
Blogger James said...

I thought I liked the before shot a little better, but then I realized that the lamp on the floor really stands out and takes over the scene, drawing your eye away from the subject.

September 13, 2010 12:36 AM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

Curious if you could set the flash zoom wider and have more light spill into the darkness (i.e. not bounce off the ceiling)? Either way, nice shot.

September 13, 2010 12:48 AM  
Blogger Filbert said...

I like this post. Relaxed and yet informative. Been following for a while now and I check everyday for a new post while rereading old ones.

Thank you Mr. Hobby for getting us tech guys to love photography.

September 13, 2010 1:04 AM  
Blogger Pete Tsai said...

Next time you can pull another stop off the flash by using it in TTL mode and pulling the flash and overall exposure comp down. By doing that it will push the flash to go down a stop further then we have control of in the manual modes. (if your camera won't do this you can always use the FEL to lock it down to the bare minimum by shooting close at something white, then shooting your actual target)

I equate it to this, they gave us a digital volume control knob, whereas the CPU on the camera gets an analog volume control with more precision to try and match the exposure.

I've done this before in tests and in the field, especially when I just want the smallest flick of light.

September 13, 2010 2:07 AM  
Blogger Jon Heller said...

wouldn't this have been a good time to put the flash into i-TTL and then dial in a -EV? That might have gotten you below what 1/128th power was putting out.

September 13, 2010 2:46 AM  
Blogger Ciaran De Bhal said...

Love the mood of the scene David and the blue cast from the WB setting is an enhancement. As usual though, one question. How come theres no movement in the shot at 1/5th Sec handheld ? Is this just practice or do you use an Image Stablilised lens ?
Either way kudos .... I guess you don't shake with nerves.

September 13, 2010 3:03 AM  
Blogger Stefan said...

You did no mention what kind of light Emily holds in her hand. For me this looks like a flash - you and her would not be able to hold still for a 1/5th exposure time, right?

September 13, 2010 4:41 AM  
Blogger bertold said...

Em's socks are awesome.

September 13, 2010 5:24 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I like the blue light effect too, no problem with that IMHO.
Dumb question though - couldn't it be done (instead of this neat trick you did), by just taking the flash a bit farther from them?

September 13, 2010 6:34 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

So you handheld at 1/5 second? Impressive!

September 13, 2010 7:49 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

When you said f/1.8 at ISO 1600, I instantly thought, "Wow, that's going to be hard to add flash that's not too bright!" Guess I'm getting used to this stuff!

September 13, 2010 8:27 AM  
Blogger james said...

Good thing yo didn't have any gels on you. The blue really sells the nighttime feel.

September 13, 2010 8:36 AM  
Blogger james said...

Very nice shot!
But I have to ask; what is she sitting in?

September 13, 2010 8:36 AM  
Blogger Two Jack Studio said...

Great post David, it's amazing how an everyday scene can be transformed into something magical through the creative use of lighting.

The mood of the image can be completely changed by controlling lighting and contrast.

Good work!

September 13, 2010 9:40 AM  
Blogger Edward said...

how did you handhold 1/5th? VR? what Focal length?

September 13, 2010 9:43 AM  
Blogger David said...

@Pete, and the other TTL guys --

I generally default to manual. I like the control. And yes, TTL will go a stop below 1/128th. But I was over two below 1/128th power at f/1.8. So net, it might have gotten me an extra stop on the shutter speed, at the expense of full control. I'll take the control.

@Those asking about handholding at 1/5th --

Em was still. I was still. Just brace the camera to your body and squeeze. It helps to have been doing it for 30 years, too.


Nope, it is just a flashlight, reflecting off of a book.


It is Ikea (name, "Ekorre," $50) but it is also resold at a higher price ($60) thru Amazon:


Yep, she is a sock girl.


35mm on a full-frame chip camera.

September 13, 2010 11:40 AM  
Blogger Rob E said...

I, too, think the slightly blue cast to the flash looks better. Just because a CTO would make the light color balanced doesn't mean it's the "right" thing for the scene. The real world seems to have no problem with mixed light sources. This way the orange cast of the lantern and flashlight serves to add interest.

September 13, 2010 11:42 AM  
Blogger Pete Tsai said...

Thats cool David,
I too am a control freak, manual mostly and rarely shoot with TTL, but I have come up against having too much power and like taking control of the flash to get that even smaller amount of light.

September 13, 2010 11:59 AM  
Blogger atomic said...

I checked the settings in my basement
And indeed, no gels necessary because when your white balance is set to bulb light your camera settings will want to make the very yellow bulb light neutral, the only way to do this is by adding blue.
Your flash light gets those blues too. Result: Bulb light will look neutral, fill flash will look blue.
and slow shutterspeed means: no coffee! ;)

September 13, 2010 12:33 PM  
Blogger alim said...

Great post..thanks always for the inspiration. You are a true master!

September 13, 2010 1:01 PM  
Blogger Michael Plaxico said...

David, you're awesome. I've learned most of what I know about lighting from you.

September 13, 2010 2:09 PM  
Blogger Edward said...

WoW, DH has a built in 2 stop VR System! :) well done!

September 13, 2010 2:56 PM  
Blogger Chip Chockley said...

Does anybody else think the natural light shot looks really cool? Blasphemy on this site, I know...

September 13, 2010 3:11 PM  
Blogger Patey North said...

David, this is what makes you great. Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us!


September 13, 2010 5:48 PM  
OpenID Jane, Computer Backpack Nut said...

that chair is awesome!

September 13, 2010 9:03 PM  
Blogger Austin said...

Mr. Hobby,
Long time reader, first time comment(er).
You've always been a great inspiration and resource for me.
I've learned more from you than my fancy, high priced, art school could ever wish to teach.
So I just wanted to say thanks and give you a pat on the shoulder.
And if you ever find yourself in NYC.
Come find me; I'll buy you a beer!
Thank you so much again,

September 13, 2010 11:19 PM  
Blogger cdlink said...

Thanks David, -this was neat!

September 14, 2010 12:57 AM  
Blogger jacob said...

Yep, another quick shot to get almost envious about - extremely nice. And what I really like about it besides the lighting is what may or may not be so obvious at first, ie the composition (yes I know, this blog is not named Compositionist, but all the same). David, thanks for sharing in such an unprestigious way. I've been following now for half a year or so and I firmly think think your bog is essential for everybody who really wants to... see the light. Best / Jacob

September 14, 2010 3:11 AM  
Blogger Limey said...

I'm sorry, this has nothing to do with the article - I just thought I'd make you aware of a project that I've just finished for the New Zealand Symphony. This was shot Strobist style (I did use one studio light for one shot as I needed a bit of power).

Let me know if you're interested in featuring it. I'm happy to answer any questions. Thanks.

September 14, 2010 4:36 AM  
Blogger DArt said...

Whoa, it is simply perfect. I like the WB too.

September 14, 2010 7:26 AM  
Blogger johnf said...

Thanks David. For me, it was great to get to the end of the article and feel like I not only understood, but have run into similar situations. (although my fix-it time is still a lot longer :) )
Maybe I'm just a copy-cat - but I'm with you on using manual mode most of the time with flash photography.

September 14, 2010 12:29 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Have you seen light painting with an iPad?

September 14, 2010 6:24 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Why not take the iso down a few stops to compensate for your flash exposure and to lessen some of the grain in the image?

September 14, 2010 9:39 PM  
Blogger Hugh said...

The heck with the technique (though it is excellent as always). Photo reminded me so much of my granddaughter that I had to stare. Beautiful picture... soon they will be driving cars.. they grow up so fast!

I've shot some similar photos but just didn't have the lighting control I'm learning now.. thanks for showing this old dog that he can still learn new tricks!

September 15, 2010 12:07 AM  
Blogger dpmaier said...

David, what an awesome and informative post. I have followed Strobist for upwards of two years, yet you still serve up new, clear, understandable posts. Thanks for all you share and the helpful way you share it.

September 15, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger Davidikus said...

I think I still prefer the picture without the flash. The other one looks almost fake. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, really.

I am not sure why you did not change the ISO setting instead of closing the diaphragm, though. Unless you wanted that little extra depth of field?

Overall, though, this is the first post which helps me deal with my main issue in daily use of flash: how not to kill the ambient. For me the ambient is key (no pun intended); it's usually what drives my work & all I want is to add a bit more light...

Thanks for the help.

PS. I agree with you, we should always value control over ease of use. In fine, we should take the picture, the camera is just the means! I think the decision not to use TTL was definitely right.

September 15, 2010 1:21 PM  
Blogger MG said...

Being one who was lucky enough to own 2 of the Lee sample sets (given to me by a sound and light company I deal with, I found some ND filters up to 4 stops and interestingly two CTO filters that also have both minus one and minus two stops ND built in. I just played with the two stop CTO/ND filter and feel I can use it. I'll work these ND filters into my filter set that I take with me. I hope that others who were fortunate enough to have gotten these sets still have them and can use these various samples.
hopefully others who have gotten these sets haven't thrown the unused ones away. Eventually, it could get people to order some of their favorite filters and or the custom Strobist set.

September 27, 2010 7:10 PM  
Blogger Dashney said...

This is way better without the flash. You have a small handful of different white balances which draw your eye around and add mucho depth. It's a great example of how sometimes we get bogged down with gels, or CLSing a flash from a few feet away to drop the power etc, both of which would've hurt the final product. People, the simplest solution is sometimes the best for the final product anyway.

October 10, 2010 11:02 AM  

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