Building Exposure For Outdoor Photography


Introduction to Outdoor Flash Photography


Lesson Info

Building Exposure For Outdoor Photography

Building your exposure, of everything I teach today, this is, I think, probably the most important thing. If you get this down you're gonna do just fine with your flash photography, and it's as simple as a two step process. Set your basic exposure and then bring your flash along for the ride. Of course there's lots of little button pushing along the way, but let's watch this. Alright, so now we're going to shoot a portrait. I've got Bergen over here, he's going to be my model for a few minutes as I talk about building an exposure. So when you're doing flash photography you always need to think about two exposures. One is the ambient light, how bright do you want that ambient light to be, and then the second part is your flash exposure, how bright do you want the flash to be? So I think about it like building. You know, you're building them up. One of them is gonna be this bright and the other one is gonna augment, it's gonna be that bright. So I start out generally by thinking, how do ...

I want the background to look in my final exposure? Do I want my background to be dark, kind of like a moody type of feel? Do I want my background to be bright and vibrant, kind of a high key type of a look? And we'll be changing that throughout the day so I'm not gonna make, necessarily a decision right now, but once I get that background exposure set the next thing is, now I want to bring the flash in and so the flash looks like it's a normal part of the scene. You generally don't want your flash to say overpower your subject. You don't want it to look like a flash photo. For these first few photos though they're gonna look like flash photos until we kind of refine it and fine tune it. So let's go ahead and start building the exposure by working with ambient light. So I'm gonna go through the systems and make sure everything is communicating, first of all. The first thing is I'm gonna turn on the flash, and just make sure that the flash is set properly, so again, set it for remote, and I'm just checking the channel and group. I'm in channel five, group A, and currently here on the top it says remote M, meaning this flash is set up to be a manual flash. How do I know that it's a manual flash? Well it's being controlled here by the camera, so I'll go here into the camera body and just make sure that everything is set properly there so I can start building the exposure. I'm gonna go down to group A, this manual flash output, and currently I'm at 1/16 power. So first thing is I need to set the exposure for the ambient light, so I'm gonna aim my camera over at the subject and I'm gonna look at it, and I'm setting my shutter speed and my aperture until I'm basically zeroed out, so let me do that. And here you can see I'm at f/5, I'm at 1/250 of a second, and I'm at ISO 200, which means I'm, and you can see in the middle here I'm zeroed out, my exposure is zeroed out. So if I want, let's say, more depth of field, I want the background, let's say, to come more into focus, I can use a smaller aperture, maybe like f/8. If I want the background to be blurrier and softer I can go a bigger aperture. Well in this case the lens I have maxes out at f/5 so we'll leave it at f/5 for now. 'Cause I like that kind of separation that we get from a bigger aperture. Next is shutter speed. So shutter speed controls the brightness of the ambient light in your flash photos and as I move my shutter speed down, let's say to like a 60th of a second, you can see that the background or the ambient light gets brighter, so now I'm at like plus two and 2/3 stops, almost plus three. So let's take some pictures without the flash and show you how I'm controlling the ambient light. I'm gonna start out zeroed out. And so that's at f/5, basically a 250th of a second. And I'm just gonna turn the flash off and just take some ambient light shots with no flash. Alright, here we go, first shot. One, two, three. You can see in this exposure that it's a nice looking shot overall. The ambient exposure is perfect, the colors in the green and the background are great, the exposure on his face is fantastic, but as you work more in portraiture you're gonna start realizing that yeah, we do have some shadows underneath the eyes, and that's where the fill flash is gonna come in in just a minute. Well let's say I wanted the ambient light to be a little bit darker. Well that's an easy move, and I'm going to either bring my aperture down or bring my shutter speed up, you know, a faster shutter speed, or I can bring my ISO down, maybe ISO 100. So before I do that we need to start talking about flash shutter sync. Most cameras synchronize up to a 250th of a second shutter speed. This camera syncs to a 250th. Some of the other cameras that I have in the Nikon world, also other Canon cameras, Fuji, Sonys, some of them only sync up to a 200th of a second, so I'm kind of always working with this maximum shutter speed 1/250 of a second. I don't really want to go beyond that or above that because the flash won't actually work if my shutter speed is too fast. So I'm gonna keep my shutter speed at a 250th of a second. And I'm gonna reduce my ISO, I'm gonna go down to ISO 100. So I'm pushing my ISO button and I'm gonna bring that down to ISO 100, and I'm gonna take another picture, and this should be about one stop underexposed. Alright Bergen, here we go, excellent. I look at that photo and sure enough it's much darker, it's a stop darker. So maybe you want to do that. You want to do that so the background doesn't compete with the subject, so when you bring in the flash the flash kind of lights him up. Let's take another exposure, this time brighter. I want the background to be brighter. I don't want to go above a 250th so to be brighter I have to go longer shutter speed, right? So maybe something like a 1/25 of a second. So we take this picture. Awesome. And now the background is brighter than before. So those are the thoughts that are going through my head. Do I want the background to be brighter? Do I want it to be darker. It's kind of a cloudy day. It's a kind of a dingy day and so maybe to make the photo have a little bit more life, a little bit more vibrancy I'm gonna overexpose the background a little bit. So we'll start there, we'll start with the background slightly overexposed. Alright. Now it's time to add in the flash. So I'll turn my flash on and if you recall I'm in manual exposure mode and I'm at 1/16 power. I'm shooting direct flash right now just to show how the flash impacts the photo. I'm basically gonna shine it towards his face. I don't have any diffusion or anything else along those lines, just direct flash. So we'll take our first picture here. Alright, this is for real. And we hear our flash beeped. Yes, we did add flash and it's quite a bit different than the last exposure because now we're filling in the shadows underneath the eyes. So now the goal of the photographer is to say is it too bright, is it too dark? I'm looking at that image and going, you know what, it's slightly too bright. It's pretty obvious we used flash, so I'm gonna bring down the flash power. So I go back here into menu, go down to flash options, and I was at 1/16 power. I'm gonna bring it down to basically 1/32 power and I push the okay button. So I was at 1/16, now I'm going down to 1/32, so it's basically half the amount of energy from the flash for the shot. Alright buddy, here we go, one, two, three. Alright, and now I'm gonna compare the two. Not a whole lot of difference but if you look at it with a critical eye you'll see that bringing the flash power down did have a significant impact on the brightness of his face. Let me shoot one more picture and go down to 1/32 power. I'm sorry, 1/64 power. I was at 1/32, now I'm gonna go to 1/64, and I'll push the okay button and take that picture again. One, two, three. Awesome, cool. And now we're at 1/64 and you can see the shadows under his eyes starting to return and we're losing a little bit of the pop and the vibrancy that the flash provides. So really probably where I'm gonna end up is probably somewhere between that 1/64 power and that 1/32 power. But you can see now building the exposure, you start out with the ambient, you start out with how you want the ambient light to look and then you bring the flash in and you bring the flash up or down based on what you want the subject to look like, so building the exposure. Cool, right on. So that is a little bit of duplication from what I said leading up to the video, but you see that building the exposure starting with the ambient and then filling the flash, what I did there was I was in manual flash mode, so I wasn't using the TTL mode, I was using manual mode, and I was using the Nikon Radio System, but I want to make a point here is that on your inexpensive flash, this was that $29 eBay flash here, you can do the same thing, you just can't control it from the camera body, you have to control it from the flash itself. So here I've got the, you can see this one's currently set for 1/128 power, so if I wanted to make those changes I was making in the field I just gotta go over here to the flash and push up or down with my selector here. And so this requires you to have to actually physically go to the flash head to make the change. It's this simple. I mean it's as simple as, the overall process here is simple as setting your ambient exposure and then setting your flash exposure. And it's a creative decision. How bright do you want these things to be? I'm already anticipating a question and I'm sure somebody on the internet has already wrote in and said, hey what about a handheld flash meter, why don't you use a handheld flash meter to figure out your flash exposure? I have a handheld flash meter. It's a Sekonic and it's great, it works great, but over the years I've just gotten used to looking at my exposure on the back of the camera and just deciding this is good or this is not good. Especially now with RAW. It used to be back in the early days of digital, even with digital RAW, if I missed my exposure by, I don't know, a half a stop or more I couldn't really use the photo. But man, now with the post-processing software that we have and with shooting 14 bit RAW in most of cameras, there's a huge range of exposure adjustments that you can do. So I don't worry too much about getting it nailed perfect. And the truth is also what a light meter does is it just tells you what a medium brightness exposure should be. Maybe you want your medium brightness exposure to not be medium brightness, so it needs to be a little bit darker or a little bit brighter anyway, so over the years I've just kind of not used my handheld light meter. Another reason why I haven't used it is because with all of this wireless control the flashes put out multiple pulses of light. They almost all do a pre-flash and then they do a real flash. Well the light meter measures all of those pre-flashes and it never gives you an accurate measure for the TTL anyways. So set your ambient, set your flash. So setting your ambient exposure, decide what the mood is. What mood do you want? If it's a dark and dingy day you may have to add light. You may have to go more than a medium brightness exposure to make it feel like it was taken in Cabo San Lucas versus cold winter wherever you're at. Set your ISO. So set your ISO at some value. Don't use auto ISO for this type of stuff. Just set your ISO for, let's say 100. I forget in the video, was I at 100 for, I think it was at 100, 200. So I set it for 200. And then set your aperture. What do you want for your depth of field? Do you want a very narrow depth of field? Then go f/28. Do you want to incorporate some of the background? Then go more like f/8. And then set your shutter speed just keeping in mind you're limited to a 250th of a second, or a 200th of a second on whatever camera you have. Once those are set then we're gonna go into the flash. And so now your flash only, this is an important concept, I know it's a basic concept, but your flash only impacts your subject. The flash doesn't impact the trees in the background, it doesn't impact the city skyline a mile away, the flash only impacts the subject. So maybe that's a flower, maybe that's a person, maybe it's the dog, whatever. So now adjust your flash power until you like how the subject is balanced with the background. This is the power of off camera flash photography. You can put your subject in a deep shadow and the background can be full bright sun and now you can illuminate your subjects to the same level, the same brightness as the background. In fact, you can make the subject brighter than the background or darker than the background. With shutter speed you can make the background darker or brighter. See that? Now you have this full control. You can make them both bright, both dark, you can make one brighter, the other brighter. I'm getting goosebumps because I'm excited about it. This is the power of off camera flash photography with just one flash. It gives you full control over your total environment. And then finally take a picture and then take a look. A lot of people are afraid to experiment when you have a paying customer on set. It's okay. Your customer doesn't know any better. All you gotta say to your customer is, hey work with me a second. I'm just experimenting to see if you look better in a brighter light versus a darker light. They don't know that you have no clue where you're starting out your exposure. Oh shoot, I took that at full power, oops. And you can joke, I always joke with the customer, show them the really bad shot sometimes and we laugh about it. It just loosens everything up. A lot of aspiring professional photographers are afraid to experiment when they're on location but I'm here to tell you it's okay. When I shoot a portrait session I'll shoot hundreds of photos but the client only gets maybe 10 or 20 when I'm all said and done. So take a shot, look at it, and then adjust. Take another shot, look at it, and adjust. Finally you'll kind of dial it in and then life is good. So just some things about this aperture. Let's just say that your flash is set for half power and you decide that you want to keep the flash at half power. If you change your aperture you're reducing the amount of flash that gets into the camera. Aperture controls how much of that flash gets into the camera. Shutter speed does not. Shutter speed does not control how much flash gets into the camera. Shutter speed is actually opened a very long period of time compared to how much time the flash pulses, okay? So shutter speed, we think through that, shutter speed controls the ambient brightness, aperture controls how much flash goes onto the subject. And the more you practice with this the more it'll make sense, but if you've never heard of that concept before this is a really important slide as well. Okay, so you kind of answered this but Heather Meyer had asked, "Hey Mike, "does the power of your flash depend "on the proximity of your subject?" Heather Meyer, she's a bud. Hi Heather, so cool you came in today. So does the... I got all sidelined by Heather. So say it real quick. Does the power of your flash depend on the proximity of your subject to the flash? Yes, yes, close counts, it's super important. Close counts. I'm gonna go to the demo side over here. When I do off camera flash photography I make sure that the system, the lights are as close to the subject as possible. And the reason why is because when it's here, let's just say I'm getting full energy from the flash. If I move one foot away, so let's say I'm at zero feet, I'm getting full energy from the flash. When I move one foot away I lose, not just half, but the ratio is one over the distance squared. So easy math here, let's say I go two feet away. One over two feet squared, that's 1/4 power. So by going from here to two feet I get 1/4 the energy available to me. When I go to four feet, what's that? 1/16. I see you all, like I'm not a math major. That's okay. So you get 1/16 power. If I go 10 feet away, 1/100 of the power available to me is gone, so you've got to be close. Keep the system close. Another advantage of being close is you get the softness of it. The closer you are the more the light wraps around the subject. The further away the harder, the more specular the light is. So it's a fantastic question. Keep it close. Is flash generally more effective at lighting your subject reducing under eye circles, et cetera, than a reflector? Is flash just more powerful? So can you talk a little bit about the two? Yeah, they're both great, and the truth is, I think I probably shouldn't have done this earlier, I kind of poo-pooed being an available light photographer. There's nothing wrong with using available light to your advantage, and I do it all the time. To be honest, sometimes the best flash photo is not using a flash. Sometimes the ambient light is beautiful and so let's work with that ambient light. Seriously, using a reflector can produce the same quality of light as using a flash. So really the answer to her question is it depends. There's not great answer here. I use reflectors a lot. I love them, especially like on the beach where you know the sun is gonna be out, sun's gonna be hard, and I can just use that sun and reflect it right on the subject. I can get professional sellable images with just a reflector. Both of them will light up the shadows. The key with the reflector though is, or sometimes the difficulty with the reflector is they're hard to position if you're a one person show. It's hard to, you have to have the right type of equipment, and actually I'm gonna riff off of that question real quick because I've got this really cool product that you guys might want to use. If you are a one person show and you want to use reflectors, either reflectors with flashes or just reflectors on their own, get something like this. This is a reflector, basically a reflector bracket and it mounts on a light stand just like that, and then whatever size reflector you have you can mount it here in this with these little clips. So this will actually hold that really tall reflector, that scrim, but also you can use it and you can point it up, you can point it down, you can point it at any of these other angles. So this is made, this particular one, this boom arm, it's a reflector boom arm, this is made by Photoflex but lots of different companies sell these. And I'm really happy I purchased this. It wasn't cheap but over the years when I'm trying to do the work by myself I need another hand out there and this is my third hand basically. Great Mike, for people who are new, what is the difference between TTL and ITTL? Great. Each camera manufacturer, well at least Canon and Nikon, they all have their own proprietary name for TTL. So TTL is like the overarching term for through the lens metering. It's basically a automated flash metering system. The Nikon world calls it ITTL for intelligent TTL, so ITTL. Nikons are intelligent. Canon calls it ETTL, and I'm not a Canon shooter so I don't know exactly sure what the E means and I'd hate to, I won't even make it up. So it's ETTL, that's the Canon system. And I'm sure Fuji and Sony, they each have their own little take on TTL. But at the end of the day what it is is the flash and the camera work together to automatically figure out how much light should go onto the subject, and the way that that works is the camera says hey flash, send out a pre-flash (simulating flash). So it sends out this pre-flash, it hits the subject and then bounces back into the metering system and the camera goes, oh, I see how much light was reflected in the pre-flash so now when I do the real flash put out whatever percentage of power. So ITTL, ETTL, TTL, and whatever other system is out there, it's all just TTL with their own little take on it.

Class Description

Relying on natural light may work for many scenarios, but how do you learn to control light more effectively with flash? A small flash can help make the most of your outdoor situations whether working in direct or dappled lighting. It gives you the ability to overpower sunlight and add warmth to overcast days.

Mike Hagen will walk through how to easily take control of your lighting and ultimately control of your photos. If you’re new to using a flash, this course will teach you:
  • The essentials of your camera and flash settings
  • How to build and set ambient exposure
  • Using your flash on and off camera
  • How to freeze action and add motion blur
  • How to use modifiers and reflectors with off camera flash
No matter if you’re shooting portraits, sports, or macro photography, Mike Hagen will show you all the ways to define your subject and enhance your images. This class is a perfect follow-up to Mike's How to Shoot with Your First Flash and will give you the confidence to use your flash in all situations.


Brandon Couch

This is the second class I've taken with Mike and it was amazing! So easy to understand even when you get into the "tech" side of how flashes work but especially when using them outside and how easy it is. I would totally recommend this class to anyone wanting to take amazing images outside with one flash. He even makes bare bulb flash look awesome. Such a great course!


Mike Hagen has become one of favorite instructors. His instruction and question answers are clear and concise and he has a real world approach. He has a friendly and approachable personality. Best of all during this course he works by himself which makes you feel you too can accomplish the shoot on your own. Mike demonstrates a practical approach with affordable equipment as he is aware many photographers starting off do not have a huge budget. In his other course on using your first flash he also had several gear set suggestions based on budget which was so thoughtful and helpful. I hope Mike does some more advanced courses as well and I will keep watch for his name on the course schedule. A definite thumbs up for photographers starting off using flash.


I have watched a couple of Mike Hagen's classes, and hope Creative Live will bring him back to teach more. He is a fantastic, thorough, easy-to-understand instructor. He doesn't assume viewers already know certain things. He is humble and diligent and truly wants students to understand and learn the things he is teaching. He breaks things down and explains things better than most, and he doesn't hold back on details. Mike also provides helpful handouts/written materials to supplement his videos. I really like his classes and teaching style, and hope to be seeing more from him in the future.