Photography Tutorial: Using Pop-Up Flash With Ambient Light Creatively

Alright, so you know what flash photography is about. It’s pretty simple to pop up your pop-up flash and make accurate exposures leaving the flash on AUTO mode, right? On the other hand, this approach gives you absolutely flat lighting with a zero artistic touch. Anyone in their right mind would stay away from flash altogether, with this frame of mind. We also read on innumerable websites that pop-up flash is boring, period! It’s sad to hear of that when it is in fact NOT the truth by a long shot. Read on!

End result:
Using Pop-Up Flash With Ambient Light Creatively Final Image

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Practice tutorial


Step 1

So we know that on camera flash gives flat and boring lighting. The problem with a built in flash is obviously the fact that you cannot place it to the side of the camera, or bounce the light for directional and diffused effects. So without getting into trying to change the direction of light, why not look at something else? EVERY time you fire the shutter with the flash turned on, remember that TWO exposures are taking place simultaneously; TWO light sources are at work. One light source is obviously the flash, and the other is EXISTING AMBIENT light, weak as it may be. Take a look at the image below –

Step 2

That was photographed at a festival in India by the way. The point is, the image hardly shows tell tale signs of flash photography. The flash is absolutely subtle, and ambient light lends it self to the atmosphere that this image portrays. Let us look at the camera settings that give you this effect. For the sake of this exercise, and for want of a better subject, I am going to try and photograph an antique fan that I own, with a lamp lit background, a lighting condition very similar to the image you saw above. Firstly, I KNOW I want to sustain the ambience of the existing light, so I take a meter reading which gives me ½ a second at f4, ISO 800. This is what I get with those settings –

Step 3

Not a bad background, I like the saturation of the yellow lamp light, but the subject could have a bit more light on it. This would look terrible if I was shooting a portrait. Let’s just switch to AUTO mode and let the camera decide? Ok! The flash automatically fired thanks to the low light, and this is what I got –

Step 4

That’s about as bad as lighting can get! So how do I get that ambience back into my picture? I switch back to M mode, and open the flash as well. The flash is on TTL metering, which would give me an accurate FLASH exposure, forgetting all about the ambient light, and in fact overpowering it and ‘killing it’. We could do with a little less flash light couldn’t we? And don’t forget that the ambient light is at work as well. Using the meter reading that we got for the ambient light and then firing a flash as well, results in a 1 + 1 exposure which overexposes the image in parts –

Step 5

To solve this, we need to bring the exposure back into control. Stop down the ambient light meter reading by one stop. I move from ½ second to ¼ second. Does this give us an optimum exposure? No! This gives us optimum exposure (flash already on, remember) and a 50% extra with the ambient light. A ‘correct’ exposure would be flash EV on -1 stop, AND ambient light cut down by one stop from what the camera meter gave you –

Step 6

I’m starting to like this exposure, but I decide to kill the flash light just a little more by moving to -2 EV on the TTL flash.

Step 7

I finish thing off by shooting a closer crop of the composition, same exposure. Of course we don’t have the time to go through an exercise like this when shooting a live event. But is it safe to say that we’d get pleasing results if we metered for the background, used a one stop less exposure to that; popped up the flash on TTL mode, and gave it a -1,-2 or even -3 power, to fill in ugly shadows?

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