Balancing Ambient and Strobe Lighting for Maximum Impact

While shooting in natural (ambient) light alone is perfectly adequate under certain circumstances, choosing to enhance the ambient light in a given scene by adding balanced off-camera flash or strobe can really set your portrait apart with a bright, upscale look.

If you’re just starting out with off-camera flash, you’ll likely find yourself (as we all have) working through the ‘spray and pray’ approach, desperately trying all kinds of flash and camera settings in the hope of dialing in a decent look before throwing it all on the shelf in a disappointed heap.

I mean, this is how pros get that beautifully exposed light wrapping the subject with near angelic precision, yes? The short answer: not really.. But the process is a simple one. Let’s run down a few steps and discuss what is needed to make the turn.

First, let’s discuss what is meant by the term balanced lighting.

What exactly is Balanced Light?

No need to get all scientific here, but balanced light is simply that: adjusting our flash or strobe to match the output of that of the surrounding available light, and especially so in the vicinity of our subject for best results.

The number one key to creating compelling environmental portraiture – that is, making portraits that tell a story indoors and/or outdoors in varying light – is to effectively meter the available light and our strobes to match accordingly.

Doing so will solidify precisely the light we need, and bring a swift and permanent end to ‘spray and pray’ once and for all. Here’s what we need, and how it works.

1. Invest in a capable Light Meter

The Sekonic L308S goes everywhere my lights go. It’s compact, well-made and is the go-to choice of pros of all stripes. If you want to take your portraiture, lifestyle or product photography to the next level, a good light meter is an absolute must.

Click the image above to learn more. Below are a few short videos to help get you going.

2. Invest in a capable Strobe and Trigger System

Note: The following steps will apply with any remotely triggered flash or strobe system. These are affordable systems I use frequently and recommend to shooters of all experience levels.

The light used for the images in this article, the Flashpoint Rovelight 600B, is a handy work horse due to its on-board battery and 600Ws power. This capable monolight has since been discontinued and can be acquired on the used equipment market via a quick online search.

However it’s replacement, the Flashpoint XPLOR 600PRO HSS Battery-Powered Monolight with Built-in R2 2.4GHz Radio Remote System is equally highly praised and all the more valuable having been upgraded with newly-integrated High Speed Sync capabilities.

Now that we have our camera, light and meter in hand, let’s get started.

3. Balancing Outside Ambient and Strobe

Note: working at a shallow depth-of-field in full sun typically requires the use of HSS (high speed sync) flash output, which is another post entirely. The examples shared here apply when working in medium to wider DOF only. Β 

1. Before powering on the light, shoot a desired ambient exposure to dial in the background.

In full sun or brightly lit scenarios, set the shutter speed to your camera’s flash sync speed (generally 1/200s or 1/250s, consult your camera’s manual if unknown) and adjust aperture and ISO to acquire the desired ambient exposure.

Disregard the light on our subject for now, our focus here is to expose for the background alone.

Full Sun Sample – Ambient Only

In the above image, courtesy of a recent shoot with pro cyclist Stefano Barberi and Starlight Apparel, we dialed in a suitable background exposure using the aforementioned method: shutter speed fixed at 1/250s (the native flash sync for the Sony a7RII body used) at f/16, ISO250.

Again, no emphasis on the subject just yet, our focus here is only on the ambient exposure.

Low Light Sample – Ambient Only

Here our subject (in this case, my daughter and trusty assistant/boss) is positioned in a low ambient twilight setting just after a storm with the dramatic cloud play we were seeking. Any closer to full darkness and we would lose our background tone and color, yet with just enough available light for an appealing moody look.

This one required a significantly slower shutter speed of 1/30s to gather enough ambient light at f/8, ISO200.

Okay, on to the fun stuff. Here’s where it all comes together..

2. It’s time to grab the light meter and power on the strobe, we’re now ready to balance our light and get on with the shoot.

Note: if you’re using the aforementioned Sekonic L308S light meter, refer to the brief videos linked above for detailed insight as to acquiring a remotely fired strobe reading.Β 

With our strobe powered on and meter in hand, it’s time to take a few readings. I find 1/2 strobe power to be a good starting point in full sun.

Next, position your subject and your light accordingly. With the meter in flash mode, fire the flash via wireless trigger to take a reading at the desired point of focus and exposure – in most instances, just below the subject’s nose.

Our goal here is to match the strobe output to that of our ambient exposure.

Full Sun Sample – Balanced Result

Returning to our full sun example, ensure the meter is set to match our ambient numbers. Start by setting the meter’s shutter speed to 1/250s and the ISO to 250 (or closest available), trigger the flash and take a reading.

If the output is over or under our ambient target of f/16, increase and/or decrease the flash power accordingly until f/16 is achieved. When the meter is reading f/16 flash output, the light is now balanced and we’re ready to start shooting.

By starting with a raw ambient exposure, we can successfully meter and dial in a matching key light to set our subject apart with every capture.

Light (as metered) can shift and change quickly, so be sure to take occasional readings to stay dialed in. Feel free to play with minor adjustments to the ISO and shutter speed to land a variety of creative looks.

Low Light Example – Balanced Result

As with our full sun example, all that is needed is to grab the meter, take a reading and start balancing our strobe to ambient lighting.

In a low light routine, the only difference is to start with a lower output setting, say around 1/4 to 1/8 power, but no worries – the meter will tell us precisely what we need.

3. The rest you now know. πŸ™‚

In Summary

The lasting benefit of working with a light meter and off-camera lighting is – whether shooting in full sun or low light, with a single light or multiple lights – to simply repeat the steps above and get the creative train rolling.

  • Start with a raw capture (no lighting) to dial in the desired ambient exposure
  • In full sun, power on flash/strobe and set to 1/2 power
  • In low light, power on flash/strobe and set to 1/4 to 1/8 power
  • Power on light meter in timed flash (or wireless sync) mode
  • Adjust shutter speed and ISO in accordance with ambient settings
  • Position talent and light
  • Acquire readings until meter f/stop matches that of ambient exposure
  • Re-acquire readings as needed in varying light conditions

A few caveats we didn’t cover here are that of HSS, which many light meters cannot read and require a bit of trial and error, as well as working with gels, grids and diffusers etc. All of these items can change the metering values by a stop or two, so be sure to have any modifiers in place before metering for best results.

And that’s about it for this one, so rest easy and enjoy making the most of your gear and experimenting with fun and creative environmental portraiture.

Questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments below, or drop us a line any time at mark@sojournmediaco.com.

Thanks for stopping by, as always, we hope you found the information helpful.

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