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Does moving the focus points affect flash power?

Russ MacDonald (Arkayem) on September 16, 2013

Keywords: nikon, speedlights, product, articles

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Lately there have been several comments made by experienced photographers stating that selecting different focus areas in the camera will change the place in the image that the flash meters from. I knew that this wasn't true based on my knowledge gained by designing flash and camera integrated circuits. I knew that the flash meters the entire frame based on center weighted brightness. However, I needed some proof, so I took the following series of images.

Firts, I arranged a white panel and a black panel so that they split the frame exactly in two. These images are unedited, directly out of my D3, low ambient conditions, f/5.6, 1/200th, ISO 400, regular TTL.

In image 1 (below), , the focus point was moved to the far left in the center of the white panel (the panel appears gray, because the flash system has averaged the center weighted frame and chosen a power that balances the entire image to Nikon’s meter 12% gray reflectance.

Image 1

In image 2, I moved the focus spot all the way to the right side in the middle of the black panel. Notice that this image is exactly the same exposure as Image 1) showing that the position of the focus point is not used for the regular TTL metering system.

In the next few images, I investigate the effects of the focus system on TTL compared to TTL-BL.

Image 2


(7 Votes)
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Russ MacDonald Russ MacDonald (Arkayem)

Awarded for his high level skills in flash photography

Richmond Hill, GA (Savannah), USA
Moderator, 6018 posts


Michael Sloan (NovumLucis) on September 23, 2013

Awarded for his high level skills in flash photography

Russ, unless I overlooked it, you failed to mention the camera's exposure setting (i.e. Spot, Center Weighted, or balanced). You also didn't mention which lens you were using (i.e. AIS, AFD, AFS); depending on the lens, it may or may not provide the camera distance information to be used in the exposure calculations. If metering is set to Spot, "Regardless of which focusing area is chosen the highlighted focus area becomes the active spot for calculating exposure." This clearly suggests the focus points on modern DSLRs can in fact play a direct role in exposure determination. There are also many other things which could have contributed to the exposure calculations. Without fully understanding how your tests were conducted, I will take your results with a grain of salt.

john mcdonald (fineshot) on September 21, 2013

In image 7, the focus was turned to manual (as JRP says) and the focus point was changed. However, It is not a surprise to me that the statue is overexposed; as Alan said, the mistake is that Russ failed to re-focus along with the change in focus point (the focus is still on the hats). And as Hayo said, correct exposure is down to focus DISTANCE not focus point. Without the focus distance information provided by AF, the camera will have assumed that the subject is still at the (previously focussed) distance i.e. the hats! Correct exposure in TTL or even TTL-BL flash modes needs distance information from focus performed by AF - it does not work when in manual focus.

Egbert M. Reinhold (Ineluki) on September 20, 2013

Learned again. Thank you this article, Russ.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 20, 2013

Alan, The AF was turned off. Only the focus point was moved.

Clay Olmstead (clayolmstead) on September 20, 2013

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

I think that some of the confusion may be due to a differences between camera models. I tried a similar experiment with black, gray and white pieces of paper taped the wall, so there was no difference in distance. I compared a D80 to a D7000 and found that the exposure of the D80 was more sensitive to whether the focus point was in the black, white, or gray area. The difference between the two cameras was a 1/2 stop or less, but it was consistent.

Pavel Sychra (accettoN) on September 19, 2013

I dont want to sound picky, but the picture no 4 seems sharp at the bookcase, not hats with rope... It could be tricky, because the photos here are very tiny. Still, I did believe that TTL was partly calculating the flash power from the distance which should be pin sharp, not point of focus you choose......

Hayo Baan (hrbaan) on September 18, 2013

Dear Russ, your images only show that (focus) DISTANCE is what determines flash output. This is something we already knew to be the case (and explains why the statue in some of your examples is over exposed). Given this fact, the focus point DOES actually matter.

Pleasant Lindsey III (LindseyP3) on September 18, 2013

Now you've given me reason to try TTL-BL. Thanks, good article.

Frederic Hore (voyageurfred) on September 18, 2013

Very surprised with your Back Lit results Ross. I had assumed that the metering system would look at what light was coming in from behind the subject, and adjust the frontal exposure to compensate. But there is nothing back light, so the meter just exposed as if there was not there. Interesting results! Many thanks for sharing your knowledge an test experience Russ. Cheers, Frederic in Montréal

john mcdonald (fineshot) on September 18, 2013

I have a couple of points with regard to your interesting study. First, in your opening paragraph, you say ”different focus areas ....will change the place...that the FLASH meters from”. When a Nikon Speedlight is attached to a DSLR in anything other than “M” (Manual) mode, it is not the flash but the camera that does the metering. Secondly, you missed a couple of vital points in your conclusions about exposure relating to flash. The Metering Mode choice and what the camera itself does to "compute" correct exposure both pre and post-capture (based on the image brightness range) are crutial factors to take into consideration. Throw into the mix the fact that your D3 will use it’s “Scene Recognition System” to interpret your subject, and if you have it engaged Auto ISO will kick-in, and it is all a recipe for double nay even triple guessing as to what kind of exposure will come out of the shot in any auto flash mode! I think it is important to state however, that no matter what inconsistencies may arise with Speedlight use, it is still best practice to select a focus point that corresponds to the part of the subject that is most important - wherever in the frame that might be. I would recommend experimenting with FV (Flash Value) lock for optimum results.

Ruedi Staehli (ruedi) on September 18, 2013

Thank you Russ, apart from being very interesting, this helped me understand (finally) the difference between TTL and TTL-BL modes! Best regards from Bern, Switzerland

Robert Kim Holwick (hillsidekim) on September 18, 2013

Thanks again for an excellent article. I knew that Nikon's meter was not set for 18% grey cards, but never knew how much. Now I know 1/2 stop difference. Thanks for the info. Does anyone make 12% grey cards?

Alan Martin (GeorgCantor) on September 18, 2013

An obvious slip on image 7: the statue is not in focus.

Alan Martin (GeorgCantor) on September 18, 2013

Please elaborate on "meter 12% gray reflectance". Thank you.

doug stroud (dspvisuals) on September 17, 2013

This has not been my experience- I have had the opposite results- When I have subjects in varying distances and select the closer subject in the frame I get an accurate exposure on the focal point selected subject but when switching focal point to the farthest subject, the closest subject is over exposed. I will do some testing on my own to verify my findings, and submit what I find. Thanks for the post Russ- Doug

Robert Appel (anymouse73) on September 17, 2013

Excellent tutorial, the information is logical and well presented. Thank you for taking the time to explain. (I also never knew about the 12% gray calibration.)

Victor Rakmil (VR8) on September 17, 2013

Thanks. very helpful.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on September 17, 2013

Thanks Russ, very informative once again and very thorough. Much appreciated.

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