3 Steps to Balance Flash with Ambient Light


Welcome to a beginner’s guide on how to balance flash with ambient light. Have you just started with flash photography and is struggling to balance the flash with ambient lights? Have a subject that is too bright and the surrounding too dark? Changed the settings only to get the surroundings too bright and subject too dark?

Well, you are not alone and that is the exact same problem I faced when I first picked up a flash. My initial thoughts were to get one of those light meter things and use one of those crazy exposure calculation apps. But it turns out that there is an easy step-by-step way to do it, without the need for a light meter nor rocket science – Which is what I will share in this guide. Read on to find out!



Before We Start

Step 1
The Environment

Step 2
The Subject

Step 3
The Flash

Useful Bits

Take it Easy




Before we properly start with the tutorial, here is a couple of stuff that you need to know, and gadgets that you need to have.



In this tutorial, we are going to touch on the technical stuff of exposure – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Knowing how exposure works in photography is one of the keys to balancing the flash and ambient lights; We need to know how to manually adjust the camera settings for the magic to happen.

As the exposure triangle is too much to squeeze into this guide (and out-of-topic), I will leave a link to another guide in the extras section below if you do not know what it is.



Captain Obvious to the rescue. We need a camera and a flash… Or at least a reflector.



This “magic” method that we going to use is pretty much based on the divide and conquer strategy. If you are having problems dealing with both the subject and background at the same time, then deal with them one at a time instead. We will start with the background first, without the subject.



Begin by choosing a nice spot that you think will serve as a good backdrop to fit your subject. There are no hard rules on how to choose a location – Indoor or outdoor, just keep an eye open for a number of things:

  • Essentially, the location must suit the theme that you want.
  • Dangers to look out for – Don’t shoot in the middle of a road, at the edge of a steep cliff, or at an overly crowded place with plenty of photobombs.
  • Permission – Yep. One does not simply just walk into places like Area 51.
  • Lighting conditions to deal with – Light can be spotty under tree canopies, signboards with funky colors can ruin the entire shot, etc…
  • The direction of the lights – Is the subject going to face the sun, or have the back against the sun? (Facing the sun is probably a better idea)




Once you have decided on your million-dollar backdrop, it is time to deal with the camera settings. A gentle reminder again, this is just the scene without involving the subject and flash yet. As much as I would like to say “just shoot in the auto-mode”, but there is a small twist to the usual shots here – We have to include the subject and flash into the equation.

We have to visualize how the photo will look like in the end, then work out a “good enough” camera setting. So sadly, there is no “one size fits all” setting that I can share here. Here are a few common strategies and settings to consider instead.

  • Use a large aperture so that the background will blur out when the subject is in the frame.
  • Deliberately underexpose the background a little so that flash on the subject will stand out more in the final photo.
  • A dark background is not necessarily bad – It can bring out a certain mood more.
  • Vice-versa, deliberately keep the background overexposed to reduce a busy background.

Well, the whole idea here is to get the backdrop exposure correct at this stage, so don’t worry too much about having perfect shots at this point. It can be adjusted later, just get a close enough setting.



For the beginners who are still not too sure about shooting in the manual mode, you can use the semi-auto modes and in-camera metering to help you.

  • Switch the camera to the aperture or shutter speed priority mode.
  • Set the camera to the matrix metering mode (whole frame).
  • Dial-in a comfortable aperture or shutter speed that you need.
  • Use the automatic metered settings, copy it into manual mode.
  • Adjust the settings as you see fit.

Yep, I will actually recommend working with the semi-auto modes instead… Beginner or professional, it really saves a lot of time with fewer variables to deal with.




When we are done with the background, the next move is to introduce the subject onto the scene.



At this stage, we already have a good enough exposure setting for the background, and it is time to include the subject in the scene. Note – Do not add the flash at this point yet, but just take a couple of test shots. They will probably end up with uneven exposure, but it is just to confirm that the framing and exposure settings are as you wanted.

We can still quickly adjust the settings at this point as needed. For example, maybe the background is too nice to be blurred out. So we can use a smaller aperture but rebalance it back by boosting the ISO and/or using slower shutter speed.




Now that we have all the framing, subject, and camera settings out of the way, the final step is to simply add a flash to brighten up the subject. One may get lucky and nail the shot with TTL at times, but there are times where it is easier said than done. Here are a couple of tips and stuff to take note of.



Before some of you beginners get confused with the term “fill flash” – There is no rocket science behind. It is simply a term that we use, because it “fills” back the darker subjects to the brightness level that we want. Easy?



So what about the flash settings? Should we use TTL or manual? Personally, I will recommend the easier and lazy way of using TTL. If the flash is too bright or too dark, then simply compensate the flash power accordingly.

Using manual flash power is not that bad and dead easy straightforward as well. Start by guessing the required flash power, 1/4 for example, then take a test shot. Adjust the power accordingly, and that’s all to it.



When working with a human subject in general, a small flash is not going to do much justice. Remember – The smaller and brighter the light source, the harsher the light quality will be. A softbox will enlarge the area and soften the light, so, it is highly recommended to use one whenever you can.

P.S. If you do not want to carry too much stuff around, at least use a diffuser cap or diffuser dome.




Some of you ambitious photo ninjas are probably thinking to work with many lights at once. While I am not against beginners trying to achieve more, but a gentle reminder again, divide and conquer – Don’t deal with multiple lights all at once.

Always start with your main light, position it, take test shots and adjust the power. When you are satisfied with it, then move on to the next one – The sidelight or backlights. Just add one at a time, and you will do fine.



As a tip and final note, the flash always produces white light. Even though we can balance the brightness, the color is something else that we need to worry about. For example, a white flash will not look very natural during a golden sunset.

Thankfully, the “quick fix” is as easy as using a pack of cheap color gels. Just attach the piece of transparent orange paper to the flash, and it will now match the surroundings. That’s it, you now know how to balance the brightness of the flash with the surroundings, and also match the colors.




That’s all for this guide, and here is a small section on some extras and links that may be useful to you.





We have come to the end of this guide, and I hope that it will help you to take better photos. I do think most beginners fail because they try to do too many things at once, and get overwhelmed with not knowing how to deal with it. But take it easy, take it step-by-step, and you will conquer it.

Just remember these simple steps – Deal with the background, include the subject, fill in with a flash and you will do just fine. Good luck and happy shooting!

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