August 20, 2012

Pancake Session: How to Make Your Flash Look More Natural

The two images below are both from Brigid & Josh’s wedding.

They were both shot in the hotel room where Brigid got ready. They both show off her fantastic fashion sense. And they were both shot with directional light.

The only difference is, the image on the left was shot with all natural light from a big bank of windows in the room, while the image on the right was shot with our flash.

The hands down, number one reason people give us for not wanting to use their flash more is that they don’t like how fake it looks. And it’s true, there are definitely ways to use flash that make it feel very artificial and very clear that a photographer was involved. But there are also ways to use it that don’t feel that way. Ways that make it feel like the light was probably natural light, and that don’t betray an amazing moment by making it more about what the photographer was doing than what was actually happening.

We sat down and really thought about what were the biggest factors in getting flash to look more natural. And what we came up with was 3, which we will go through in turn now. We hope they help!

1. Using your flash directionally.
I think the most common wisdom on flash right now is to just bounce it either straight up or slightly behind you (usually with some sort of diffuser on it) to get a lot of light on your subjects. And it’s true. That technique will definitely flood the room with light. A lot of it. And when you fire the shutter, you’ll get a pretty decent exposure. But the problem with this approach is that what goes up, must come straight back down. And what bounces behind you, will then blast straight back forward to your subjects. And although it will be a softer, more flattering light from being diffused on the ceiling or wall behind you, directionally the resulting light still feels a lot like straight on camera flash. And the resulting light from bouncing straight up, just ends up feeling pretty flat & boring. And although either way might get you a pretty decent exposure, what we’re looking to do is take it to the next level: one where we’re actually thinking about what the light itself is doing to create more interesting images. That’s why for us, whether we are bouncing an on camera flash or shooting off camera with our one-light set up, we are doing it in a way where the light becomes directional. We’re putting that light to work for us in creating dimension throughout the image with all those highlights and shadows, and because it’s not coming in from a place where we would normally expect it (i.e. straight on camera), it feels less and less like flash.

2. Use a larger light source
The larger your light source relative to your subject, the softer the transition from highlight to shadow there will be. This is one of the reasons why we instinctively don’t like on camera flash pointed straight at a subject. It creates very hard lines between the highlights and shadows, and as a result tends to be a very unforgiving light. So whether we are bouncing our flash or using an off camera set up, we are taking steps to manufacture a larger light source. Like I mentioned above, one of the biggest reasons people bounce straight up or behind them is to turn the ceiling or the wall into a much bigger light source than just their flash would provide. We’re taking advantage of this same theory as well, we’re just bouncing up and off to the side at a 45 degree angle so that our large light source is still coming in directionally. When we’re shooting off camera we are never just putting a flash on a stand; instead we are adding in light modifiers like a soft box or umbrella to create a larger light source. Also keep in mind that the size of the light source is relative to the subject….so often a great way to make that light source feel even bigger is just to move it in as close as you can to right outside the frame. In the picture above of those killer shoes, the left edge of the frame was barely cutting off the edge of the 16in soft box we were using. That’s not a huge light source strictly going by measurement, but when you move it in as close as possible it starts to feel like a much larger light source and the transitions in the image (the line between highlight and shadow) become much softer.

3. Avoid mixed lighting situations.
One of the biggest tell-tale giveaways that a flash was involved is when the resulting image has mixed lighting. By that I mean, that either you white balance for what the flash is doing and everything else goes really warm or you white balance for the ambient and everything that was hit by the flash goes really blue. There are a couple of ways to solve this. If everything else in the room is one other color temperature, tungsten for example, then you can just put a tungsten colored gel on your flash and now everything in the room, including the light from the flash going through that gel, is one color and you can just white balance for that. If for some reason that’s not a possibility (like if there are multiple other light sources in the room, each with a different color temperature- tungsten, fluorescent, etc) then you could either a) turn off the lights in the room if you have that ability (i.e if there’s a second room to shoot in) or b) use clean white fill from a reflector or white pillow on the shadow side to block out some of the ambient and make it less pronounced. Or finally, if in the shot you’re going for you’re ok with having no ambient light at all then you can just use a shutter speed and ISO combination that cuts out the ambient light completely and now the only light in your shot will be the flash. And you can then use a warmer Kelvin custom white balance to make it feel more like natural, ambient light.

Obviously, in the room above we could have just shot with all natural light and been fine. But practicing making our flash match what the natural light is doing means that when we do find ourselves in those situations where there’s no natural light available (the church basements, the conference rooms, the curtains hiding brick walls instead of windows) then we can create images that still feel like the aesthetic we’re going for even if it was all done with our flash.

We hope this helps! If there are any questions at all, feel free to leave them in the comment box & we’ll do our best to answer!

Happy Pancake Day, y’all!

If you are struggling with using your flash AT ALL (on camera, off-camera, making it feel more natural….whatever it is!) we would LOVE to see you at one of our upcoming J&M Lighting Intensives. We will be hitting Chicago on August 29th & Washington DC the following week on September 5th. You can find all the info you need HERE & we hope to see you there!!

  1. Beth Hamilton

    Another great post! To anyone considering going to the lighting workshop, GO!! It was totally worth it!

  2. Martha Swann

    Hi Mary! I loved this post–and I’m wondering, when you use flash for quicker shots (shoes etc. where you might not have things "set up" for a longer period of time like portraits) do you put the flash on a stand or are you having an assistant hold it for you?

    Thank you so much for sharing!!

  3. ashley barnett

    You guys always get me thinking about OCF in a new way and I love it! I think my biggest deterrent is that I just don’t like a lot of "stuff" to carry around on a wedding day. And I know that at some point, there’s stuff involved to get the look you want, I just need to embrace it haha :)

  4. rich

    awesome tips as always – love your pancake session posts!

  5. rich

    awesome tips as always – love your pancake session posts!

  6. caitlin elizabeth

    love pancake sessions! thank you!!

  7. Kari Jeanne

    Great tips!! I am struggling and trying very hard to learn OCF and just more about flash in general so this was a super helpful post :) :)

  8. sharon elizabeth

    the ONLY reason i understand what you’re saying in this post is because of the Richmond Lighting Workshop ya’ll held! =)

  9. Becky

    This is great! I hate the "flash look" but there are definitely times you can’t make the natural light work, so this is super helpful =)

  10. Monica Ouziel

    Justin & Mary Love is in the air This is how I feel whenever I look at your images You are in love Your images capture the feeling of love Postcard Inn St Petersburg Florida Lighting Workshop just a week or two ago still reasonates in my mind Hands on experience that I shall never forget Just because Kindness Love Giving is the thread holding the moments together Thank You for opening my Heart again :)

  11. Rici

    Certainly have to practice sth new this week ;-) Thanxs for sharing your tips again!!!

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