Sunday, May 17, 2009

Delicate Balancing Act

Check out these two pictures of a saw-whet owl. Because our eyes can see a brightness range of about 11 f-stops, my eyes could clearly see the owl in the scene. However, because digital cameras can only see about 6 stops, a natural-light picture taken with the camera set on any of the automatic modes (with no exposure compensation) would look like the picture on the left.

In the picture on the right, we can clearly see the owl. For that shot, I used a technique called “daylight fill-in flash photography.” Here’s how to do it:

1) First, you’ll need either a flash with variable flash output control (+/- exposure control), or a camera that let’s you vary the flash output in-camera.
2) Turn off the flash.
3) In the Manual mode, set the exposure for the natural light scene.
4) Turn on your flash and make an exposure with the flash set at – 1 1/3. If your picture looks too much like a flash shot, reduce the flash output to – 1 1/2. If it’s still too “flashy,” continue to reduce the flash until you are pleased with the results.

This techniques works because even in the Manual mode, the flash operates in the TTL mode. I suggest that you master this technique. It is an essential tool used by most of my nature and travel photography friends.

Sure, you might get a similar shot with your camera and flash set on Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, but this technique gives you independent control over the subject and background brightness: you can darken and lighten the subject by adjust the flash output, and you can control the background illumination with your shutter speed.

Let me know if you'd like to see more Speedlite tips - for shooting indoors and outdoors.


Antonino said...

Thanks for the tip!! I'm always up for as much speedlight tips as I can get.

Rick Sammon said...

Have you tried the Pocket Wizards? They rock!!

Rick Sammon said...

Mo' tips:
1) Take the damn flash off the camera.
2) Diffuser the flash.
3) Come on a flash workshop :-)

Endorean said...

Great Article Rick Thank you.

With step 3 do you want the exposure meter to read zero in your camera?


Peej said...

fantastic tip Rick. I've been working hard to balance the flash with ambient shooting some broad-winged hawks nesting in one of our trees. It's been difficult but most likely because I used aperture and shutter priority with my canon.

Could you discuss using a flash extender with telephoto lenses as well? Like how to align them properly etc.

Jim said...

Have you used the "Better Beamer"?

Rick Sammon said...

Endorean - Set the exposure so you are happy with the natural light exposure... which you can check on your camera. Thanks, RS

Rick Sammon said...

HI have used the Better Beamer? Stay tuned for a tip from Naturescapes's Greg Downing.

Mary Lou said...

Great tip, Rick!
I'm working on trying out the super tips from the St. Augustine and Sarasota workshops. Excellent!!
Any lighting tips are always helpful!
I LOVE the "Secrets" book! One tip each page is the best- with photos explaining each one. Thank you Thank you!!!

Greg Downing said...

Hi folks :)

Use of the "Better Beamer" Flash Extender will extend your flash's range. In fact it will DOUBLE the effective distance of your flash.

A Better Beamer Flash Extender also allows for faster refresh rates and reduced battery consumption, creating a better chance of catching the action when it happens. It's lightweight, simple to attach with the Velcro band provided, and conveniently folds flat for packing. And it's cheap - less than $40

As promised here are some tips for using the "Better Beamer" with your flash:

1. Don't spot light; Make sure you are using a lens with an effective focal length of 300mm of greater. If you are shooting digital (we all are aren't we?) then you can take your "crop factor" into account. For instance for a nikon shooter with a 1.5x crop factor your 200mm lens becomes 300mm "effective". The reason this is important is that the Better Beamer narrows the beam of light emitted from your flash to about 300mm - so anything shorter and the result will be a spot light effect with the flash only illuminating the center of the image.

2. Set your flash zoom; The manufacturer recommends setting the zoom of your flash to 50mm. This allows the light emitted from the flash to hit the lens of the flash extender just right. If you forget to do this you may get unpredictable results and you will not be taking full advantage of the Better Beamer.

3. Get it off camera; By using a flash bracket, such as a Wimberely flash bracket system ( ), you will be getting the flash off axis from your lens, thereby reducing the chance of "red-eye" or "steel-eye" in your subject. The longer the lens the higher the flash needs to be!

4. Line it up; When using a Better Beamer the front of the fresnel lens itself needs to be as close to parallel to the front of the camera lens as possible or you risk uneven lighting and having the flash miss the subject altogether.

Take a look at the front of your lens and eyeball the front of the flash extender to make sure they line up parallel. If you are using a flash bracket you can make an up and down adjustment until it is just right.

5. Make no further adjustments; When using your flash in TTL mode there is no need for additional adjustments as your flash is still doing its job in helping to determine the proper exposure. Remember, the Better Beamer is simply going to extend the available range but your flash is going to do its job with the exposure. When shooting manual flash you will need to double the numbers (see the article linked at the bottom of this post for details.)

6. Take it off if you are close; As much as I love the Better Beamer it can also cause problems if you are too close to your subject. If you find yourself frustrated with over-exposure, even after adjusting your flash compensation way down, then you may be too close for the Better Beamer to work properly. Simply remove it and try your shot again. In TTL your flash unit will display an effective near distance and an effective far distance. If you pay attention to the distance scale on your flash remember you are doubling the distance - and that includes the distance by which you are too close for the flash to properly expose the subject.

For more detailed information about the Better Beamer Flash Extender you might want to check out my article on here: purchase a Better Beamer Flash Extender in the NatureScapes store check here: sure to get the correct one for YOUR flash.

Feel free to ask further questions and I will do my best to respond promptly :)

Happy Shooting!

Greg Downing

Rick Sammon said...

Greg - thanks for a great post! See you in Bosque de Apache in Dec. Readers: Info on our Bosque Del Apache workshop on my workshop page:

UltimatePhotoContest said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sean said...


I have an old Rebel XT with a 430 EXII speedlite and when I turn the flash on after setting the exposure manually the shutter speed goes back to 200 and I can't change it. Is this a limitation of the camera or am I missing something? Thanks!