How to control brightness of the background when using flash

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By just changing your ISO when using your flash you can change the look of the background. With the camera on a tripod and using Aperture priority mode all I did between these three photos was change the ISO from ISO 100 [far left], ISO 400 [center] and ISO 2000 [far right].

I have the flash off camera to the left as you see in the diagram below. The flash setting is normal mode. The flash is in TTL model so that it is adjusting as needed to the scene.

Click on the photo to see it larger

In these three I did the same thing and just changed one setting. The flash mode is set on “slow sync mode”.

As the ISO goes higher the odds of you blowing out the subject with the flash will go up. As you lower the ISO the darker the background.

As you change the ISO the only other setting changing since I am in Aperture mode is shutter speed. Now unless you want a blurred image you need to keep that shutter speed close to the focal length of the lens. If you have a 35mm lens then try to shoot at 1/30 or faster. If you are shooting with a 200mm lens then you need to be at 1/200 or 1/250.

For these photos I have the flash on the camera with white dome and bounced. The reason the photos are so similar is the shutter speed adjusts to make the background match the foreground subject.

If these were not on a tripod you would see much more blur with the first on shot at 1/6 shutter speed.

ISO 100, ƒ/1.8, 1/6

ISO 400, ƒ/1.8, 1/25

ISO 6400, ƒ/1.8, 1/500

My suggestion is to do a few test shots in a room with your eye paying close attention to being sure background is the ratio of brightness compared to the subject and that the shutter speed is high enough to give me a sharp image. This is example here where I moved the camera during the 1/3 shutter speed. You may want this look.

Are you controlling your camera or is it controlling you? The more you understand how the camera works the more creative you can be and decide yourself what the look will be in the final product.

Want Silky BOKEH? Get Closer!

Nikon D750, Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D, ISO 12800, ƒ/5, 1/200

I am shooting wide open with the Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D lens. Now since I am as close as the lens will let me focus, which gives me a 1:1 ratio the ƒ-number gets bigger due to the lens extending and actually getting further from the sensor.

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art, ISO 1800, ƒ/1.4, 1/200

This is as close as I can focus the Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art lens [11.81″] of the same Christmas ornament.

Nikon D750, Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D, ISO 7200, ƒ/4.8, 1/200

Here is another Christmas ornament for comparison.

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art, ISO 900, ƒ/1.4, 1/200

Notice how much Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is out of focus at ƒ/4.8 vs ƒ/1.4 in the two photos. The depth-of-field is even more shallow in the closer photo. This is because how close you are to the subject has as much impact on depth-of-field as your aperture.

Nikon D750, Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D, ISO 12800, ƒ/4.8, 1/200

In this Citadel Christmas ornament you can see how super shallow depth-of-field is at ƒ/4.8 as compared to the photo with the Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 below.

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art, ISO 1250, ƒ/1.4, 1/200

Now just to let you see how your distance impacts the depth-of-field here I just backed up just a hair in the lower photo of the ornament with the Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D.

Nikon D750, Micro‑Nikkor Macro 60mm f/2.8 D, ISO 9000, ƒ/4, 1/200

Since I backed up the aperture opened up a little, so you would think the depth-of-field would shrink but just the opposite happened. Again this is due to the distance to the subject.

You want silky smooth BOKEH? GET CLOSER!!!

Christmas lights now easier with the Nikon D750

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 12800, ƒ/4, 1/160

Last night we decided to drive around our community seeing the Christmas light decorations.

The Nikon D750’s Highlight-weighted metering mode nailed the exposures. I didn’t have to adjust the EV [Exposure Value].

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 12800, ƒ/4.5, 1/80

I shot everything in RAW and then opened them in Lightroom. Very minor adjustments were done and more for look and feel than exposure adjustments.

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 12800, ƒ/4.5, 1/80

Now if you shoot these scenes with most cameras that don’t have the Highlight-weighted metering mode you will have to dial down the EV or you will not have any details in the highlights. You could have shot them in RAW and still not had details that are recoverable in those highlights.

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 12800, ƒ/4.5, 1/125

An added bonus last night was seeing the Coca Cola Santa Claus. My grandmother had one of these that was on the front porch every year that we went home for the holidays.

Certain types of lights helped trigger good memories for me as we drove around. Lucky for me the Nikon D750 let me just enjoy and have memories rather than spending all my time technically trying to get the right exposure.

I hope that all the new Nikon cameras will continue to have the Highlight-weighted metering mode going forward.

Location Lighting Tip – Arrive Early

I had a major executive head shot the other day. We were to shoot in four locations with multiple outfits.

All the locations were onsite at the corporate headquarters. Thus I had to set up all the lighting on location.

I think I may have left a couple things as far as my lighting gear, but pretty much everything I owned came with me.

I arrived several hours ahead of the time the executive was to show up.

I setup  each shot and had my assistant stand in the place of the executive.

These are just a few of the many test shot I took. I am not posing my assistant for the best photo, I was wanting to see how the light looked and compositions with the lenses I would be using.

Here is a quick walk through for each location:

  1. Composition first – I want to test before I set up any lights the lens for a shot. I am looking for being sure the background is wide enough behind the subject to work. This might require me to move back and forth as well as moving the subject back and forth between the background and the camera.
  2. Custom White Balance & Test Shot with Available light – You would be surprised how often you don’t need to do a thing but just click the shutter and everything looks great.
  3. Test for aperture – how much depth-of-field do I need. With one person I can shoot pretty wide open, but if you start doing group photos you need more room to work.
  4. Review the image for the 4 basic lights and evaluate as to which ones may need help.
    1. Main/Key
    2. Rim Lighting
    3. Background Light
    4. Fill Light
  5. Going one light at a time that I will add I shoot a test shot and then make adjustments until I get the desired look.
  6. Repeat until all 4 light values and color temperature is all set for the look I am trying to achieve.
  7. Pull up the images on my laptop whenever possible to see the best image. LCD on the back of a camera just doesn’t do justice for fine tune evaluating of images.

Problems I often encounter

  • Lens Perspective and Location – sometimes the only way to get a background, like a company logo on a wall, into a shot has me shooting with a super wide angle which isn’t flattering to the subject. Better to have test shots to show a client to steer them to another location. Sometimes you just cannot back up enough do the a room to make it work.
  • Lighting gear gremlins – I have had some strange things happen through the years. 
    • Plugged lights into the walls in a classroom and then all of a sudden they just started flashing. Apparently when they wired the room the polarity wasn’t correct and caused the strobes all to flicker. If I unplugged on them from one side or the other of the room no problem. Fixed it with extension cords.
    • I had a transformer in a light blow once and smoke came out of the light. 
  • Radio Remote Triggers not working – Sometimes I just need to replace the batteries and other times there are radio signals or the structure of the building is interfering with the signal. Changing channels, running long sync cords and many other solutions I have had to dream up at the last minute.
  • Lens Failure – I had oil in the lens get so hot from sitting in a car that it got all over the aperture and had it stuck wide open. Had to use another lens.
  • Flash damaged by airlines – This happened recently when I flew to Chicago. Had to not use that flash and adjust accordingly. Luckily I had more than just one flash.
There are many other problems that have occurred throughout my career. The point is simple–Arrive Early.
If you run through all the scenarios before the client arrives then the odds are now in your favor. Arriving just in time to do a shoot and just go with the flow can make you look bad in front of the client. 

Getting Good Skin Tones Shooting Basketball

Nikon D3, Sigma 120-300 mm f/2.8 DG EX APO IF HSM, ISO 400, ƒ/7.1, 1/200

The very best way to shoot basketball and get the best skin tones is to use strobes. I have four Alienbee B1600s on a catwalk lighting the basketball court.

Now depending on the colors in the room the color can shift and give you a color shift even with the studio strobes. The reason is the light is bouncing off those colored walls and ceilings. Even the crowds clothing can affect the color temperature.

There are a couple ways to get a color measurement of the light. This is using the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport system. After I pull the RAW photo into Lightroom I just click on the eye dropper tool and put it on the grey square I have pointed to here in the photo.

Walk onto the court and hold the card where the players will be and then take a photo.

AS long as you shoot RAW you will get the very best colors because you can tweak this later in the post production of PhotoShop or Lightroom for example.

So when the play is going quick and right in front of you just take the photo.

While strobes will give you the best color as long as you are shooting RAW and taking these pictures of the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport you can dial in and get the best color with the existing light as well.

My first preference is the ExpoDisc, but the cool thing with the ColorChecker is you have now more colors for comparison. You will be able to see under some lighting conditions that even after you click on the 18% grey square you may not be able to get a true purple color and since that is on the card you will see that is the best you can get.

Think Rim Light or Back Lighting

Nikon D750, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/200

The back light also called a rim, hair, or shoulder light, shines on the subject from behind, often  to one side or the other. It gives the subject a rim of light, serving to separate the subject from the background and highlighting contours.

Not having this light you can see the difference here in this second photo where the lighting crew forgot to turn on the back light.

Nikon D750, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, ISO 4500, ƒ/2.8, 1/80

In one of my masters classes I took at the Maine Photography Workshop the instructor always started first with their back light to create the separation in all his photos. This was important in where he had mixed lighting.

Nikon D750, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 10000, ƒ/5.6, 1/250

While in theater you can really see it because often there is a black background, using a back light really helps create depth into your photos. It helps create those layers from front to back in photographs.

Nikon D750, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM,  ISO 360, ƒ/2.8, 1/80

In theater and most of photography a 3 – point lighting setup is quite standard.

The backlight can be on the side or directly behind the subject. it is different from a kicker light that catches the sides of the face for example in a photo.

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/60 – 2 Alienbees B1600s for main light

The sun is the backlight in this photo. The Alienbees studio strobes are the main or key light to the right of the camera. The open sky is the fill light.

If you want to create depth, layers and separation of your subjects from the back ground then be sure and use a back light.

My suggestion is that is the first light you think about adding to any scene.

Shooting theater with Nikon D750 or D810 just got easier

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 1600, ƒ/4, 1/80, 0 EV
If you read the manual you might get more out of your camera. I didn’t ready everything in the manual about my Nikon D750 and only stumbled across the tip about the Highlight-Weighted Metering Mode.

Highlight-weighted metering is a new metering mode that is offered in select Nikon DSLR cameras including the D810 and D750, in which the camera meters the highlights to ensure that they are properly exposed and not blown out or overexposed. Use highlight-weighted metering to meter highlights when your subject is in motion, and to meter subjects lit by spotlights or colored lighting.

Highlight-weighted metering is the go-to choice when you’re photographing a spot lit bride in her wedding dress, a dancer or singer on stage, or whenever you’re faced with uneven lighting and a background that is much darker than the subject.

To select highlight-weighted metering, press the metering button on the far left dial on the camera body, and while holding it down, rotate the main command dial until the highlight weighted metering icon is displayed.

Now before I used this mode often I would either use spot metering which required me to use single square that I move around until it is on the actor’s face. Very hard to do when they are moving around the scene.

The other way I compensated using the EV in the matrix metering mode.

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 11400, ƒ/4, 1/250, -2.7 EV

So this same play similar lighting I compensated by -2.7 EV to do what is automatically done with the Highlight-Weighted Metering Mode.

Nikon D750, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM,  ISO 1600, ƒ/2.8, 1/80, -0.7 EV

I noticed the face a little white on the LCD for this scene that I shot using the Highlight-Weighted Metering Mode and dialed a -0.7 EV, which I probably didn’t need to do. There was enough detail without having to underexpose it more.

Nikon D750, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 9000, ƒ/5.6, 1/250, -3.0 EV

Earlier performance I shot it with -3.0 EV.

The key to shooting theater and having great technical images is Custom White Balance and proper exposure. Getting the exposure in the highlights proper is extremely difficult when often majority of the frame is often black in theater productions.

You wan the exposure to have some details in the highlights. If you underexpose just a little too much then the image becomes very flat and even in post production you will struggle to match the dynamic range had you exposed it just perfectly.

If you slightly overexpose you cannot put detail back into the image. With theater this means often that the people’s faces will be washed out.

I think Nikon is the way to go when shooting these tricky situations like theater. The camera does all the thinking that I used to have to do to get technically good images.

Use Light to help in compositions with Deep Depth-of-Field

Nikon D3s, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 3200, ƒ/10, 1/250–off camera Nikon SB-900 fired with Pocketwizard TTL system
When photographing in this plant I needed to see the background to give context to where the employee is working. For this reason I am shooting with an aperture of ƒ/10. I also wanted your eye to go to the worker predominately and not just wonder therefore I used the off camera flash to just hit the worker. 
The flash is zoomed to 200mm to give me more of a spotlight on the worker.
Nikon D3s, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 5600, ƒ/5, 1/250
You might prefer the photo without the flash. But how would you know without a comparison. This is key to keeping and getting clients. Clients love options even if they don’t need but one photo.
Nikon D3s, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 3200, ƒ/8, 1/20–off camera Nikon SB-900 fired with Pocketwizard TTL system
Had I not used the flash in this situation your eye would have gone to the background more than to the worker. 


  • Use Deep Depth-of-field to bring in the context around a subject
  • Keep the subject close to the camera to help with composition and communication
  • Use light to help direct the viewer, because the deep depth-of-field can compete with the subject
  • Give client options – Shoot situations with and without lights for example
Nikon D3s, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 3200, ƒ/7.1, 1/80–off camera Nikon SB-900 fired with Pocketwizard TTL system

Deep Depth of Field

Nikon D2X, Sigma 15-30mm, ISO 100, ƒ/14, 1/15
You would think by looking around the industry that everyone is shooting wide open at ƒ/1.4. There are some places like Country Living Magazine that actually want just the opposite for their viewers.
Why would someone want everything sharp from front to back in a photo?
Many people are looking for decorating ideas and want to see the details. The other thing that a deep depth of field does for the viewer is put them into the space. They can now let their eye roam from front to back in the photo and all around.
You see a deep depth of field pulls the audience into a scene more than a shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field helps you isolate a subject within the frame and the deep depth of field does just the opposite and gives more context for the subject within the frame.

When Country Living hired me to shoot this assignment I was given very specific instructions that they needed the greatest depth of field possible in all the photos.

Here are some more photos from that shoot.

Importance of Practicing Before the Assignment

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
This past weekend I watched a lot of football getting ready for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl that I will be shooting on December 31st.
The game continues to evolve and each team has it’s own unique characteristics. This year I will be photographing Houston vs FSU.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/1000
I started this season of football at the Georgia Dome shooting the Chick-fil-A Kickoff between Auburn and Louisville. 
While once you master a skill you don’t ever really lose it you do become rusty if you do not keep those skills up.
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/400
Two weeks before the Kickoff game I was out practicing at my daughter’s high school shooting the Roswell HS Hornets. By the way Roswell plays this Saturday in the the state championship game Class AAAAAA at the Georgia Dome facing defending champion Colquitt County.  
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 4000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
The week after the Roswell game and week before the Kickoff I went to another local High School game at Blessed Trinity. Again I was just trying to put oil on those skills and getting myself lubricated for the game.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 1000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
Then just a couple weeks ago the weekend before Thanksgiving I flew to Richmond, Virginia and covered the Richmond Spiders. My wife went there and they had their 125th meeting between William Mary and them that weekend. Many of the past coaches and players came to the game. My wife worked in the sports information office through college and also after graduating, so many of these were her friends.
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
I was able to practice not only getting peak action, but to incorporate signage into the photos. I must do this when shooting for corporations that sponsor these games. They want to see that their sponsorship was clear to those who saw the game.
Why Practice?
  • One reason practice our craft is so that we are not subject to living the day out of haste but rather out of calm. 
  • Camera Setting for Auto Focus – My camera has three categories for auto focus: 1) AF-C Priority Selection, 2) AF-Area Mode, & Focus Tracking with lock-on. You need to test out those settings and get the camera set for the best setup for the sport you are shooting.
  • Lens choices – Just renting or buying a lens without understanding how it factors into the coverage can be a huge mistake. 
  • Rules – You cannot just go wherever you want on a field during a game. These restrictions can impact your lens choices and impact where you shoot from during a game.
  • 1/10 of a second isn’t all that fast when it comes to stopping action. Even 1/500 isn’t as great as 1/2000 or 1/4000 for freezing that action. Freezing the action also improves your sharpness in photos.
  • Choosing the right aperture – while you may want to blur the background to get really smooth BOKEH if you are shooting for a corporate sponsor this may not be a good idea. Sometimes you need more depth-of-field to bring in the background. What apertures work best and how will you need to adjust to make this work?
Over time I realized that I needed to create settings profiles on my camera because it was taking a long time to set the camera up for sports. I ended up creating custom profile settings on the camera for: 1) Normal Shooting, 2) Video, 3) Studio Strobes & 4) Sports. 
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 560, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
No matter what type of photography you are doing take the time and practice before the assignment. If you do portraits then have someone model for you while you check out a location or check your lighting.