May 2, 2013

Pancake Session: How to Deal With Bad Light (Part I)

We recently had the honor of writing an article for Click Magazine that was aimed at people who prefer to use natural light, explaining how even the most die-hard natural light shooters still need to have a working knowledge of their flash & one light set up. Like I wrote in the article, “Show me the wedding where the photographer planned to use all natural light, and I’ll show you the wedding where it all went wrong.” And whether it’s happened yet or not, sooner or later we all find ourselves in those situations- whether it be a tungsten getting ready room, a church with mixed light, or completely dark reception room- where being able to rely on your flash can really save the day.

In this two-part Pancake Session, I want to talk about how we can use our camera settings to cut out really bad (tungsten, fluorescent, mixed) light and then add in our flash to illuminate the image with just one clean color temperature. Today for Part I, we’re going to talk about those camera settings and getting the “black box.” And then next week in Part II, we’ll talk about adding in the flash. Let’s get started!

So first, let’s imagine a really tungsten (color temperature orange) getting ready room. There are lamps everywhere, the overheads are tungsten bulbs, and everything is just getting a really orange cast to it. If you try to bring the details over to window light to shoot them or if the makeup artist puts your bride by the window (which we all always hope that they do!), you’re going to get really pretty clean daylight on the highlight side where the light is hitting. But the shadows are always going to pick up what’s happening with the ambient light. So in our case, the shadow side of our bride’s face would start to look really oompa loompa-ish. :)

Our first go-to solution, is always to see if we can just turn off those tungsten lights and use only window light. That would solve the problem right away. But, that’s not always an option. Maybe there isn’t enough window light to light up the room and the girls would feel like they’re getting ready in the dark. Or maybe you’re in a situation, like a church getting ready room, where you don’t have access to the switches. And you need a Plan B. In our case, that plan is to cut out the ambient light with our camera settings and light up the image with flash. Let’s take a look at that step by step:

**Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed. The first thing you need to know to be able to cut out that bad ambient light, is that there are three settings on your camera that affect how it reads light-Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed- and of the three shutter speed is the only one that affects ambient light ONLY. Aperture is the amount of opening in your lens that allows more light to pass through to your sensor, both ambient light AND light from a flash. ISO tells your camera sensor how sensitive to be to light, both ambient light AND light from a flash. Shutter speed is the only one where even if you have a super long shutter speed, it won’t affect the light from the flash because the flash is always that same blink of an eye duration. So if we did a 30 second exposure, for an extreme example, the flash would still only fire for that one instant while the ambient light continued to pour in the whole time. So what we take from that, is that if we need to cut out ambient light (or on the flip side, if we want to make sure we’re including it like in a candle light reception)….shutter speed is our go to tool.

**But to sync your flash, shutter speed needs to be 1/250 of a second or slower We’re going to get into this in much more depth in Part II, but for now suffice it to say that in order for your flash to sync up with your camera when we add that in later, the shutter speed can’t be faster than 1/250th (and even slower for some flashes, depending on model). So what that means for us, is that we are limited in how fast we can make that shutter speed to cut out ambient light. If this weren’t a problem, we could just go right to 1/5000 of a second and be done with it. But because we need to add that flash in, once we hit our max shutter speed then we have to go to either Aperture or ISO to get us the rest of the way there. Because we really love the aesthetic of a wide open aperture and don’t want to stop that down, we always go to ISO. When we lower that ISO it makes the camera less sensitive to all kinds of light (both ambient & flash) and can get us the rest of the way towards that “black box” we’re going for.

**Go for the “black box” Our goal when we’re at the camera settings stage if we truly want to cut out all of the (bad, awful, tungsten or mixed) ambient light in the room is to be able to take a picture with our settings and get a “black box” or almost completely black screen on the back of the camera when we take a picture in the room. If I take a picture in the room and have no exposure at all, then I know that my ambient light isn’t affecting the image anymore and now I can add in my flash for one clean, white balance.

Ok, that’s it for now! We’ll be back next week for Part II, talking about how we add in that flash, what we need to do to get it to sync up, and what our favorite transmitters are. But in the mean time, if you have any questions at all about what we’ve covered so far feel free to leave them in the comment box below & we’ll do our best to answer them!

Happy Pancake Day!

**If you found this post helpful at all, we just ask that you help spread the love and tell somebody else about it! We’re all better together!

***If you’re looking to get more help with not being afraid of your flash anymore, our next J&M Lighting Intensive is May 14th in Rochester, NY and we only have FOUR spots left!

  1. Kelly Brewer

    I had a wedding with this situation this past Saturday, only it was horrible fluorescent lighting in the dressing room. I wish I had seen this post prior to the wedding. Thanks so much for the info. I can’t wait for the next post.

  2. Andy & Rachel McCloud

    Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing. This is so helpful. I always wondered the best way to do this.

  3. Alicia Sturdy

    Seriously I just used your one light setup for a thing at church this weekend and it made ALL THE DIFFERENCE. I kept thinking "Black box, find the black box!" when setting it up – thank you thank you thank you!

  4. Emily

    Yay!! This post could not come at a better time! Around here I find myself getting stuck in mixed church lighting for getting ready pictures ALL THE TIME! Excited to hear part two! Thanks J&M!! I know I’ve said it before, but I wish I lived closer!!! It would be awesome to attend one of your workshops :)

  5. Sarah Nickerson

    Love this–thank you! I never knew about the black box idea & I LOVE that!

    Would love to hear about any soft boxes/umbrellas you use to light some bridal portraits & why you chose to do so in the next post!

  6. Tiffany Bolk

    Yes! I’ve been waiting for this! Thank you so, so very much!

  7. Beth DeCaluwe

    Reason #12,123 why I love you guys :) This is great!

  8. Gabrielle Halle

    Love posts like this! This is super technical yet super easy to understand! This post alone will sell those last 4 seats! (Lots of !! marks, I know- I get excited to when I can learn from other amazing photogs)

  9. Dajuan

    Great tip for eliminating awful ambient lighting! Now, about those pancakes …

  10. Dan Speicher

    Beautiful image. Are you using an umbrella or a softbox for these? It really is a stunning soft image

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