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Add Sparkle with Flash (but not too much)

family-portrait

I remember interviewing a potential second shooter for my event work, and having her tell me she never uses flash. “I like the natural look,” she would say.

For this portrait of Danielle Winkler, I set flash exposure compensation to -1.0 for a more natural rendering. Photos by Derrick Story.

For this portrait of Danielle Winkler, I set flash exposure compensation to –1.0 for a more natural rendering. Photos by Derrick Story.

I get her point. But the trick to flash photography is creating a natural look. Nobody wants a shiny, overexposed subject with a pitch black background for an event portrait. I think most shooters are looking for a pleasing rendering, and you can do that with flash.
Most of the time, all this requires are two additional adjustments. First, get to know where your Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) control is located. Use it to dial down the strobe’s output, either manually or using the FEC setting. I’ll typically land between –.33 to –1.0.

Why? Because universally, flashes almost always overexpose the subject when left to their own devices. I’m not sure why manufacturers set them up this way, but I do know that dialing down the output produces better results.

Then use regular exposure compensation to adjust the background. More often than not, I find myself slightly overexposing the background to blend nicely with the subject. Another trick that I’ll employ is to have the sun serve as a rim light, adding a pleasing outline to the hair and shoulders. This is what I did for the family portrait at the top of the article.

When I teach environmental portraiture at my workshops, I’m a little surprised at how often participants don’t even know the location of their flash exposure compensation setting. I recommend that not only do you find it, but practice adjusting it before your next photo outing. Subjects tend to get anxious while photographers fiddle with their controls during a shoot.

As a rule, I’ll leave FEC at –.33 as my default setting. That way, if I have to take a quick shot, I won’t be as likely to overexpose the subject.

These are the types of techniques that Mike Hagen covers in his book, The Nikon Creative Lighting System, 3rd Edition. He solves the common frustrations associated with flash and teaches readers how to use the SB-500, SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, SB-900, SB-910, and R1C1 strobes. Also included is a chapter showing system configuration so readers can duplicate the desired results on their own. I highly recommend his guide.

Going back to that interview with my second shooter. In the end, it came down to learning that flash can be beautiful. You just need to know which levers to pull.

Derrick Story is the photography evangelist for Rocky Nook Publishing.

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