Varying Ambient Light:Flash Light on shoot

Flash Composite

Working with Gemma Butterworth on shoot, on gypsy/boho fashion theme, the discussion of using off-camera flash cropped up in conversation (Gemma being a very accomplished photographer herself).

We shot on a late summer evening where the light was fairly soft and ideal for a hazy, dreamy, sun drenched look. Using natural light alone we could have happily shot away as the sun dropped to create a number of images.

However, eager to try out some new flash brackets I decided to mix the lighting up a bit which prompted the why/when to use flash. It doesn’t have to be as black & white as creating photos that use don’t use flash and photos which do use flash. Flash and ambient light can be mixed with varying degrees to produce different looks and feel.

The main banner type image at the top shows three images. The image on the far left was shot using ambient light only, the middle image is mainly light by the ambient light and a touch of flash, and the right image is predominantly flash light.  Why do this?  Well it depends on how YOU want the images to look.  There was nothing wrong with the natural light but it could be supplemented to varying degrees with the flash to produce different looking images.

In the course of the photo shoot this also gives the model and me different looks/feel when collating the final image set from the shoot.

I love all three shots for different reasons.  The left image is very hazy and sun drenched, the middle image retains a lot of this haziness but a slight punch of flash adds some catchlights to the eyes and bit more contrast, and the right hand image retains the details in the grass and the harder light is more glossy and dramatic.

The soft, hazy effect in the ambient light only shots are achieved by having the model with her back towards the sun. The light streaming through to the camera creates the bleached out, sun soaked look.

When taking photos on location I tend to always decide what I want to do with the ambient light first. By pulling the ambient light ‘down’ and picking up the rest of the exposure with flash we can end up with the images at the top. We can vary the ratio of ambient light: flash light progressively to achieve the desired look.

More images from the shoot can be seen here. There’s a mixture of ambien light only and images where I have used flash to varying degree. See if you can pick which ones are which.


Femme Fatale with Alicia & Chai – Video Light



Having not used my video light in a while on shoot I decided to arrange two shoots specifically for that purpose.

Using a Femme Fatale theme both shoots were shot at night time in Old Portsmouth. I’d previously scouted out a suitable location that I knew would work.

The video light that I use is a 96 LED, dimmable, unit, which produces hard, contrasty light. Perfect for creating the cinematic drama for our theme. Being small, the light requires specific placement on the models face, or, subtle direction of the model when the light is mounted on a stand.

In either case I am aiming for butterfly styled light under the models nose, or at least, a shadow which does not smear too much off to the side.


If I have an assistant to hold the light (thank you Ryan Kempe for assisting with Chai), then I ask them to try and follow the movement of the models head to maintain this shadow.

The light is inevitably positioned straight on, at an angle of approx 45º, to the face. Shooting at an angle to the model gives a nice interesting shadow across the face…


The light itself is relatively low powered, although can be quite bright on the eye, meaning it is suitable only in low ambient light situations…. As a result I am shooting at wide apertures (f/1.8 – 2.8 territory) and high ISO’s (ISO 1600ish). My shutter speed is largely governed by ensuring a hand holdable speed based on focal length. A vibration reduction lens can help massively here if you are looking to lower the ISO.

Although cool, be careful with that shallow depth of field to maintain a sharp subject! Remember depth of field will decrease with increased focal length or shorter distance to subject.

As video light is continuous, aperture, ISO and shutter speed will all influence the exposure of the light. I don’t meter specifically for the light itself, more choose a range of settings which looks good for the backdrop and then add the light. I know intuitively at which camera settings the light will be correctly exposed or adjust the power or distance of the light to subject as required.

The white balance of the light can be adjusted to match the ambient light, or for effect, as required by adding or removing a magnetic orange filter to the front of the unit. Here, I added the filter to match the warm lights of the street/building/car lights.


For fuller length shots I also occassionally added a blip of rim light using an off-camera flash. For ‘strobe type’ lights, exposure is only affected by aperture, ISO, distance to subject and power (whilst below the max sync speed of the camera). As I am at typically ISO 1600, f/2 ish, then I had to dial my flash power way down to 1/128 power to avoid it being too strong. For effect I gelled the flash with either a red gel….


Or a blue one….


A big thanks to both models on these shoots…Alicia Penney and Chai. Miriam King for providing har/make up for Alicia and Glamragzz for providing body suit and jewellery.

A link to other images can be found on my portfolio.

Gothic Styled Shoot using Video Light


I love using LED video light for photography.

Its continuous light, meaning you have ‘what you see is what you get’ control, and its also a very tight light source, meaning it can look very dramatic and not spill over into unwanted areas of the shot.

The downside is that the power is relatively low, meaning it can only be used in low ambient light scenarios. You also have to be very specific in its placement to produce a flattering light pattern. Its going to produce hard shadows!

It was a perfect light option for a gothic styled editorial evening shoot I had planned in Old Portsmouth. I wanted to have some dramatic lighting mixed in with the candle light used to add some ambience to the shots, and provide some additional background lighting.

When blending additional light with ambient light it helps to match the colour temperature of the two to make the extra light appear seamless.

Although the shoot was performed in ‘daylight’ – it was in fact very dark at this point – the candle light produces a very warm light. As a result the main contributor to the ambient light was the candles. The video light itself is daylight balanced (5600K) but it comes with a very handy magnetic warm filter (3200K). Snapping this onto the front means the colour temperature of the candle light and LED are now much closer.

A link to the LED light can be found here. At between £60-£80 on line these are a bargain addition to a photographers camera bag!

More images from the shoot can be found in my Portfolio section of my web site.

2 great models, Charlotte King and Gemma Butterworth, and hair/make up by Miriam King completed the shoot.

Camera settings for the main above shot ISO 2000, f/4, 1/80 sec.

When the Sunlight is good enough


When meeting Ross for some retro styled fashion shots in central Portsmouth, I bought him to a spot that I thought had a complementary back drop – the red bricked buildings providing a not too modern setting and not too distracting. I like uncluttered backgrounds to my images, with the focus being on our subject.

Additionally, the buildings which flank either side of the street are also tall and I thought would therefore make a shady spot for shooting in. Why was I seeking shade? Well, I was unsure of where the sun would be at the time of our shoot and I knew that if I had a shady spot then I could guarantee some nice light through some off-camera flash. This was how I anticipated lighting the shoot.

The main image at the top however was shot with entirely the available light, not one ounce of flash light. It still though has a certain pop to it, which I like. Looking at the shadow under Ross’s nose and the gradient of shadow of light across his face should tell you everything about the direction of where the light was coming from…

The sun just happened to be coming in from the end of the street, nicely diffused by some occasional drifting clouds. This meant the light was quite soft (even at about 1pm) and coming from a good direction. I asked Ross to look into the direction of the light. Perfect and no need to add anything else! The diagram below will give you an idea of the set up.


Camera settings: ISO 200, f/4.0, 1/400

Later on in the shoot the clouds broke and the sunlight was harder. Too hard for someone to look at without squinting heavily so we moved to one of the walls and had Ross turn his back to the sun putting him in ‘open shade’.


This gave a completely different sun drenched look to the image. Camera settings: ISO 200, f/4.0, 1/320.

Additional lighting can be a necessity when the available light is not good enough, or when we want to achieve a certain effect, but its also important to recognise when no other lighting is required. Sometimes the sun is more than good enough!

Cleaning up top heavy light: On-Camera bounce flash


I recently had the pleasure of working with Florence on a 60’s vintage style shoot in Southsea. Not only did we have the fantastic hair styling & make up work of Miriam King and authentic clothing supplied by Glamraggz but we were also kindly allowed to shoot in the unique retro-chic food and music establishment Pie & Vinyl.

I wanted to capture some candid looking shots of Florence sitting at one of the tables. The initial idea for this was to use ambient light only and, with Florence sat with her back to the main window, allow the background to nearly blow out to white. There were two reasons for this; one by blowing out the background the focus would be on Florence with minimal background clutter and two, I wanted to reduce any ‘modern’ influences on the image that may be partially in focus in the background (including a car parked behind).

After a quick couple of test exposures I ended up with the below image…


The image was ok. The styling and mood carried the shot and, at a push, may have made up for a couple of niggles that I had. However, I really wanted to improve on the lighting here. The light on Florence’s face was slightly uneven. The overhanging ceiling light in the cafe was providing the key light in this scenario and was quite top heavy, as shown by the shadowing on/under Florence’s eyes.

Camera settings were: ISO 1600, f/2.5, 1/100, no flash

How could improve it?….by ‘overwriting’ the ambient light with some carefully placed flash light. Shortly after taking the shot above the car in the background moved (I didn’t really like it in the original shot) so I took the opportunity and quickly grabbed my flash gun for some on-camera TTL bounce flash. To camera right (left of Florence) was a wall about 3 foot away which I bounced my flash off.

I needed to lower my ambient exposure so that Florence would be somewhat underexposed as I now wanted the flash to be the dominant light source. Using TTL flash I could quickly change any of my ISO, aperture or shutter speed to do this and the automatic function of TTL flash ‘should’ add the correct amount of additional flash light to bring Florence up to the correct exposure. I plumped for ISO and a slight tweak of shutter speed to make my settings ISO 800/ f/2.5, 1/125. I wanted to retain the shallow depth of field so left my aperture at f/2.5. This reduced ambient exposure by just over 1 stop. Lowering the ambient light by just over a stop also brought a bit of detail back to the retro styled lamp which adds to the context of the shot.

The most valuable advice I have learnt when using on-camera bounce flash is to direct the flash light in the direction you want the light to come from. The bounce surface then becomes a large light source to produce soft, flattering, directional light. Sometimes I even have the flash head pointing somewhat behind me.

As I mentioned above, the wall to camera right was used to bounce my flash….


In addition to directing my flash at the wall, I also flagged the flash using the black card on my Spinlight 360. This is to stop any direct light hitting Florence (even with the flash head turned at an angle). I want to control the direction of my light source.

With a slight turn of Florence’s head towards the direction of the bounced flash light, you can see a lovely soft graduation of light to shade on the right side of her face. Its soft, not ‘flashy’, and no longer top heavy. Its also directional, and therefore interesting, light.

Post processing on the shot involved a conversion to black & white, increasing the contrast a bit and a slight adjustment of the black slider in Lightroom. I also cloned out the web address window sticker to keep the authenticity of the shot.

Quite often a single shot from a shoot captures the mood and theme exactly as you imagine it beforehand. I was extremely happy to capture this one.

Video Light – bringing drama and movie-style glamour


I was very excited to be allowed to shoot in Head Hairdressing in Southsea for a Vintage/Rock-chic shoot with the fantastic Florence Stirzaker. The shoot was styled by Miriam King who created a classic make-up/hair combo. We wanted to do something with a vintage/rock look without the cheese-factor that rockabilly can sometimes bring.

I knew Head Hairdressers was a great place to shoot and would be perfect for the style of shoot, having a certain modern-retro feel to the interior.

I was also excited as I knew that my recently purchased video light would provide the perfect lighting. The dramatic fall-of of light creates a certain vintage styled glamour and Florence Stirzaker has a very classic look on camera. The owner of the salon opened up the front shutters to allow maximum light in, which I asked him to close again – I wanted something quite dark and sultry looking with the video light providing a spot-light effect on the model.

Video light is a continous light source so is a ‘What You See Is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) light. Its also a small light source so, creates some definate shadows, meaning you have to be very specific in the positioning of it. I am looking for butterfly style lighting when using this; characterised by the ‘butterfly’ shadow under the nose. The relatively low power of the light, compared to a flash gun for example, is refelected in my camera settings. The main image at the top was shot at 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1600. How did I get to these settings??

The salon was dark so I had to open up my aperture and ISO in order for the ambient light to register, also selecting a hand holdable shutter speed for my chosen focal length (I had two lenses at hand a 50mm and an 85 mm). At these settings the ambient light of the salon was just light enough to provide a bit of context to the image, and without the added video light Florence would have been underexposed. Having got to this stage I simply added the video light on Florence. The video light has a dimmable light switch on it so I adjusted the power so the exposure was correct for Florence at these settings, or, with the light on full power moved it closer or further away as required.

With my aperture quite wide I had to ensure the eyes were in focus; or at least the near facing eye with Florence’s head turned as in the above image.

For certain shots I added a back light using an off-camera flash to provide some rim-lighting, which I added a blue gel to…


I manually metered the flash to give just enough power. In fact with my camera settings as they were I needed the bare minimum of power for it to register (1/128th power). I used the blue-gelled flash in a few of the other shots later on in the sequence too to provide a splash of colour to a red wall (see gallery at bottom).

One other thing to mention is that I gelled my video light to Tungsten by adding the amber magnetic panel to the front. This was so the color balance blended with the ambient lighting in the salon from the overhead hanging spot lights. If I hadn’t had done this then the light from the video light would have looked cold (blue) compared to the ambient background and required lots of cross-processing back in Lightroom to get them to match. Make your life easier by getting the shots right in camera!

Coming back to the overhanging spot lights……

I wanted to do some wider shots, taking in the interesting and fitting items on the wall, however my video light would have been in-shot with Florence standing. She is also model-tall so would have been tricky for me to position correctly! Thinking on my feet, I used the overhanging existing lights as the key light. The lights overhead hang down from the ceiling on wire so could be ‘swung’ over Florence. This then was used as a continuous key-light source, looking once more for the shadow under the nose to get in position correctly.


I was very happy with this shoot and very grateful for the modelling talents of Florence Stirzaker, brining the perfect attitude to the shots, Miriam King for the awesome styling and Head Hairdressers for the perfect setting.

Keeping Dry using Max Flash Sync Speed


Working with Kirsten-Ria on a recent water based photo shoot relied on quite a few things coming together to get the images we wanted…the tide, a nice sun lit backdrop and, not least, it involved Kirsten being game for wading into the water!

I’d scouted a nice spot up near Southsea Marina, which would provide some relatively still water and a lovely dipping sun to provide some interesting catchlights on the water.

Even approaching sun set time, the sky was clear meaning the power of the sun was still quite strong up until it dropped. I wanted to retain most of the bright shimmering sun light on the water which was my starting exposure for the main image above. Camera equipment and water tend not to mix too well so key for me was being able to light Kirsten from the comfort of the shore line.

This was my starting point….
Kirsten No Flash-1

Settigs: 1/250, ISO 200, f/10. At an aperture of f/10 I’d retained the bright lights of sun reflecting off the water as I wanted. All I needed to do now was light Kirsten.

My key light source was my flash gun, mounted in my Lastolite 24×24″ Ezybox. Whenever I am working in bright light with flash I use a 1/250 shutter speed. Why? Because this is my flashes max sync speed. At this speed the shutters of my camera are juuuust slow enough to expose the entire camera sensor during the firing of my flash. Anything above this speed will mean the camera sensor is never fully exposed as the flash fires, and will result in a visible black band of the shutter moving across the frame. Still, I could use a slower speed than 1/250 (e.g 1/100) BUT with a loss of range of my flash gun.

Below the max sync speed of your flash, shutter speed has no effect on the output of your flash. What does impact the range of your flash are Aperture and ISO. Put simply, the wider your aperture and the higher your ISO, the more you are likely to achieve correct exposure at a greater distance to subject. By using a higher shutter speed I will be forcing the widest aperture and highest ISO I can to achieve the desired ambient exposure (i.e how I wanted the backdrop to look in the image above with no flash).

To achieve the same ambient exposure as shown above I could have also used the following range of settings which would have looked the same….

1/160, f/13, ISO 200
1/125, f/14, ISO 200
1/100, f/16, ISO 200

As my shutter speed lowers I have to increase the aperture to compensate. Meaning….I lose less range out my flash and increasing my chances of having to join Kirsten in the water.

At 1/250, f/10, ISO 200 I have better chance if standing further away from Kirsten and keeping dry!

In reality using a single flash gun, at this aperture and ISO, I was close to being at full flash output to get correct exposure even standing just a meter or so from the water. But a meter or so was enough for me, or rather Miriam King who provided make up and also assisted with the holding of the light! I didn’t bother using my flash meter to establish what power setting I needed my flash at (using manual mode). I knew from experience that my flash would need to be fired at pretty much full power, especially with the baffle of the softbox in place, so with a couple of quick test shots I was able to get the right exposure for Kirsten.

All in all, a very successful shoot….

Vintage Elegance with Jade Hargood

JadeH-9A couple of weeks ago I met up with Jade Hargood in Botley for a vintage styled photoshoot. I have to tip my cap to some excellent styling from Miriam King who provided vintage hair work and make up for the shoot. The 50’s original dresses for the shoot were provided by Nikki Glamragzz.

The main photo at the top was one of many from the shoot that I was proud of.   I love the simple but elegant pose (credit Jade Hargood) and lighting – I think I’ll take some credit from the shoot!

Some technical info regarding this image…..


1/250, f/2.8, ISO 200; Manual flash off camera.

The main light source for our subject was an off-camera flash mounted in a 24 x 24″ softbox. Using the same thought process as described in my shoot with Minty the ambient light was underexposed by a stop or so and the flash light picked up the rest to give some lovely soft, and directional light, on Jade.

Specifically, I wanted a short lighting effect on the models face. Short lighting is defined by illuminating more predominantly the side of the face that is turned away from the camera. This is a classical way of lighting a females face as opposed to more masculine broad lighting. You can see an interesting gradient of light from short to broad side of face in the above picture.  To do this the light box, mounted on top of a light stand was positioned to camera left at an angle approx 90 degrees to my left…..


There were other good shots from the shoot that I intend to blog about at a later date…

It’s Bright Outside! (Sunny 16 Rule and Subject Position)


Its a lovely bright sunny day with no clouds! Perfect for taking photos………

Well, sometimes I welcome a good old bit of British cloud. I think most photographers will agree that bright and sunny can often mean very tricky shooting conditions.

The direct bright sun is a hard light source and with that, unless we control the light positioning, this can bring ugly shadows on our subject, on top of squinting eyes. The sun is a tricky light source to move but what we can control is our subject position.

I quite often will seek the refuge shelter of a shaded spot in these situations, which then gives me the option to position my subject more freely or even add additional lighting to my taste. But if there are no shaded spots and the light is too bright to overpower with extra lights, then we must position our subject so that we get flattering light on them. This more often than not involves having their backs towards the sun.

With their backs to the sun, their faces are now in open shade. No harsh shadows and no squinting eyes. The light might be quite flat but is certainly pleasant. In addition you will get some nice rim lighting on the back of them. This may blow out in certain parts but crucially the face will not be…..providing you have exposed correctly.

In a previous blog I mentioned how you can expose correctly via the use of the histogram (using my infamous white vest). This method is described in the excellent new book by Neil Van Niekerk called Direction & Quality of Light. I can’t recommend this book or his other books high enough!  But we can also make a very good guesstimate of our settings when time/circumstance doesn’t permit other methods. This guess is based on the Sunny 16 Rule…..

This states that on a very bright day correct exposure will be at f/16 when your shutter speed is the inverse of your ISO.  For example f/16, ISO 200, 1/200.

My base ISO for my Nikon camera is ISO 200 and when in bright light I tend to jump to 1/250 (my max flash sync speed – even though I did not use flash in this instance), which leaves the aperture as the remaining variable for me to adjust.

Using the Sunny 16 rule, at ISO 200 and 1/250 my aperture would be f/14.  Why f/14? Because as my shutter is increased by 1/3 stop over 1/200 I have to open up my aperture by 1/3 stop from f/16 to f/14

Quite often, with our subjects back to the sun, a 3 stop increase on these settings is spookily close to correct exposure.

Based on these settings I therefore opened up ~3 stops to give me a guesstimate of correct exposure.

f/14 > f/10  >f/7.1 > f/5

In reality I didn’t think of these numbers exactly.  I knew f/5 would be about right for 3 stops and this would be a good place to start.

What was my next step? Take a photo and look on the back of my camera! Yep, there’s no shame in admitting this.  An instant check of your photo on the camera’s LCD is a major benefit of modern technology.  I also check the ‘blinking lights’ to check my subjects face is not over exposed.

In this instance the exposure looked good and in fact didn’t need any adjustment later in processing.

For the photo below I wanted a really wafer thin depth of field so opened up my aperture to f/2.  This can be dicey, especially shooting kids, who generally move about quite a lot, but I wanted to try out my new lens with the aperture this wide open. I cannot compensate for this increase in aperture by lowering my ISO and so the only camera control I can use to account for this is by increasing my shutter speed.

Settings for this image ISO 200, f/2, 1/1250

If you juggle my settings for the previous image then my aperture has increased by 2 2/3 stops (from f/5 to f/2) and my shutter speed has increased 2 1/3 stop (from 1/250 to 1/1250).  I am therefore still pretty close to 3 stops over the Sunny 16 rule.


Once I have got my settings I can shoot away. Critically I am shooting in manual mode, which means my exposures between frames will remain consistent. If I am shooting in an automatic camera mode there will be a very, very good chance my subject will be greatly underexposed with the strong backlighting encountered in this scenario.

If I were to try and account for this using exposure compensation then this maybe OK for one image. However, if I change my position slightly, and the camera automatically adjusts the exposure again, then I face a constant wrestle with my exposure for my subject. Manual exposure eliminates this problem.