Balancing flash and ambient (Part1, birds)

Arguably, flash will add a tremendous amount of “pop” to your photographs, but if you are not careful, it can also destroy your work. I will try and explain how to do this, in 2 sections (Part 1, birds and Part 2, people/ pets/ kids), but the principles are really the same though. You just have to balance the flashes output to that of the ambient.

When using flash, you have 2 options, use flash as fill or use flash as the dominant light. For the type of photography I do I mostly prefer to use fill flash, and I shoot in TTL mode, as generally Manual flash is a far more elaborate process and you have more factors to take into account. My bird photography setup has an elaborate, home made flash holder that takes the light off camera axis, preventing the dreaded ‘steele eye’, similar to red-eye in humans, but cannot be removed in post processing. I don’t use any other types of modifies or the (damned) better beamer.

The way to achieve effective fill flash is to shoot in manual. Any of the semi auto modes will not give you desired results,  and auto ISO  is the devil itself, turn that off. You have to understand manual exposure, and I think the other most important thing to understand is your max sync speed. I will write more about this as time passes.

When I shoot birds, which for most parts are in the shadows, I am GENERALLY in the region of 1/160 to 1/200 sec(my camera’s max sync speed), ISO400 and f6.3, my FEC (Flash exposure compensation) is at -1EV. That MOSTLY delivers pleasing balanced results. When the birdy is in darker conditions, I will up my ISO, and when in brighter conditions, I will drop my ISO AND my aperture, watching to never exceed that 1/200 max sync speed. I watch my camera’s light meter all the time and adjust as I go. I always shoot off a tripod, as those slower shutter speeds are on the limit of acceptable sharpness, keeping in mind that flash does help with sharpness as well.

I do find that if I slightly under expose the background, the results are generally very good. Remember your TTL flash will take up little bits of slack like that, but if you push your under exposure to much, then the flash will become dominant and you don’t want that.

Some sample pictures below


Above is an example of really dark conditions where I did not manage to balance the flash with the ambient. You can see clearly that flash is the dominant light source, and this is not a picture I will keep/ publish. What I should have done here is to up my ISO, to let more of the low ambient light register on the sensor.




The 3 pictures above, all in the shade/ shadows, shows near perfect balancing of flash and ambient. Flash is NOT noticeable in these pictures, except when you zoom in to 100% and look in the eyes. You will then see the flash.

A few other technical things, White balance mostly on AUTO, and I only shoot RAW.

Hope you enjoyed the article. More to follow.

Regards, and good light





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