A Quick Look at Balancing Flash at Sunset, Quickly

This shot presented itself after a harrowing drive through the Santa Barbra area to get to the beach before the sun went down. (I am not advocating driving like a madman, but… I’m just sayin… we had no time.) When we arrived, the sun had already dipped and we had to run down a short road to the beach. I didn’t want to take any time to get a meter reading so I had Briana, Model Mayhem #453334, walk far down the beach and then walk back up through the surf so her footprints wouldn’t lead to the camera. As she was doing that I was having my carbon-based, voice activated light stand, my brother, moving into position. He is a wonderful photographer so he knew the angle I wanted when I said ‘slightly off axis’.

I started taking shots at ISO 100, at AV (Aperture Value at 4.5) and chimped one in. The shot looked pretty good, so I set my camera to manual at those settings I got from the AV and shot one. No flash. This let me get an overall view of the scene as it was in front of me. Most of the time, the camera will make a lighter image than I like because it is trying to ‘average’ the scene. (NOTE: If I had wanted to meter this image, I would have had to run down the beach and then carefully walk toward Briana so my footprints would be less noticeable. Take the meter reading and then go back on my steps and around to get the shot. Time’s a wastin’ and I chose to chimp.)

Looks like the AV was close, but it gave me an average meter reading that was too bright and somewhat lifeless.The sky has little color in it, and the highlights are too bright on the sand. I did know I was on to something with this first shot with her in it as I loved that reflection. So I knew that this exposure was too bright for the background light – the fixed light. I needed to establish that exposure before adding the flash. I can modify the flash, but I must deal with the ambient as it exists. I made a 1/3 adjustment with the f-stop (darker) and doubled the shutter speed. Essentially that gave me a 1.3 stop difference from the first shot.

I changed the reading as my brother got the flash going. This time the flash fired. It is set on 1/8 power to start with.

As you can see, I over compensated and the flash is too heavy. This image was a problem as well because I didn’t get the sky into it. I really wanted to see what the flash would do, and lowered the lens too low to see the sunset sky. This sort of flash beating the sun and not allowing any kind of ambient looks too amateurish to me. There are times this could look good, of course, but not here. So this shot fails because I have no sky in the background and the flash is way too heavy. I also had Jimi check to make sure the flash was zoomed out to wide angle so it would be a softer, wider light on Briana.

I crouched down for the next shot, set the flash to 1/16 and made some more adjustments on exposure. I made sure to make the shot look a lot more like I wanted to end up with so at this point I started to introduce my composition.

beach_c.jpg

OK… getting closer, but still too light in the background, and too much strobe. This time I had my brother turn the strobe down.. I was going for a wink of light, and I didn’t want the shadow so dark behind her. He moved in about 3 feet and turned the strobe down to 1/16. This is with a very wide angle lens, so he is really closer than it looks and if I moved the camera an inch to the right, you would see the flash in his hand. I am liking the flash, but the sky is way too bright, so I changed the shutter speed to 1/100 to darken the sky. As I crouched down I got a lot more reflection of the sky on the wet sand. This has the effect of opening the shot a bit.

Let’s see how that worked:

I am crouched down to show the sky, set the shutter speed to give me a dark blue sky with a touch of warmth. There is very little shadow behind Briana, and the light is far enough off axis to provide a nice sculpting quality to her arms and legs. As the sun dropped lower, I would watch the back of the screen to see how much darker the sky was going. I made one or two tweaks, finally dropping the shutter speed to 1/30. I didn’t have much time for many shots, so it was important to make each count as best as possible. I wasn’t using the rechargeable batteries and even at 1/16 the strobe was taking a lot longer to recycle than I thought it should. (That is a technical problem that always happens at the end of the day. The sun moves faster when it knows you are shooting… yeah… that’s a fact. Really.)

Here is one of the last shots I did in that light. There was less than 3 minutes from the first shot to this shot. You can see that I have moved to get more water behind her and catch more of that glow and lovely reflection. I had my brother move a little more to my right to add the strobe at a bit more of an angle. The nearly perfect match of strobe to ambient results in nearly no shadows behind her.

So a quick review: If you can make a good shot of the scene with the ambient light, then you are half way to the fill in flash shot. Just remember that you must make that shot with a shutter speed that falls within the range of your flash sync. (usually 1/250 and less). At that point it is simply moving the flash in and adjusting to taste.

I always start at 1/8 power so I have a few ways to go up and down.

Shooting at this magical time of the day is so rewarding because it is so demanding. Be prepared for quick setups, or at least be prepared for the shot because it doesn’t wait for you. Work fast and with confidence. Be aware of everything that could make the shot less than great. For instance, having Briana walk down the beach about 20 yards ad then come back at the lens from the distance so footprints wouldn’t lead directly to you. As you can see, there were enough dimples and such on the sand.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

7 Comments

  1. Again, great stuff. One question… By “AV”, do you mean ambient value? I thought it was something like that from the context, but wasn’t sure.

  2. Hi fexy01

    No, what I meant was in order to get an idea of what the setting would be I set the camera to Aperture Value, and shot a few. That gave me an initial starting point to begin the lighting. I am going to clarify above, as it is a bit confusing. Thanks.

  3. Great work..had a question, what was the ISO you used for your work?

  4. Hi,
    ISO is 100 for me usually, 200 sometimes. I can go to 800 once in a while, but only for effect or if the light just needs the extra boost.

  5. Fantastic post – I can really live the episode with you.

    I like your way of working – I do not use a lightmeter either and would take a similar approach to yours… even though it would probably take me much longer :)

  6. Thanks for a nice tutorial. This is just the kind of step-by-step explanation that I think is perfect for learning.

    One comment though:
    “I also had Jimi check to make sure the flash was zoomed out to wide angle so it would be a softer, wider light on Briana”
    Do you agree, that the softness of light comes from the size and distance of the light, not the spread of the beam?

    • Absolutely. The size of the light source is the determiner of soft light.

      What I am referring to in this shot is that the light be ‘soft’ as it falls across the stage. With all that foreground, a ‘beam’ of light would have seemed harsh, while the spread of light, and at such a small amount, the beach looks more natural, and the soft ambient but a bit raised.