Portraits on location in Wales: Balancing Flash and Ambient Light

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: July 25, 2020

Category: General | Photography

Last weekend I was over in Wales after what seems like such a long time having not seen my friends Ian Munro, Anthony Crothers, Steve Deakin, Simon Fowler and Gerwyn Williams.

Always good times when we get to hang out especially when it means taking photographs which was the inital reason for us getting together as I needed to do a Character Portrait Photo Shoot for a talk / presentation I’m doing on behalf of Sony and Castle Cameras.

Blessed to have these guys as friends
L to R: Gerwyn William, Anthony Crothers, Simon ‘Foxy’ Fowler, Ian Munro, Steve Deakin, Yours Truly

Some time back I’d spoken with Simon aka Foxy about wanting to do a portrait shoot on location with him playing the part of a Farmer and so this is what we went for.

No sooner had I mentioned it to Ian he was out there scouting suitable locations. I mentioned that I’d like to photograph Simon in character out in the countryside and there to be a wooden gate / fence and distant rolling valleys. In no time came back with suggestions which were perfect and quite literally minutes away from where he lives.

We all met at Ian’s Studio (Skint Creative) which was like an episode of Strictly Come Dancing as we all kept distance from each other; must admit this did feel really strange as ordinarily when we meet up there’s plenty of hugs going around but hey…needs must.

Once we were all set and had settled on the clothing Foxy was going to wear for the Farmer Character out of all the items he’d brought along, we then headed to the chosen location.

The Photo Shoot

As for the actual photo shoot, ordinarily if I was going to photograph someone out on location I’d use camera settings that meant he was perfectly exposed. However,  doing so would mean that the sky would be featureless and blown out and that’s because the camera (unlike the human eye) can only expose for one or the other … the scene or the subject, and this is why we need to use ‘off camera flash’.

I’m going to be going through all of this in detail in a FREE, LIVE webinar on Friday 31st July 2020  (details are further down) but for now here’s an overview of the process…

Step 1

Dial in camera settings to expose for the scene.

Here’s what I used:

  • ISO 50
  • Aperture: f/5.6

The shutter speed however needed to be quite high; in fact to have detail in the sky but still maintain some detail in the shadow areas I had to set the camera shutter speed to 1/500sec

This is faster than the native sync speed of the camera or rather the optimum speed that the camera and flash can talk together so that when the shutter opens to expose the sensor, the flash goes off and fills it all before the shutter closes. Ordinarily if you set the shutter speed of the camera so that it’s faster than the native sync speed you’ll end up with a black area which is a line across your picture where the shutter closed before all of the light from the flash could fill it.

The native sync speed of my Sony A7RII is 1/250sec.

In the pictures above, A is where the camera settings are set so that Simon is perfectly exposed but in doing so you can see that this means the sky is blown out and pretty much featureless despite it being an overcast cloudy day.

In B, the camera settings were changed to a shutter speed of 1/500sec which then meant because of the faster shutter speed we now had an interesting sky however Foxy was under-exposed.

Step 2

High Speed Sync.

To overcome this we use High Speed Sync (HSS); a function that is widely available these days as it is in my Westcott FJ400.

Now although not visible to the human eye because it’s happening so incredibly fast, when we use High Speed Sync, rather than the flash going off once, it actually pulses many times so that as the shutter is revealed (first curtain) it starts to light it up and as it closes (2nd curtain moves up) it continues to light it.

In short what this means is we have now used the camera to expose for the scene (sky) and at the same time the flash will go off and put enough light on Foxy so that he too is well exposed.

With regards to the flash I use it in TTL Mode so that the technology can work out what it thinks is the right amount of light to push out of the flash. This gives a great starting point however this is when I override it and add Flash Compensation meaning no matter what the technology thinks, I actually want it to put even more power out of the flash.

If at these times you reach the maximum amount of light you can push out of the flash you know you need to either a) consider a more powerful flash or b) just wait for a little later on in the day when the light isn’t so bright that you need to use a high shutter speed to get detail in the sky / scene.

Also something else to consider is that for these couple of portraits you’ll see that I was using a softbox. Now I was using this along with the 2 diffusiuon panels (inner and outer) so as to create a soft light on Simon (matching the softness of the natural light of the day). The diffusion panels by the very nature of what they are do knock out some of the power from the flash before it hits your subject; one panel may take out around 1 stop of light, so 2 of them we could be looking at 2 stops of light and that’s quite a bit to lose. So again this is why it might be time to have a more powerful light if you find it’s struggling OR you could use just one diffusion panel or even none of them. The problem here though is that if you remove one, you’re making the light slightly harder and if you use none, well, your light (certainly in this picture) will be harder than the natural light of the day). 

In my opinion, this is when you’d want to have a more powerful light rather than sacrifice the look of the light hittng your subject; or again…just do the shoot later in the day when the natural light isn’t so bright and your flash won’t have to work so hard. Does that make sense?

Anyway, here’s the final edited results of the photo shoot and the pictures that I’ll be going through in the webinar in more detail with some other visuals to explain what I mean…

The photograph above was the main one I wanted however the location had so much to offer, I just had to do this one taken just a few paces away…

Kit / Gear Used


With regards to kit / gear used, this is what it consisted of:

*Check out my Gear Page for more information about the equipment I use day to day

You’ll also see that I was shooting tethered straight into my laptop; something I ALWAYS do because it allows me to not only see the photographs on a much bigger screen as they are taken than that on the back of my computer, but also means I have the files on there too.

The cable I use is by TetherTools and is the TetherTools USB 2.0 Male to Micro-B 5-Pin (15′) ; I’ll be changing to the Sony A7RIV in the near future and so will make use of the Wireless utility in there but also the Air Direct from TetherTools but I’ll let you know more about that later.

As for the actual photo shoot and how I used the flash outdoors to get both a dramatic sky AND light Simon, this is what I’m going through on Friday 31st July 2020 at 10.30am (UK) for Sony and Castle Cameras.

The webinar is FREE to watch and you can cartch it LIVE over on the Castle Camera Facebook Page here: LINK

The Behind the Scenes photograph below shows the simple set up used…

The light was actually moved more to the right in the final picture so that it was more on ‘camera axis’. The reason for this is that I didn’t want there to be any defined light pattern on Foxy’s face because the sky was overcast which meant very even flat light. Having an obvious light pattern on Foxy where there were obvious highlights and shadows cast from one side wouldn’t have fitted with the natural light in the scene…if that makes sense. The object of the exercise here is to balance the natural / ambient light with the flash in a way that the use of the flash isn’t obvious.

You can also see that I’m taking the picture from low down and angled up which gives more drama / impact to the final photograph.

I also have my laptop inside a pop up shade which stops the outside light shining on the screen and so that I can see it clearly. This one I got when I was in the Netherlands a couple of years back or so and it’s called the iCap.

Anyway, like I said this is just an overview of the process of how I balance the use of flash and ambient light so that I can maintain drama in the sky / scene but also light the subject without it looking too obvious that flash has actually been used.

I’ll be going through this in more detail and with more visuals / video on Friday 31st July 2020 at 10.30am in a FREE, LIVE Webinar on behalf of Sony and Castle Cameras and this will be broadcast on Castle Cameras’ Facebook Page: LINK

Be sure to head over to the LINK and register for the event (it’s free) and I hope to ‘see’ you there.


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1 Comment

  1. Trevor Ager

    I will be in Wales tomorrow (Sunday). Don’t think I am going to get any portrait photography done while I’m there so good to see what you have been up to. It must of been a fun day with you and Ian getting back together. Hope to see the video on Friday.


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