Getting Flash to Look Natural
It’s always a challenge to get artificial light to look natural, particularly if you’re using an on-camera flash. The challenge increases further when we’re shooting at night.
Many might suggest to just slap on a diffuser and fire away. In our previous article – Which Flash Diffuser Works, I showed you why that’s rarely the best solution for natural looking and feature-shaping light unless there are absolutely no viable surfaces to bounce your light off.
For this article, we’ve found a nice, lengthy hallway with white beams on the left and solid walls on the right.
After bribing my son with some desserts, he agreed to pose for this tutorial :)
This is probably the most common way we’ll use a flash gun. Fire it straight forward in Auto/Program mode. The camera automatically ignores the ambient exposure and sets itself for the flash exposure. The resulting photograph is the typical bright-foreground/dark-background with no details rendered in the background.
While this may work for some cases, it often kills whatever mood there is in the scene and for travelers who often wants to remember where they were when the photo was taken, it’s important to expose the background and ambient light as well. Notice how the dark background removed any separation between the subject’s hair and the background as well.
Dragging the Shutter
To expose the ambient light in our photograph, we will need to adjust the shutter speed of our camera. The flash will still automatically expose the subject, but the camera’s shutter speed settings will control how much ambient light to record.
By slowing down the shutter speed to from 1/60 to 1/10th of a second, I allowed more ambient light to record on the sensor so now you can see the details in the background.
Notice how the subject is still has the same exposure since the flash’s exposure is calculated separately from the ambient exposure – and hey, there’s a man now!
By simply exposing for the background, the photo has already improved dramatically from the original shot, it can still be improved though.
Once you determine how much ambient light you want to show in your photograph, let’s improve the flash-lit subject this time. As you can see, the lighting is very typical of a front-lit flash shot.
Take a look at the first photograph again and notice that there are pillars to the left of the corridor that we can use. The pillar being at least 2 feet across and >15ft high, it’s a much, much larger light source than a direct flash, so we’re going to use that as our main light source.
By swiveling the flash gun head towards one of the pillars, I can now turn that pillar’s surface as my main light source by bouncing the light from my flash to that surface.
Because the the main light is now coming from the side, the directional light creates shadows on one side of the face creating form and dimention.
The large light source (the whole pillar’s surface) acts like a large softbox, giving soft, gradual transition from highlights to shadow. Finally, I felt that the flash exposure was a little too strong so I dialed the flash down a little (-1/3 flash exposure compensation) and we have our final image.
Just a side note, the flash is gelled with a 1/2 CTS (straw orange) gel, read the article about Color Correcting Gels.
So the next time you’re shooting with a flash gun, always look around for areas to bounce your light off.
It can be a wall, a signage, a glass display window, etc. Use anything that’s larger than your flash head and you’ll get softer and off-axis lighting. If the best surface to bounce off has a strong color cast that can’t be corrected using gels or during post-processing, just convert it to monochrome afterwards, you’ll still have a well-lit image to keep.
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