Intro to Creative Flash Part 2: Balancing Your Flash With Ambient Light

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

In Part 1 of this series (Intro to Creative Flash Part 1: What is “Shutter Sync?” and What are These Other Settings?), I covered sync speed, camera and flash settings, and general information on how your camera fires the flash.

But again I stress, read your camera and flash manual. Those little booklets contain a wealth of information about your particular gear.

And as I always stress: Learning Photography is not a Spectator Sport.

For this, it was simple on camera flash. I rotated the head towards the model. With a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second, I was able to capture the ambient light. The white balance was set on daylight as I liked the warmth of the lights in the background.

Ambient Light and Flash:

Using your flash with ambient light is easier than you may think. The key thing to remember is that you have full control of your flash. However, you can only  control ambient light using your shutter speed and aperture. The ONLY limitation you have is what your camera’s top flash sync speed is.

When working with ambient light you must remember two things concerning your exposure:

  • 1. The shutter speed controls the exposure for the ambient light
  • 2. The aperture controls the exposure for the strobe.

Using the “Sunny 16” rule to expose for the bright sun I set my flash was set on manual to f/8, 2 stops lower than the ambient light. Nikon D1H ISO 200, f/16 @ 1/200th.

Another thing to remember is to balance your flash with the color of the ambient light. Most flash units come with filters so you can balance your flash with tungsten and florescent lighting. These are little filters that are yellow (tungsten) and green (florescent). More on this in just a bit.

TIP: The key to getting good fill flash is under powering the strobe 2 to 3 (Sometimes 4) stops less than the value of the ambient light. Example: shooting in sunlight, your meter says f/16 @ 1/125th. Set your strobe to f/5.6 or lower to fill in the shadows.

TIP: You can go the other way and over power the Sun (temporarily of course) to make your subject stand out. Set your camera on full, position the strobe so it is close and underexpose the sunlight.

“Shutter Drag:” Using the rear curtain synch mode to fire the flash at the end of the exposure during the slower shutter speeds. Example, photographing a skateboarder you use a longer shutter speed to blur the background (Panning) and the flash to light him. Another is dancers on stage. It exposes them at the end of the exposure.

Using an off-camera flash to fill in the driver. The meter was being fooled by all the snow, so I had to go full manual. Having my camera on a cord allowed a more natural looking light on the driver.

TIP: Good panning shots w/flash require about a stop or two under exposure of the ambient and good exposure for the flash.

Low Ambient Light:
When using your flash in poorly lit conditions, set your flash to about one stop over the ambient light level in order to prevent “ghosting.”

For example.  In the photo below of the downhill mountain bike racer, the trail winded through the trees. Although it was a sunny day, the light was dark. My shutter speed was about 1/500 at f/2.8.

Although I shot many competitors zooming by me at that speed, I wanted a way to capture the feeling of the speed the contestant were traveling. So I used a low shutter speed of 1/30 at f/11 to capture this, but the photos were a bit too blurry for me.

To make the mountain biker sharp, and still keep the blurry background, I used my on-camera flash. I then set it on manual to get a proper exposure at f/22. I kept panning the subjects as they zoomed by and captured this image in the process.

For this shot of a mountain biker sliding down a steep section during the annual Blast the Mass bike race, I panned with the action and popped my flash at a setting of 1 stop over ambient. Nikon D200, SB800, f/22 at 1/30th.This is a good example of “shutter drag.”

Tip: You can temporarily overpower the Sun by underexposing the natural light and placing your flash close to the subject. In effect, it makes the sky dark and properly exposes your subject.

Snowmass ski patrolman John Brennan keeps the slopes clear of debris during the summers. Nikon D1H, SB-80, f/22 @ 1/500th. Use your flash as the main source, the underexpose the sky by two stops to give your photos a dramatic look.


Ways to Use your Flash:

On Camera:

  • Main Light: Using the flash as your main light source. An example would be photographing a party at night.
  • Fill Flash:  Using the flash to fill in the shadows. Underexpose by 2 stops. Add Just enough light to bring out the shadow details. Having too much will be make your photo appear a bit unnatural.
  • Bounce: Using your surroundings to light your subject. Bouncing off the wall or ceiling helps soften the light. It acts like a huge soft box. You lose a lot of light in the process. Sometimes as much as 3 stops. This technique only works if you are reasonably close to walls and low ceilings.

TIP: Again, dial down your flash power when using on-camera as fill. You need just enough light to add details to the shadow areas.

TIP: Make sure the ceilings and walls are white or your color balance will be wrong. The light will pick up the color of the wall or ceiling.

Off Camera:

For more natural looks, or to be more creative, use your flash off camera. Using a bracket with your camera gives your photos a look like they were lit by a light source other than direct flash. It also eliminates the “red eye” that is caused by on-camera direct flash without using the annoying “red eye reduction” setting.

  • On a Bracket: This sets your flash off the main axis of the lens and helps reduce
  • Corded: Using a short cord allows you to achieve a more natural light. You can position the flash how you want, but you have limited flexibility.
  • Slave synced or non-corded: Setting your flash a distance from the camera and using another flash, or radio signal, to fire it. Good for a portable studio. They must be a within a reasonable distance and have the sensor pointed towards the main flash. Sometimes, depending on the gear, bright lights will cause malfunctions.

There are a multitude of devices from brackets to diffusers which one can explore and test. I’ve not tested but a few diffusers and bounce units. For the most part, the diffusers that have been supplied with the flash unit are sufficient for my photography.

However, in the next section Intro to Creative Flash Part 3: Using a Portable Studio, I use these same strobes with umbrellas and slaves to create some creatively lit portraits.

Challenge Aspen founder Amanda Boxtel in the equipment room. Amanda, who lost the use of her legs in a skiing accident, was sitting in a beam of sunlight and in order to get detail in the shadows, I used my portable flash.

Color Balance:

Portable flash units are color balanced towards daylight and as a result, when they are used in other than sunlight, you will get a color shift. Especially noticeable in tungsten and florescent lighting.

To make your workflow smoother and save you headaches in the editing process, use filters in the process of taking the photographs. Most flash units now come with two basic filters: one for tungsten (yellow or orange) and the other for florescent (green).

These are small gels that cover the flash head and change the color temperature of the flash. They are not perfect, so the colors may be off by a little, but they are so close as to be imperceptible.

My flashes, diffusers, and filters. An SB80DX (left), SB800 (right), SC-17 cord, and filters.

The issue with florescent lighting is that different manufacturers, different bulbs, and even the holders all have color temps that can vary by hundreds of degrees Kelvin. It’s difficult to truly color correct for florescent light. The Florescent Lighting System has information about the color temperature of these bulbs.

For the most part, the supplied gel will work fine for most situations involving these lights. Most photographers I know think they are the most hideous lights known to man. They can be very difficult to color balance, but not impossible.

It does take a little bit of practice to get into the habit of looking at the light, determining the type used, and placing the filter over the flash. One thing: don’t forget you placed a filter over you flash. If you do, you’ll be a little surprised when you download and edit.

There are a multitude of filters you can buy for your on camera flash. Rosco has a set of filters called Strobist. It is a set of 55 filters of various colors and strengths you can use to get a close color balance or have as a creative effect.

Lumiquest makes a holder that goes around your flash to hold small gels. The two work great in unison.

Dr. George Fallieras, M.D., in the trauma room at Aspen Valley Hospital. I used a cord to set the flash to the right as the PR person held it.

One of first things you must decide is whether you want your flash to be the main light or to use it as fill.

Once you decide that, Let your creative juices flow. Go out and have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s better to try something new and fail. Take it as a learning lesson. You learn more from your mistakes than you will from your successes.

Again, don’t be intimidated by your flash unit. Go out and just have fun with it. Practicing with your flash is imperative. What you can do, how you can control it, and how these little unit work,  can improve your photography by giving you an extra tool in your bag.

Thank you for reading

Paul Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography


  1. Paul, really enjoyed your recent SmugPro class in Seattle. Look forward to learning more from you. This blog series is awesome! And you showed us in the hallway how to correctly “color balance” our speedlight to match ambient light color, fantastic!


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