How to Balance Flash with Ambient Lighting

Learn how to bring life and emotion to your photography as Gavin Hoey explains step by step how to balance flash and low levels of ambient light. Hoey’s Red Riding Hood photograph is transformed into a storybook fairy tale setting with a dark forest and rays of sunshine through the trees. Check out the video:

Lighting Setup

The model is set outside in natural lighting amongst a dark, shadowy pine forest where the lighting was flat. Hoey takes a light meter reading with his camera on aperture priority mode and ISO 100. He uses a Canon 7D Mark II with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 lens.

To lighten any dark shadows and create a very dramatic scene, Hoey used a Flashpoint Rovelight 600Ws Monolight attached to a Glow ParaPop 28” R Series umbrella, an Adorama Backlight Lightstand, and a remote to trigger the flash from the camera.

Determining Shutter Speed

Hoey starts with his camera set to f/2.8 on aperture priority mode and ISO 100 in order to keep noise away and picture quality higher. He then checks his shutter speed. In this case, the camera shows 1/10 of a second shutter speed—too slow to capture the model in sharp focus. He changes to Manual mode and increases the shutter speed to 1/30 of second, without the flash, underexposing the image but still leaving some detail in the background.

Setting Up the Flash

Take a light meter reading. In the little red riding hood scene, f/2.8 is the target aperture for the desired photo.

Using a Sekonic L-358 Light Meter Remote, Hoey takes the light meter reading under the model’s chin to find out how much flash light to add. The light meter reading gives an aperture of f/5.6. Since his target for his model is f/2.8, Hoey reduces the flash strength by 2 stops, which is 6 clicks on the remote attached to the camera.

Next, Hoey takes another light meter reading. Now the reading is f/2.8 at 1/30 of a second shutter speed, which captures the correct amount of light required to balance with the natural ambient light, filling in the shadows and resulting in the desired photo.

ambient-light-and-fill-flash 2

Lighting a Brighter Outdoor Setting

Hoey also teaches how to mix flash and ambient light in a brighter outdoor natural setting. Being in a brighter outdoor setting with more natural light, a camera’s shutter speed may reach its maximum sync speed, which is usually somewhere around 1/200 of a second. In this case, Hoey uses Shutter Priority Mode set to f/2.8 and ISO 100.

Hoey works with his model a bit below the max at 1/160 of a second, taking a reading with his camera to find out what aperture he should use to keep the model in focus and achieve a properly exposed photo. In this case, the camera reading is 1/160 of a second and ISO 100—a perfect exposure for the background.

Hoey switches to Manual mode and sets his flash so that the model is correctly exposed and the background is slightly underexposed.


Photoshop Lighting Tricks and Tips

To add an even more dramatic fairytale feel to the photo, Hoey uses Photoshop to enhance the scene. He adds a new layer and uses the Radial Filter Tool to add light around the model’s feet.


For an even more dramatic effect, adding a ray of light coming down through the trees. Download Gavin Hoey’s free Ray of Light brush tool and insert it into your Photoshop tool set. Add a new layer, add Ray of Light, and free transform to re-size and reposition the rays of light.

Now you have an incredible photo mixing flash and ambient light.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

2 responses to “How to Balance Flash with Ambient Lighting”

  1. Joel Altman says:

    What color temperature did you use for this lighting combination?

  2. Hi,

    Great summary of one of my favourtite video’s.

    Do you know which flash trigger was used?
    I like that you can reduce or increase the flash power with it.

    Kind regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever