How to use flash and not get a black background

Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 10000, ƒ/5.6, 1/10 – Nikon SB-900

One of the most difficult things to shoot for many beginners in photography involves shooting in a very dark location with a flash.

Cameras will pick the lowest ISO when you use a flash as their default. What happens is then the background is black and the subject is well exposed at best. However in the case of this wedding photo the couple is walking out into the dark being back lit.

Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 10000, ƒ/5.6, 1/8 – Nikon SB-900

The trick is to set the camera as if you were shooting without a flash which is to use a high ISO. Here I set the camera to ISO 10000. Then the flash was set to fire on TTL slow shutter sync. This means the flash fires immediately at a extremely fast duration and then the shutter stays open longer.

Nikon SB-900 Flash Duration

1/880 sec. at M 1/1 (full) output
1/1100 sec. at M 1/2 output
1/2550 sec. at M 1/4 output
1/5000 sec. at M 1/8 output
1/10000 sec. at M 1/16 output
1/20000 sec. at M 1/32 output
1/35700 sec. at M 1/64 output
1/38500 sec. at M 1/128 output 

With my choice of ISO 10000 the flash on TTL was probably firing at 1/16 power or less. So this is why in the photo above of the couple walking there is a blur around them due to the shutter being open for 1/8 sec yet the flash froze them at about 1/10000.

Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 10000, ƒ/5.6, 1/5 – Nikon SB-900

 Now notice as they walk from the church where the lights in the background are still impacting the exposure to the car the scene is getting darker. We have moved from 1/10 to 1/8 and then finally shooting at 1/5 to get the background to show up.

If you want to be sure you show where your subject is for reference then use slow shutter speed sync with the ISO set to where you could make photos without the flash. 

How to control brightness of the background when using flash

Click on photo to see it larger

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.

Tips for Off Camera Flash for +/- exposure problems

Off Camera Flash Setup with Nikon Speedlights

When I first wrote about doing off camera flash I realized I need to come back to this and highlight some points.

ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture and +/-

There are a few things that will affect you getting a proper exposure.  Let’s set each of these on a Nikon so that everything will work.

ISO – Be sure you are not using Auto ISO.  Start with the lowest ISO and adjust up for various reasons.  You may want to up the ISO to help open up the background for example.

Go into the menu and set the Auto FP high sync speed to 250*. Auto FP High Speed Sync is a flash mode used for fill-flash photography under brightly lit conditions. When it is set you will be able to shoot faster than 1/250 sync speed and do this only with your Nikon Speedlight system.

Set the flash setting to Slow Sync or Rear Sync.  I prefer Slow Sync for most everything. This will fire the flash and if needed the shutter may stay open for longer, but this will freeze the subject when you push the shutter.  If you choose Rear Sync then the flash will fire at the end of the shutter cycle. You may not know when the flash fires using this setting.

Please refer to the older posts on this to know how to control how much light is on the subject and how to control the background.

Ambient Light and Flash Combined

Improve your Flash photos by not lighting everything

Flash Over Exposing

First be sure to turn the flash as far down as possible.  Using the SU-800 it will go to -3 Stops.

If you still are over exposed it is usually your ISO is set too high. Lower your ISO setting.

Background is too dark

Crank up the ISO and double check to be sure you have Slow Sync chosen or you will be syncing at the lowest shutter speed of about 1/60. You may need to be slower.

Background is controlled by the camera +/- exposure compensation dial as well as ISO.

Flash is too bright or dark

Remember the control for this is the SU-800 or the master setting in the pop up flash on the models having this control.

Improve your Flash photos by not lighting everything

How do you get this result? [Figure 1]
When this is where you started? [Figure 2] Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/500 on Matrix metering.
Maybe you want the light on even less of the face like this. [Figure 3]

I started this photo shoot with figure 2. I started with a back lighted subject. Most all the light is on the background and the subject is in the shade.

This is the setup.  I used a fill flash on my Nikon P7000 to take this photo.  If you look behind the model you can see the shadow from the house and see how all the sunlight is hitting the background. Nikon SB900 on light stand with Radio Poppers PX helping be sure the signal from the Nikon SU800 is not lost outside in all the sunlight.

I suggest doing this assignment yourself and take some notes just to be sure you are remembering all your settings.  While the Nikon will capture the camera settings it doesn’t show the SB900 settings in the embedded information, only that it was used.

Shoot all these combinations and you will have 16 different photos to compare the results.  Add + series and you would have 28 total different ones to look through and compare.  
As you can see in these shots the background is consistent through each series and the skin tone gets brighter and darker due to the flash changing while the Camera setting stays the same.  You then change the camera setting and re-shoot the series with the flash.

Here you can see me changing just the camera settings on the Nikon D3. The ISO stays the same. The aperture stays the same and by dialing this under the shutter speed will change automatically because I am using the exposure compensation to change it. Had I chosen to shoot this in Shutter Priority and not Aperture Priority the Aperture would change from each setting instead of the Shutter Speed.

Since the flash is off camera and I am using the Nikon SU-800 to control the flash, I am changing the SU-800 and not the SB-900.  Here is what those changes will look like.

You can continue to go through to the -1, -2, -3 respectfully to get more combinations.  The reason I am only changing A and not B or C is the Nikon SB-900 is set to Channel 1 Letter A.

Camera setting at 0 and the flash is set to -3.  Also the Flash is zoomed to 200 so I am just lighting her face and not the outfit. [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/1000]
Camera -1, Flash 0 [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/2000]
Camera -3, Flash +3 [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/8000]

Now let’s back up and talk about the Zoom on the Nikon SB-900 flash.  The next three images are all shot with the Camera at 0 and the Flash at 0, but I am zooming the flash all the way as wide as it will go at 17mm to 35mm and finally at 85mm.

Zoom at 17mm [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/1000]
Zoom 35mm [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/800]
Zoom 85mm [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/800]

When you push the shutter you can never see it happen, but the Nikon Speed light system fires a pre-flash to set the exposure and then fires the flash.  Now remember the camera is set to Aperture priority and the camera is in matrix metering mode trying to figure all this out for you.  When the flash was at 17mm the light from the flash is falling on the model’s black robe and the camera wants to make it darker and thus shortens the shutter speed to 1/1000.  When the flash is just hitting the face with the 35mm and the 85mm zoom setting then it is at 1/800 shutter speed.

I mention this to say when you are in TTL mode shooting in some form of auto there are variances due to each scene.  This is why you want to shoot this type of test before you shoot a real job.  Just change the model’s shirt to white and everything will change again.

Let’s mix it up a little more by adding a snoot to the SB900.

I am using the LumiQuest snoot on the Nikon SB-900.  This narrows down the light to an even smaller spotlight.
I didn’t move the flash or camera, but the model moved ever so slightly in these two examples.  This is where you can use the Depth-of-Field preview button to have the flash fire a continuous light that you can see where it is hitting the subject.  I can tell you from experience that you don’t want to do this a lot without letting the flash cool down between doing this.  I burned out the tube and had to have Nikon repair it.  Use this sparingly. [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/5000] 

I pushed the depth-of-field preview button and then had the model stay still to get the light where I wanted it. [Nikon D3, 85mm, f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/5000] 
As you can see everything is the same as without the snoot in the setup.  By using the snoot the exposure changed a great deal even tho I am only having the Camera at -3 and the Flash at +3

Pass the Pen + Walk and Talk

Getting people doing something gives you better expressions.  I have two techniques for keeping people engaged when I have to set up a situation and then help it to become a real moment.

Pass the Pen

Many schools love to show the seminar setting for a class.  When you photograph in a room with everyone around the table Murphy’s Law states the action will be when their back are to you if you are photographing.

I have a few moments with everyone and explain my dilema.  If I shot this naturally it will take ten times longer due to I am on the wrong side of the table when someone starts to talk.  By the time I shift then the conversation has shifted.

I ask everyone to listen with their eyes and not just with their ears.  This really speeds up the number of usable images.

Typical conference table for a seminar class.

I then ask to borrow a pen and then give it to someone and tell everyone this person will talk.  I ask them to tell us what they did the other day or what they are planning to do that is exciting.  No one can interrupt them and they need to continue to talk until I say pass the pen. 

Even if you do not see the pen the person holds the attention of the group and lets me get the photos catching their various expressions.  Usually we get some laughs and good stories in the process.
Even in small groups I use the pen to help the subjects relax. 
This teacher used a similar technique for classroom discussions.  He had a ball of tape that he would toss to a student who raised their hand to answer a question. He tossed it to the student and when they were done they tossed it back to him.  He was quite impressive with his tosses and catches.
You can see as this student tosses the ball back he is engaged in the class. 

Walk and Talk

When you get people walking and talking they forget about you and engage quickly.  If it is just 2 people I have them walk close enough to feel each other bump occasionally.  I have one person talk and the other listen. I stress the importance of looking at each other and not the ground.  It is amazing when people are in a normal conversation they might look at the ground or off somewhere rather than looking at a person.  However, for a photo to communicate they are interested in each other they must have eye contact.

Again in the group situation I designate who is talking and ask everyone to give them their eye attention and not just their ears.  Off to the left my assistant is walking along with them out of camera range pointing a flash to them.  I normally use the Nikon SB900 with the Radio Poppers PX system to be sure the signal from the Nikon SU800 triggers the flash consistently.  The flash is zoomed out to about 28 setting to light the entire group.
Here you can see the tour guide helping tell the student about the campus.  Now for this photo I am using a Pocket Wizard Plus II to trigger the Alien Bees B1600 being fired off to the right of the group.  They are walking towards me as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand: AKA assistant) is carrying the light on a light stand and staying with the group out of the frame.
The couple is walking and talking to each other a good 50 yards from me. I like using the zoom lens so as they walk closer I just zoom out.  My VALS is carrying the Nikon SB900 with the Radio Poppers PX system being triggered by the Nikon SU800 on the camera.  I am shooting with the flash at normal setting and zoomed to 200.
The flash off camera really helps clean up the photo.  Often you will have a shadow on one or more of the people.  The other advantage of the flash winking in is it helps draw the audiences attention to the subjects.
Helping keep the dark skin tones with detail is really improved outside with the off camera flash.  I can power the flash up or down on the Nikon SU800.  Sometimes I make it +1 or -1 as compared to the exposure of the camera.  Only takes a second to look at the histogram and the LCD and see what might need adjusting.  By shooting RAW I still have lots of control in post processing, but being sure shadows have detail is really important when the dark areas can be the subjects face in a photo like this one here.
Take notice that we have details in the white shirt and the dark skin of the subjects in the photo.  This is will work in a printed piece easily.  Remember I have one person talking and the others listening with their eyes.

TTL hot shoe Flash vs Manual Studio Strobe

As your VALS is walking along with the Nikon SB900 as they vary their distance from the subject the camera still compensates being sure the power stays the same.  Of course the assistant has to remain pretty close with a hotshoe flash like the Nikon SB900 because it is not powerful enough to be much more than 10 to 15 feet away.

Now when you VALS is carrying a studio flash that means as they change the distance to the subject the exposure will change.  As they get closer the flash will get brighter and when they move away it will get darker.  However, with a studio strobe they can stay further away, since the strobes are much more powerful than a hot shoe flash.  I seldom am shooting with my Alienbees B1600 much more than 1/4 power.  I am usually at 1/8 power.  I do like to use a grid spot so I am not lighting up the ground leading up to the subjects.  I like to hit the faces and let it drop off a little.