Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Center" Your Camera

It pains me to admit that I've formed a careless, some might say sloppy, habit of not returning my camera to all normal settings. As I wrote previously, in Combining flash with ambient exposure and Control flash for snappier images, modern digital cameras allow you a great deal of flexibility in how you choose to capture an image. You have lots of controls at your disposal, and you can get a perfect balance of ambient and flash lighting with simple twists of the dials.

I hope some of you put some of the techniques I talked about into your bag. But here's the rub—if you change your settings, using flash compensation or exposure compensation, you must remember to return all your settings back to your "normal" settings. If you don't, you may end up scratching your head next time out, wondering why your settings seem to be "off."

Here's a suggested checklist for the end of each of your photo shoots. They should be based on your own preferences, so take time to think through them.

  • Check AF/MF on your lens barrel

  • Likewise, check whether your Stabilization (VR) is on or off

  • Set your Mode Dial to your preferred setting (M, Av, Tv, etc.) Remember, this is your preferred starting point only.

  • Set ISO value to its lowest number

  • Set White Balance to AWB (auto). White balance in a digital RAW world is a whole other article. AWB will work fine until you have a reason to use a different setting.

  • Center both Exposure Compensation and Flash Compensation settings

  • Be sure to check any "Picture Style" (Canon) you've selected. Do likewise for toning or filter effects that might be currently applied.

  • Review your current settings for Custom Functions. For instance, it can be irritating to start your next shoot with Mirror Lockup enabled. It may take a minute to figure out why your shutter is not closing.
I offer this advice as one whose slovenly habits caused me to miss some really great shots I would have had recently. The opportunity had passed by the time I figured out I had left my flash exposure compensation set to +2.

Forewarned is forearmed, right? Happy shooting!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Combining flash with ambient exposure

I've always heard that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I've been concentrating on techniques related to balancing flash and ambient exposure lately. My recent (March 5) post, "Control flash for snappier images" made its way into a newsletter article for my photo society this month. I have two classes coming up in May, where I'll include this idea. Needless to say, I've been thinking about this concept more than usual.

My friends in the Grand Lake Camera Club in Grove, Oklahoma, asked me to come speak at their meeting last week. I talked about it there, as well. But, based on some of the feedback I received, I think I still have more to learn. To be honest, as with many things I do in photography, I've taken concepts I've heard or read about and sort of "intuited" how to accomplish them. Trying to teach others, however, forces me to think through them more carefully than is my habit.

One of my friends from the Grand Lake club asked some clarifying questions by email. For instance, what flash sync speed she should use? Based on what I thought I had presented, this shouldn't have been a consideration. So, I must have missed the mark, at least a little.

In my talk, I think I described both "fill flash" and "dragging the shutter." It appears that I placed all the techniques for balancing flash with ambient light under the umbrella term, dragging the shutter. In considering my reply to her, I think I arrived at a more useful summary of the lighting approaches you can employ, using only your camera and either on-camera or external flash for more interesting photographs.

In planning your exposure—you do plan, don't you?—you have all the exposure tools your camera offers to capture the existing light. You also have a pop-up flash on most cameras, or you can attach an external flash.

For any shot, unless you're using automatic settings, you will decide on your primary source of light and set exposure for that light source. In a studio, this would be termed your key light. To simplify the discussion, flash can be thought of as either on- or off-camera. So, you will plan an exposure using ambient light or flash. In some cases, either will do. However, if you're near the extremes of bright or dark, you won't have a choice in the type of light is primary in the exposure. But you can choose to add the other type of light, and this will usually produce a more complex and, I would argue, pleasing image.

So, your options for exposing an image with typical equipment are the following:

  1. Normal to bright ambient light:

    • Ambient light only, with no flash

    • Ambient light with some flash mixed in ("fill flash")

  2. Normal to dim light (or darkness)

    • Flash-only image

    • Flash with some ambient background exposure ("dragging the shutter")

The amount of light available will determine which strategies you can use. By combining ambient with flash light, you are reducing the amount of contrast between the brightest and darkest areas of your image.

In normal to bright light, add in fill flash by forcing your flash to fire. If the ambient light is too bright for flash to have any additional impact, adjust to the lowest ISO, and you might even need to add neutral density filter(s) to lower your how much ambient light your camera sees. The flash added back in can then be balanced with the ambient light.

In normal to dim light, add in ambiently-lit background by adjusting the ISO upward till you can get the amount of exposure you want, using normal or near-normal camera exposure settings (shutter/aperture). The flash portion of the exposure will be determined by through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering. Adjust the amount of flash using flash exposure compensation, and adjust the background with aperture and shutter.

Even though the techniques seem very similar, bright or dim light will determine your starting point, when you select the primary source of light appropriate for the scene. The easy way to think of it is this:
  • In bright light, use camera exposure and add fill flash to fill in shadows.

  • In dim light, use flash exposure and drag the shutter (boost ambient exposure) to add some background.

These concepts may seem complicated at first. Once you start to employ them and see their effect in your images, you'll find that they're not so complicated, after all. They often increase the quality of the images where you use them.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Control flash for snappier images

Many people think the hallmark of “amateur” photography is on-camera flash, with blown out faces, dark backgrounds and red eye. In low light, most modern cameras will pop that little sucker up and give you that “special” quality your mother (or grandmother!) achieved with her Instamatic camera equipped with its flash bar or flash cube. It’s not uncommon for an aspiring photographer to set his camera so that the flash will not fire at all, in an attempt to achieve more “professional” results. What they often achieve is rather dull and flat. Just because it’s a dinky little pop-up feature doesn’t mean your camera’s flash can’t help you achieve some amazing results and add sparkle to those dull images.

On page 106, my camera’s owner’s manual describes “Flash Exposure Compensation.” If you learn this technique, I guarantee you will improve the quality of your candid photography. Here’s why. Any scene has a certain amount of light available in a range of what’s called exposure values (EV). This is a way of describing the range from the brightest to the dimmest illumination in the scene you’re photographing. In the picture below, on the left, part of my model’s face and the top of her hand has bright light from direct overhead sun. Her hand shades her face – especially her eyes. The difference between these two levels of light is somewhere between four and five stops of light.

Your camera can correctly expose for either extreme, whether very bright or very dim. But when you try to capture both in one image, you’ll either blow out your highlights trying to capture the shadows, or you’ll lose detail in the shadows trying to capture the bright areas.

On my camera, a Canon 30D, if I press the flash button near the pop-up flash, my flash will fire, no matter how much light there is in the scene. In other words, even in bright sunlight, when the automatic settings would not ordinarily cause the flash to fire, I can make it fire. This is called fill flash. But how much is too much, and how much is too little? Because this is a manual flash mode, there is no flash metering. The image exposure is actually metered off the ambient light, as if there were no flash. And the flash has a set amount of power, so it could be way too bright or not bright enough.

My owner’s manual shows me the button on the top of my camera that lets me control the level of light the flash applies. By default, it’s set in the middle of a range of plus or minus two stops. Using my Quick Control Dial (a wheel on the back of my camera), I can adjust the level of the flash in 1/3 steps through this two stop range. The dial will show me how much or how little I’ve changed the flash power. It will only take a couple of test shots at the most to adjust the amount of flash to balance out the lighting of the scene; that is, to fill in the shadows.
Unless you shoot with a Canon 30D, your camera’s controls will operate differently. But most modern DSLR cameras, for sure, and some point and shoot models, will provide this capability. Read the section of your owner’s manual that covers your built-in flash. It may be called, simply, fill flash. But the manual should tell you how to control the amount of light your flash puts out

Using flash compensation, the picture on the right shows my model’s face in the same setting with the same amount of sunlight and the same basic exposure—f/14 at 1/100 sec and ISO 100—but the fill flash provided light in the shadows and also put a “catch light” in her eyes. I encourage you to experiment with this technique. When you’re in a brightly lit place, like outdoors in bright sun, or if you’re indoors in a relatively dim room, you can set your camera’s regular exposure for the ambient light and then provide a balanced amount of light from your built-in (or external) flash that will make your images snap. Professional photographers have a number of tools in their toolbags. This is one of the most versatile. Using it will help you achieve professional-quality results.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where does the time go?

Has it been a year since my last post? Time is a slippery thing as it runs through our hands. For me, the last year has been one of great intentions but not much fruition. I started a new job—not photography-related—about a year ago, and it's consumed a lot of my attention. I've gotten more serious about financial matters (even before the financial meltdown, if you can believe it). I seem to have taken fewer photographs than in the previous two years. Okay, enough. On to the new.

I enjoyed a day with a group of photographers from my area last Sunday. Thirteen of us traveled from NW Arkansas to Blanchard Springs Caverns in North Central Arkansas. We were treated to a tour by a USDA park ranger, Tony Guinn, that lasted four hours. The experience was one of those awwww wowww experiences that we were all fortunate enough to be able to capture with camera. I drove my own car and had the good fortune to have two fantastic photographers to talk with for the three and a half hour trip over and the three and a half hour trip back. My companions were Bob Shull and David Albritton. David has created a folder for his Blanchard Springs photos at, but surprisingly, hasn't posted any yet. Bob did post a few of his. I believe I'm one of the tiny figures silhouetted in one of his images at I posted a few images to our society gallery at right after I got home, but I ran short of time to post any to my own site this week. I'll rectify that by the weekend.

I look forward to more interaction with both David and Bob. We discussed some collaboration on a web site project, and I would hope we have more opportunities to go photograph together. They are very agreeable companions, and both are very talented photographers.