Strobe and Ambient: Finding the Mix for Portraiture

Finding your ambient exposure first can make shooting a flash portrait much easier.

I get asked a lot about how my methodology works. What am I thinking about when setting the light? How do I know what the settings should be.

For this post I have pulled some shots from last years workshop tour. I will explain the exposure planning as we go along. From mixing the ambient with the speedlights or overriding the ambient altogether, the knowledge of what the image should look like will help you decide.

And what should the image look like? Well, that is up to you. In photography there seems to be an endless amount of possibilities and you can pretty much do what you want. Stylistically and artistically, you can make the image you want by working with the light your way.

The neat thing is that the light works the same way, every time. So you can “learn” the light and its abilities and controls and be comfortable that the light will do what you expect it to.

I always carry a little book with me to sketch ideas in and also to document how I do something for later review. I decided to scan those extemporaneous drawings so you can see how simple it is to do the shots, and how important it can be to carry a small notebook for making notes. You don’t have to be an artist, but it sure helps to LEARN what you are doing by writing it down. I don’t do every shot, but sometimes I like to just sketch it quick and then see if there is anything else I could do.

Before we get going on this post, I want to remind you about the upcoming workshops: Akron, Omaha, Montana and Chicago. These workshops are intense and full of information that goes even beyond lighting. From professional working methods to using social media to gain exposure, we talk about photography all day long. For two full days. Visit the Learn to Light website for more information.

If you are currently looking for a new way to present your work, take a look at our Professional Photographer Websites built on the power of WordPress. Just click the Essentials link on the menu bar for more information.

Now lets look at five different portrait setups that use speedlights and ambient light.

You may want to take a look at this post for some information on calibrating your lights and learning exactly what the power is going to be at the distances you choose. My 430 and 550 are both right at f-8 at 1/8 power at about 5.5 feet. That knowledge means I have total control by power setting and distance

No Flash / Flash side by side: Using a tiny amount of flash to add a little sparkle to the image.

The shot above represents a neat ambient blend of speedlight and soft ambient light that wraps all around the subject. After getting the exposure with my Minolta meter I could begin to plan the lighting and what it should be. I usually take an ambient light shot without strobes so I can see how the light is falling and get an idea of the image as it will be presented.

The shot on the left shows the ambient only photograph. You can see that it isn’t bad at all, but the one on the right has a little more snap to it. F-4 at 1/160 was the meter setting and I took several shots with the ambient only before adding the strobes. The ambient shot isn’t bad, and we shot several shots with the ambient as it has a nice, soft look to it.

When it came time to add the strobes I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve. I wanted the ambient look but with a little pop from the strobes to open the shadows on her face and give the skin a brighter look. I didn’t want the strobes to overpower the ambient, just to add a little bit to the shadows. I did not change the exposure of the image with the strobes, as I knew they were so close to the ambient exposure.

Here is the diagram for the light:
Lighting Diagram for the Gazebo shot in Maine.

Below I have the shot of Briana after some minor Photoshop work.

You can see how gentle the light is here. We didn't want to overpower the ambient, just add a little spark to the image.

You can see how gentle the light is here. We didn't want to overpower the ambient, just add a little spark to the image.

Here is a shot of Briana on the sand bridge heading over the hill. It was very cold and blustery at this time. We were both cold, so we wanted to make the shot and get it in the can before we both froze…

The shot with the ambient is terrible. To open the shot with the ambient would have meant that the sky would have gone white and the shot would be very flat.

I needed then to add some strobe to it to bring the shot up in value and leave the sky dark. To add light to the subject and not change the shutterspeed was the goal. That allowed the shutterspeed to control the background (the dark gray sky) and the strobe to fill in the light up front and the subject.

Looking at the shot now, I realize I should have used a flag on the front part of the image to darken it a bit. I had to lower the values in Photoshop, as I didn’t want the image to look flashlit so much. Below is the shot at ambient and with the flash. I used a 430 on a stand, bare with no modification.
Bri on Sand Bridge in Maine. We added the strobe to the ambient for a fun shot.

Here is the diagram for the above shot:
Maine: Briana on the Sand Bridge: With Strobe and without Strobe.

And here is the final shot. I brought the values down a bit in the front with photoshop and some layer blends. Creating a more even transition of light from the foreground to the background keeps the shot from looking too “over lit.”
Final shot as prepared in Photoshop.

Next up is this shot of Briana in Nova Scotia:

I like the look of the light and background matching.

I like the look of the light and background matching.

This shot shows what the background looks like without the strobe. I generally make a few shots to see what the background is going to do before I start to add the strobe. I want to see how the light would look without my added lights. What happens to the leaves and the shadow that is being thrown forward? Will there be any issues with the bench?

I find it very important to “build” a shot. Starting with the ambient exposures gives me a great starting point. I new that 1/160 was within my strobe sync speed on the Canon, so all I really had to do was add my strobe at the position I wanted and at the power I need to get f-14. Since I know that at 1/8 power at 5.5 feet it would be f-8, I simply had to change the power to get to f-14. 1/4 power would give us f-11 and 1/2 power would give f-16. I simply moved the light back about 6-7″ and it would give me f-14.

Lighting Diagram:
Briana on the Bench in Nova Scotia: Blending the Flash with the background light.

I made sure that the flash would not throw any shadows across the face or create any difficult lighting problems. I do that by making sure that the axis of the light was straight onto Bri, not too far to the side or too high. At the level I have the light, it throws a shadow under her chin, but it is nearly straight back. It is one of only a few flash “tells’ Making the light seem natural was my goal.

In Photoshop, I was able to make sure that the light was nice and smooth and I added a bit of contrast with Tony Kuyper’s Luminance masks, and painted some gentle highlights on the arms and dress. Overall, there was a little Photoshop, but not too much.

Here is the shot after the Photoshop:

I wanted to match the background: after a shot with no strobe, I knew that it would be easy to add a strobe.

I wanted to match the background: after a shot with no strobe, I knew that it would be easy to add a strobe.

It is so important to make some shots first and to see what the light is going to do before you add some of your own. Knowing what the strobe output at specific distances makes this rather quick. At that point it is angle to subject, the angle to the camera and camera angle to the subject… the triangle that is the basis of lighting.

There are two more in PDF form if you would like to download them. Thanks for stopping by. And please let your friends know about Lighting Essentials – a place for photographers.

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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.

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