Mixing Flash with Ambient Light

This morning I think I hit the snooze button a few too many times. As in, every five minutes from 5:45 to 6:30. I think it tricks my brain into thinking I’m actually getting more sleep than I would if I’d just get up at 6:30. Corey says that when we get married it has to stop, because he won’t be able to handle it. But I’m pretty sure I’m now in the habit.

Anyway, moving on…

The topic of mixing flash with ambient light was brought up last week in a forum I’m a member of, and I also had a couple conversations about it with two different photographer friends this weekend (Hi, Michelle and Allison!). Major thanks to Chris Hsieh for teaching me this trick a few months ago. When I got my first speedlite, I had no idea how to use it and make it look natural. Yes, I knew how to bounce it off of the wall behind me in my living room (which always works!), but what about in a big ballroom at a wedding reception that doesn’t have walls nearby? I used to be so terrified of using flash. But now, not so much.

The technique is called dragging the shutter, and with your hot-shoe mounted flash (or even the pop-up flash, I suppose), you can easily hand hold slow shutter speeds like 1/30th and still get crisp images. This is what I do. It might not be the right way. And it might not work for some people. But it works for me!

I set my flash to ETTL (which is basically like automatic mode for flashes). I control the amount of output by changing the exposure compensation dial. If I need more power, I set the dial to +2/3, and if I need less, I’ll maybe set it to -1/3. Some photographers absolutely hate ETTL mode, because they don’t have full manual control. But by riding the exposure compensation dial, it gives me enough control to make the images I need.

Here’s an example of an image with a regular shutter speed. The flowers are exposed properly, but the background of the image is pretty dark, leading the viewer to assume flash was used. I don’t like it to be obvious that I used my flash, so I’m not a big fan of this image..

Then I changed the shutter speed from 1/200 second to 1/30 second. The flash still exposes the flowers the same (I’d probably pull back the highlights a little bit in this image), but the slower shutter speed allows for the background to be exposed more properly. And since the flash fired, it freezes most of the movement that you’d normally see at 1/30 of a second. I prefer this image over the first.

Here are a couple more examples of dragging the shutter. I’m sure there are a lot smarter people out there, so if you have some more tips about this, feel free to jump in to the conversation in the comments!

Happy Monday!

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  • jacqui - hello! do you still use cybersync/ 430ex as your flash set up? What are you working with now for receptions? Also, what is your lighting setup for Formals in a dark church? Thanks so much!ReplyCancel

    • admin - Hi Jacqui! I’m still using the system at the link below, but instead of the faster shutter speeds I was using back then, I usually utilize slower shutter speeds to allow for ambient like like in this article. I’m planning on writing an updated post about off-camera flash in the coming months! For family formals I have an Alien Bee light that use with an umbrella!


      • Dori - Thanks your tips are very helpful. How many batteries do you go through? Do you now use any light modifiers like the gary fong light sphere or add the softbox?ReplyCancel

        • Rachel Ruffer - Hi Dori! I use Eneloops and if they are freshly charged I generally don’t have to change them, unless I’m at the reception for more than a couple hours. The only modifier I use is a bounce card on my on-camera flash. I currently don’t use a modifier on my off-camera flash. I have a whole post written up about my reception lighting set-up here.ReplyCancel

      • Dori - I also have the crop sensored 7D camera. Many professional photographers I read about used a full sensor camera and so their lenses are perfect for what they use. I personally own the a 50 mm 1.4 EF lens, 24-70 2.8L EF lens, and the 70-200 EF lens. I was thinking of renting others and trying them out. But to same me time and money I was curious as to what lenses do you bring to a wedding ceremony and reception? Which do you normally use during the ceremony and which during the reception? If you prefer to answer outside of this blog please e-mail me. Thank you.ReplyCancel

        • Rachel Ruffer - I think you have a great selection of focal lengths with your three lenses! I mostly use my 50mm, 28mm, and 100mm, but I go into which lenses I use for what parts of the day in this article! One thing not mentioned, I primarily use my 28mm after the reception formalities when everyone is just dancing. :)ReplyCancel

          • Dori - Are you using them with battery packs? Or is the 2 hours covered under 4 eneloops? what mah are they?

          • Rachel Ruffer - No battery pack, just 4 basic Eneloops.

          • Dori - Sorry. The last comment was for the flash post. For this one, I wanted to ask how wide your prime lenses go and whether any of them are macro lenses. I know my 24-70 will do macro, which I want to use for ring photos, but I was wondering if a 100mm macro would do better. But if 70 mm does well on a crop sensor for that purpose than I will not bother. Also do you change out your lenses constantly or do you carry two cameras with different lenses? Are you still shooting solo or with a second shooter.

          • Rachel Ruffer - The widest lens I currently have is my 28mm. You can see my gear setup here. I have a 100mm macro, but I’ve heard that a 50 macro is easier to focus with and has less camera shake than the 100. Because of the long focal length, it’s also hard to keep a large area in focus when shooting macro stuff. I don’t own a single zoom lens, and I only shoot with one camera (although I have a backup in my bag – always important!), so yes, I tend to change lenses quite often. I keep my lenses in my Kelly Moore bag without the caps (both front and back) so it’s quick to switch! Having a hand strap is helpful when switching lenses!

          • Dori - What’s the largest aperture of each of your lenses. I am afraid my zoom lenses being 2.8 will not get enough light in my camera when it is in a large dark room. I believe OCF will help but wouldn’t my flash require more battery power if my lenses isn’t open to 2 or less? I can drag my shutter, but I don’t think I can hold my camera long enough to prevent camera shake. Maybe on a wide angle lens but not on a telephoto. Also, I think I came across somewhere that you changed your main camera. Is it full frame? Is that what was used in the photos above? Does having a full frame vs a crop sensor make a lot of a difference as far as angles on your lenses? What was the FEC in the photos above? Sorry for all the questions. I was just asked to do my first wedding in a few months, and I am completely nervous.

          • Rachel Ruffer - Hey Dori. Just breathe… it will all be okay :)

            First thing’s first… go read this article on my Love Your DSLR site: So You’ve Been Asked to Shoot a Wedding? Reading the follow-up about reception lighting would be helpful, too.

            Second, don’t worry so much about battery life and such. Just have lots of Energizers as backup (as well as a backup battery or two for your camera!) and you’ll be golden. Promise. Third, an f/2.8 lens will be way better than a kit lens any day. I know photographers who shoot weddings with just the 24-70 and 70-200! If they can do it, so can you. :)

            The last piece of advice is to get off the computer, stop reading blog posts, and practice! You don’t want to be fiddling with new techniques the day of the wedding, so grab a flash and try some of this stuff in your home, at church, or a friend’s place. Nothing will give you more confidence than actually doing it! Grab some friends and do a mock wedding! You’ll be great :)

  • Wedding Reception Lighting: CyberSyncs + Off Camera Flash | Rachel Ruffer Photography - […] ***EDIT: Also check out my newest lighting post about mixing flash with ambient light!** […]ReplyCancel

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