A few weeks ago I wrote about modifying light instead of using the direct light from a camera mounted flash. This is a topic I have discussed many times in my years writing for different publications as I strive to persuade photographers to add flash to their portrait photography.
It seems my comments are having some success because since my blog of May 5thth I have had more than one photographer tell me they had started using light modifiers like “shoot through” and reflector umbrellas. That is a good thing, however, I’m now receiving questions like, “Now that I’m bouncing and softening the light, how come the background doesn’t look right?”
Like any photograph, inside or outside, a photographer needs to take into account how all elements in the image are exposed. That’s the reason I prefer using the manual mode on my camera. It makes it easy to set the exposure where I want to make that subject look like it fits into the environment.
Here is an example that might help readers. A week ago I photographed a couple in a wide field alongside the South Thompson River. They wanted the white, silt cliffs that jutted up from the grassy flatlands to be visible behind them. The sun (when it poked through the clouds) was bright and cast unflattering shadows on their faces.
My goal was to have the correct exposure for the cliffs, the sky, and, of course, my subjects. It was slightly breezy; therefore, my wife held onto a stand with a 33” umbrella and wireless flash I used to provide a fill light that would get rid of unsightly shadows on my subjects.
Indoors or out, I always start with the shutter speed. If I need it to be faster I bump up the ISO. Usually I try for 100 ISO, but sometimes I need a higher shutter speed and a wider aperture and that’s when I adjust my ISO.
I first decided what exposure would give me a nice sky and scenic white cliffs. In this instance I metered the exposure and then underexposed by two stops to give me a bit of a darker appearing landscape. Then as my subjects were positioning themselves I fired the wireless flash from different positions until I saw that the light on their faces appeared in the way I wanted it.
My exposure and flash modes were both set to manual. Using manual exposure gave me consistent control over the ambient light. To find the proper exposure for the flash I just moved it closer till I was satisfied with what I saw in my camera’s LCD. I had balanced the light. There was a nice dark sky, the white cliffs were shining and had defining shadows. My subjects were separated from the slightly darker ambient light without any shadows at all on their faces.
The ambient light kept changing quickly as clouds moved in and a storm approached so I switched from manual flash to TTL flash, and because of troubling wind removed the umbrella from the stand, and instead used a small diffuser cup on the flash to modify its light.
With the camera in manual mode, the shutter, aperture, ISO, distance of the light to the subject, and power of our light source, all controls flash exposure. Things change with the incorporation of TTL flash. Used together, the TTL camera and flash controls and calculates the flash exposure, and adjusts the power of the flash to deliver and determine the correct flash exposure regardless of the photographer’s choice of shutter, aperture, ISO, and subject distance.
How a portrait looks does have a lot to do with how the subject(s) are posed, but I think light and how it is applied is just as important. Using flash, on or off camera, to modify light gives a photographer more control than just using the sun, or relying on a high ISO. In addition photographers must also experiment and learn how to balance the background, or ambient light, with that flash.
The location really does not matter, whether inside or out, as long as there is enough ambient light to expose the subject. Pose the subject in front of a window or on the lawn. Then add enough light from another source to achieve the final goal of having the background, the foreground, and the subject exposures all together appear to be balanced and not looking artificial.