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Options For Blending Ambient And Flash

You will know that you're catching on as a Speedliter when it's not evident that you've lit a photo with flash. This means that your flash has the same character and subtlety as the ambient light.

Matching The Direction Of Your Ambient Light

The shadows tell all in a sunlit photo. They point to the direction of the sun—just line up the tip of a shadow with the tip of the object that created it and you'll know where the sun was. They also tell you the time—long shadows mean that it's early or late, and short shadows mean that it's midday.

There's only one sun in our sky. So there should only be one direction for the shadows in your photograph. Often, though, photographers forget about this and cross-light their subject. This means that the shadows on the subject are going in a different direction than the shadows in the background.

In Figure 4.13, opposite, you can see the situation I found myself in for a late-afternoon portrait—the optimal spot for my subject was in deep shade. Although you may not have noticed it at first, the Speedlite position in Figure 4.14 is creating cross-light. Tom's shadow is at a different angle than the shadows on the stagecoach. In Figure 4.15, I moved the Speedlite so that it was between Tom and the sun. This makes the shadows from the flash blend in with the shadows created by the sun.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 To recreate the look of late-afternoon sun, I gelled a 580EX II with a full-cut of CTO. It is a subtle point, but this shot is cross-lit. The Speedlite hitting Tom is on the left. The sunlight is coming from the right. The shadows go in different directions.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 By moving the Speedlite over so that it is in line with the sun, Tom's shadows now align with the natural shadows on the stage coach. The flash in this shot blends well with the ambient light.

Matching The Color Of Your Ambient Light

Your Speedlites cast a flash that approximates the color of sunlight during midday (about 5500K). Yet everyone knows that when the sun is near the horizon the color of daylight is much warmer (about 2500K to 3200K).

So, if you are lighting a subject at the beginning or end of the day and want your flash to seem realistic, you'll need to use a CTO gel over your Speedlite to make the flash appear natural. The use of gels for color correction and for theatrical effects is covered in Chapter 20, Gelling For Effect.

For now, just consider how the color temperature of your Speedlite can leave a big clue that your subject was lit with flash.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 Minutes before sunset—the sunlight is very warm and the shadows are very long. This shot is straight sunlight. There is no fill flash.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 The addition of a Speedlite about 8' to the left of Mallory opens up the shadows. If you look at the highlight on her cheekbone, you can see how cool the Speedlite appears in comparison to the warmth of the sun.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 The addition of a full-cut CTO gel to the Speedlite adds much needed warmth to the fill light. Now the fill light blends naturally with the sunlight.

Practical Thoughts For Faking Ambient With Flash

In the movie world, any household lamp is called a "practical fixture." As a general rule, any shot that shows a light fixture within the frame should have light coming from that fixture. You may even want to light your set so that it appears that all the light is coming from that fixture.

If your set has a "practical" within the viewfinder's frame, chances are that the incandescent bulb will be too dim or too bright for your purposes. So you'll need to match the light coming out of the "practical" with the overall light of your shot.

One option is to change out the bulb—if you happen to have one of the right wattage. Another option—often more handy for the Speedliter—is to remove the bulb and use a Speedlite inside the shade.

Here are four quick considerations for faking the look of a practical with a flash:

  • You'll need to trigger the flash wirelessly or via a long sync cord that is taped to the backside of the lamp.
  • A diffuser, like the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce or the Flashpoint Q-series Dome, will help spread the light around.
  • A full or partial cut of CTO gel will create the warm look that's associated with incandescent light.
  • You can dial the power setting of your Speedlite up or down to give you the amount of light you need.

As shown at right, "real light" can look more harsh than well-crafted flash. I used two Speedlites—one in the lamp and one at camera-left that I bounced off the wood paneling. Both were gelled with a ½-cut CTO.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 Lit by a single CFL bulb in the lamp, the scene had too much contrast for the camera.

Figure 4.20

Figure 4.20 Rather than try to color balance a fill flash to the fluorescent, I removed the bulb entirely. The gelled Speedlites provided a warm cast to the light and preserved the feeling of what I saw in front of the camera.

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