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How-to's Accessories Reviews

Camera & Flash Cookbook for Any Lighting Situation

Russ MacDonald (Arkayem)

Keywords: nikon, speedlights, lighting, flash, cls

I am often asked how to set up your camera and flash for a given lighting situation. This article will give you a 'cookbook' approach that should lead to excellent results.

NOTE: For this post I am assuming regular flash sync - Not Auto FP High Speed Sync

NOTE: On some speedlights, including the SB-400, SB-700, and the built-in Pop-Up flash, there is no selector for i-TTL and i-TTL|BL. To switch between these two modes on these speedlights, you switch the camera metering mode. Matrix and Center-Weighted force the speedlight into i-TTL|BL mode. Spot metering forces the speedlight into regular i-TTL mode.

Use your camera to measure the light! Here are the steps:

1) Camera in Manual mode
2) Flash turned OFF
3) Fixed ISO 400 (not Auto ISO)
4) Aperture: f/4.0
5) Aim your camera at the area you want to measure
6) Adjust the shutter to zero the meter

The resulting Shutter speed then will indicate the ambient lighting condition you are in as follows:

1) Low Ambient Light: Shutter 1/30th or less
2) Medium Ambient Light: Shutter 1/30th to 1/250th
3) High Ambient Light: Shutter above 1/250th

I. LOW AMBIENT LIGHT: In low ambient conditions, your flash will be primary and essentially the only light on the subject. The ambient will contribute only to the background exposure.

Recommended Initial Settings: Camera Manual, Flash i-TTL, ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/80th shutter.

The flash system will control the exposure of the subject no matter you do to the ISO, Aperture, or Shutter (within the range limits of the flash).

The shutter will primarily control the background exposure. Increase the shutter to stop ghosting at the expense of a darker background. Decrease the shutter to brighten the background, at an increased risk of ghosting.

The aperture will primarily control depth of field. Widen the aperture to decrease depth of field, increase background exposure, and increase flash range. Narrow the aperture to increase depth of field, decrease background brightness, and reduce flash range.

II. HIGH AMBIENT LIGHT: In high ambient conditions your flash will be adding FILL. This means the flash will be secondary to the ambient light in creating your images. The flash will brighten the shadows on the subject's face and clothing. The power of the flash must be adjusted to balance with the ambient light to make the subject equal brightness to the background ambient. You should use i-TTL-BL flash mode to allow the flash to adjust itself automatically to balance the subject with the ambient.

If direct sunlight is hitting the subject's face, move the subject into the shade. If that is not possible, turn off the flash to avoid overexposure (blow out) of the subject's face.

Recommended initial settings:
Camera P mode, ISO 200, i-TTL-BL
This is the simplest setting I recommend at first until you more fully understand everything. These settings will add nice fill light to your shots.

III. MEDIUM AMBIENT LIGHT: Medium ambient is by far the most difficult situation to use your flash. It is also the time when if you use your flash right, it will greatly improve the quality of your images, but if you use it wrong, it will destroy your images.

In medium ambient you have to make several more decisions to determine the initial settings. You have to decide how you want to shoot:


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Gary Worrall (glxman) on December 17, 2017

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography Donor Ribbon awarded for the contribution to the 2016 campaign

Your a legend Russ Thank you for all your help Regards, Gary

Steve White (boogie34950) on January 1, 2017

Thank you for taking the time to do this, I'm slowly but surely getting there. Thanks Steve

JANET COOK (JSCook) on June 11, 2016

This really helps. And you have taken a common, yet complicated set of scenarios and mapped out some simple steps. Thanks.

Robert Kusztos (PhotoRoberto) on April 29, 2016

Hi Russ, Thank you for another great instructions article. Regards, Robert

Fredrik Holmgren (frhol) on November 15, 2013

Dear Sir, Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge! I've learned so much from your articles. However, I have one question and pls forgive me if this has already been covered. I'm wondering about recommended settings in a situation where the flash is not close to the camera. The wireless capabilities of Nikon is fantastic but how would you set up things with one or two remote operated flashes? Best regards from Sweden Fredrik Holmgren

Talal alnakib (tnakib) on October 29, 2013

Russ, again you made live a lot easier for me thank you

Michael Allard (mallard9) on October 26, 2013

Thanks for the instructions. Using the flash well is a whole other world. I look forward to more great tips. The P mode is a great tip for controlling the flash.

Reza Gorji (gorji) on October 4, 2013

Hi: This is just an excellent piece. Thank you so much.

Chris Wraight (Aqualung) on October 2, 2013

Awarded for his technical proficiency and numerous positive critiques over several years, most notably in the Sports forum

Thanks JRP, will give it a go this weekend...

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 2, 2013

JRP is one of the two co-founders of Nikonians and has in-depth knowledge in many photographic areas Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Chris, The thing is to first use it as plain P. But make notes, see what it does, check the distance, etc. get a good (complete) EXIF reader. Once you are very familiar with it, play with P* and then later you can of course make adjustments for any purpose, like increase depth of field for example, subdue the speedlight, etc.

Ron Johnson (GrtDay) on October 2, 2013

STellar Russ! I have an indoor party shoot coming up. Your advice will be employed. Thanks for sharing.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on October 2, 2013

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign Donor Ribbon awarded for the contribution to the 2016 campaign Donor Ribbon awarded for the contribution to the 2020 campaign

Russ. Excellent, once again and thanks again!

Chris Wraight (Aqualung) on October 1, 2013

Awarded for his technical proficiency and numerous positive critiques over several years, most notably in the Sports forum

Russ, great series. Question, when you advocate P mode for bright ambient, is it still OK to change some of the settings, e.g. aperture, as some of the Nikons allow?

Mike Banks (unclemikey) on October 1, 2013

Russ, thanks for another great instruction. Love your stuff because it makes my life easier.