Darkening Backgrounds With Light in Portraits

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Today Charles Clawson from blog.chaselliot.com shares some portrait tips on getting dark backgrounds… with light.

Darkening-With-Light-3

Have you ever wondered how photographs get that background darkness that makes the person appear to be standing in front of some great abyss? Well, that effect isn’t as difficult as you might think and the trick seems counter intuitive. The key is to darken your picture with more light. Let me explain with an example.

On Sunday, my nieces and nephews came over for our typical family dinner. Since they were already dressed up in their Sunday best they asked if I could take a few shots before we sat down to eat. If you knew these kids you’d know why shooting after eating wasn’t an option. So I had 5 min to figure out how to take decent pictures in a boring living room with bad lighting. As you progress in photography be prepared for these situations. Fortunately I had an idea.

First, I took a dark blanket off the couch and had someone hang it over the door. If you have ever tried shooting in front of a blanket you’d know that the results are often less than pleasing most of the time. Textures and wrinkles can be distracting. I didn’t want light coming from where I was standing so I removed the flash from my camera and handed it to a bystander and told them to aim it like a gun close to the subject.

Darkening-With-Light

Ok, now some mildly technical stuff.

Both Nikon and Canon have a wireless flash system that’s semi-standard on their cameras and flash units. I was shooting Nikon so their terminology is slightly different than others. First, I set my flash unit (SB-600) to “remote” mode and noted the channel (1) and group (A) displayed on the back of the flash. Because remote flash units need to be triggered by another flash, I decided to just use the popup flash that was already on my camera. I went into my camera menu and changed my flash to Commander Mode. In that same menu, I set the camera flash to control any remote strobe set to Channel 1, and any flash in Group A to fire at normal power. I was only using one remote flash for this shot but the camera can control many units with this same system. The last thing I did was to dial down my pop-up flash as low as it would go. I wanted to use it to communicate with the other strobes, but I didn’t want any of its light to actually make it into the picture. Whew… done.

As difficult as that sounded, it took roughly 30 seconds to do. So now I had a remote flash that could be placed anywhere in the room that was being controlled by the popup flash on my camera. No more boring, always lit from the front shots. Ok, final technical point to this shot, and that is how to achieve the dramatic shadows with a pure black background. As you know, for a subject to be properly exposed you manipulate the shutter speed and aperture size until you are letting in just the right amount of light for a proper picture. Well what would happen if you had a subject that was so bright that in order to keep them properly exposed you had to close the shutter before the surroundings had time to burn their way into the photo. (Re-read that last sentence if necessary.) Wala! By making a subject intensely bright, or much brighter than the surroundings, it will properly expose long before the background, in my case a dark blue blanket, shows up. I put my camera in manual mode and stopped down my aperture to as small as it would allow (f/22) and set my shutter speed as fast as it would go while in commander mode (1/250). Again, seems counter intuitive, but by having a bright flash so close to the subject, you end up darkening the rest of the photo. The entire photo-shoot took less than 10 min from setup to finish.

Darkening-With-Light-2

Lets recap.

Step 1: Get the flash off your camera to achieve those dramatic lighting and shadow effects.

Step 2: Set the flash to be remotely controlled.

Step 3: Set your camera pop-up flash to “Commander Mode”.

Step 4: Dial in your flash settings with your camera menu. I used normal power (1/1).

Step 5: Dial down your pop-up flash so you don’t get light coming from the pop-up in your photo.

Step 6: Put your camera in Manual mode with the smallest aperture and fastest shutter speed available to avoid over exposing your shots. Adjust from there.

Give it a try and post your results.

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

  • Something you left out that can also be an important key is light falloff. If you place your lights far away from your subject you will tend to light the whole scene – including the background. If you place your lights closer to your subject the falloff will keep the background darker. Since the lights are closer you don’t have to worry about having so much power. This allows you to shoot with a modifier like an umbrella to achieve softer more pleasing shadows on your subject.

  • Great post… I have played with this a little bit before, however I really need an external flash to get the great results you have shown.
    Curious….. does the Canon XTI have a commander mode? I dont think I have ever seen it in the menus. Maybe they call it something else?

  • I would love to start playing around with flash photography, but right now I am just having to get by with natural light.

    One day…one day…

  • “seems counter intuitive, but by having a bright flash so close to the subject, you end up darkening the rest of the photo”

    When you actually *get* the inverse square law, then magic happens!

  • Dennis

    Nice tutorial – thank you. I was wondering how this is possible before!

    One thing though: “Wala!” is hurting my eyes. The word you wanna use is “Voilá” is French for “behold” (literally, “look there”). In English, the terminal a is not accented, so voila would do.

  • Great intro to off camera flash stuff. A ‘holy grail-esque’ site about off-camera lighting is Strobist.com and you should definitely bookmark it if you want to learn about off camera light.

  • James

    Wow, seriously talk about draining the battery at 1/1!

    bad advice, crank it down and bump the ISO up a bit instead

  • I love these kind of portraits and was experimenting with it for the first time a few weekends ago. Only thing is that I especially bought black cloth from a sewing/material store and didn’t realise I could get the same look with anything non-black.

    The thing I don’t understand though, is that the subjects are surely quite close to the background so why doesn’t the flash pick up any blue or wringkled cloth in the background? Do you use a snoot or something similar?

    If you want, you can see some of my tries at my flickr site http://www.flickr.com/rafiqs

  • Bruce Elliott

    If you’re struggling to get your head around it it’s easiest to get the exposure for the background right first before adding the light for your main subject. Start with no flash, drop the exposure until the background goes black, then start adding your light from the flash until your subject is lit as you want.

  • You made using my flash as a slave sound easy. I’m going to try!

  • Great post! Great tip! I also still have to buy an off camera / remote flash.

  • Great post! Your tip can turn any living room into a professional photo studio.

  • i was thinking to buy a commander or a sb800 to complete my remote flash but ur writeup saved my money. the SB600 did not explain clearly. I tested and it work….now I know how to make my D70s a commander and my sb600 as slave. Thanks again

  • EdB

    Great post, just received my brandnew canon 580 Ex, will try it soon!

  • Howcome no mention of cheaper, ebay flash triggers for off-camera flash management?

  • Seems a very strange idea, but I’ve got the kit to give it a go. I feel inspired – great post.

  • Simply put, the more flash-to-subject distance differs from flash-to-background distance, the darker the background is.
    Hence, with enough light, you can make a white wall black.

    Also, you can just use a desk lamp. Physics works the same way…

  • One more thing i couldn’t get past without commenting… 1/1 isn’t “normal power”. It’s “full power”. It goes “KA-efing-BOOOOM”. Why would you want to nuke your subjects? You can just as easily get the same effect with 1/32 at f/8 at 1/200.

    Use your brain, and don’t follow instructions blindly, folks.

  • How

    Now, I’m not 100% sure but i don’t think Canon cameras can control an off camera flashgun using the onboard flash.

    Maybe someone can confirm this?

  • No, AFAIK, Canon speedlights have IR slaves not Optical slaves. Although, there is a IR transmitter that sits in the hotshoe but doesn’t have flash. IR slaving enables TTL, something not available with Pocket Wizards. If slaving with Pocket Wizards, though, you can still have something pretty darn near TTL by using “Auto Thyristor Mode”, available as Custom Function 5 value 3. On Auto Thyristor mode the flash does its own intelligent light metering.

  • good point, Klaidas. strobists (http://strobist.blogspot.com/) talk about that, as well. don’t make your flash work harder than it has to; use a wider aperture. better refresh times on the flash, too, not using full power. you can also then set the aperture to what you want for creative purposes (maybe you really want the small aperture for max DOF); but the point is that you don’t have to. you can adjust the aperture and flash power to achieve the same result with more control. the general rule was that shutter speed is for ambient light, aperture for flash.

  • alex

    is there any way to do this with a film camera, a 50mm lens, and no flash? or with a 80-200mm lens?

  • EdB

    @How, unfortunately that seems to be the case. I can not find any menu option on the 400D to set the onboard flash to commander/master nor control the intensity of the flash.. Bummer.

    Anyone know a way around this?

  • Correct. I should have said 1/1 is full power not normal power. Right about being able to get the same result with less light, although the more light you pop the greater the difference between the subject and background will be. I’ll experiment with lower power settings though. Thx.

  • Nice post Chas.

    This also works in broad daylight:

    I was messing around with this last week when I was on a shoot in CA. I just used a brick wall. . . it was literally BROAD DAYLIGHT so my iso was at 100. . . high fstop, fast shutter speed. I was set at 1/1 which was a huge pain as Klaidas said because the recovery time was LONG. Since I needed the 1/1 to overpower the daylight but I didn’t want to brighten up the background I zoomed my flash completely so the light was completely directed at my subject. I just hand held my flash out to my left and above my head.

  • great post very helpful. thank you!

  • Bilka

    An easier way to achieve this effect when shooting in a room like a church or a wedding reception hall:

    Set camera and flash on manual

    Set camera aperture based on the calculation of flash to subject distance against the Guide Number of the flash

    Set shutter speed to 1/500 sec

    Shoot

    This can be used with abandon if you are using a leaf shutter or with some thought if using a focal plane shutter because you must have a camera that will allow synching at higher shutter speeds. If your camera will not allow synching at higher speeds you will capture the curtain travel in the focal plane.

    What happens is that your camera will record the prominent light hitting the subject and darken the area behind the subject because of fall-off caused by the Inverse Law of light. This is best used where there is some depth to the area behind the subject. Walls should be at least 10 feet away. Darkened rooms offer best results.

  • @EdB – Canon doesn’t have the functionality built into it’s cameras to do what the Nikon CLS does. You need either a 580 to control your other flash units or the STE2 RF trigger.. I’ve just ordered some of the Alien Bee flash triggers, in fact, they arrive today… yippee

  • Paul

    Is it necessary to use spot metering? Seems like matrix will try to fix the dark background…

  • Nadia

    It may be worthwhile to invest in a large piece of black velvet to use as your background which will wonderfully absorb the extraneous light. If you have a dark-haired subject, you can place a small light behind them to create a bit of a halo.

  • Jeff

    yeah using 1/1 is = full power. Don’t want to do that. Waste of battery and slow recycle times. Instead, open up that aperture. What i’ve learned from strobist.com when working with off camera flash:

    Shutter speed controls ambient light
    Aperture controls the flash

    So having a fast shutter speed (max sync) will cause darker backgrounds. Its not only for ‘blackening’ the bg of a shot. Also great for when you’re shooting into the sun. You get that deep blue, rich color. Sunsets are even better! Give it a try!

    The flash only cares about the aperture. So if you open it up (smaller number), you’ll have more umph! on your flash. So it would be better to open up your aperture to f/8 or so and crank down the flash to 1/8 or 1/4 power. That way u get instant recycle time and not nuking your subjects with every flash. You’re subject and flash will thank you.

    Hope that made sense.

  • Darla

    I’m trying to take pictures of my friend and baby with a black background. I dont understand about the flash. I have a large diffuser for my nikon sb800 and a piece of black velvet. could you tell me in detail what to do.

  • David

    I just purchases a Speedlite 580EX II and ST-E2 Speedlite transmitter for my Rebel xTi and they work really well together. Just fit the ST-E2 fits onto the Rebel’s hotshoe, turn it and the Speedlite on, make sure they use the same channel, and hold down the Zoom button on the Speedlite for about 2 seconds to autodetect the ST-E2. Works like a charm.

    Thanks for posting this! I was planning to use them at a photoshoot this weekend so now I have some more ideas to play with.

  • Here’s a portrait shot last Saturday in a studio on *white* seemless, but it goes completely black. See the strobist info:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenerat/2970410584/

  • Max Hughes

    I use a similar technique with my Powershot S3, and an old Sunpak Automatic Flash mounted on a Slave Unit.

    Those of us without SLR’s can enjoy this, too!

  • Great post! This shows what you can do with a modern digicam, one external flash unit, plus a blanket!

    Personally, I am so fed up with all those horrible pictures I see which are made with the built-in flash only, that on my blog I try to convince people not to use flash at all.

    But this shows how you can actually make excellent flash-lit pictures with very simple means, provided you know what you’re doing.

  • @darla: I guess the secret here is he lets the *external* flash unit give the subject a very intense light – which doesn’t fall on the background much, since it is aimed at the subject from the side at close range. The background is therefore strongly underexposed = black.

    Using a diffuser on the built-in flash won’t ever achive that type of effect.

  • chudez

    i read a similar post in strobist but i confess that my reaction was “huh?”. the problem with strobist is that it assumes familiarity with flash photography jargon (“expose for the background and stop down the shutter …” leaves me again with a reaction of “huh?”

    this is much clearer example geared towards newbies like me. thanks!

    if it isn’t too much to ask for, could i get the shutter/iso/aperture info for the above pics as well as the relative distances between a.) subject to background b.) subject to camera c.) subject to flash … this would help me replicate your pics then hopefully i can pick up the ball from there.

    again, thanks!

  • @Chudez:

    Because I had the flash set to 1/1 in manual mode, I had to stop my aperture down quite a bit to compensate for the brightness. The camera was in manual mode and I used f/18, shutter 1/250 and iso 200. No TTL or anything. As others mentioned, you may get similar results without having the flash set so bright.

    The subjects were standing on the bottom of the blanket to give you an idea how close they were to it. Ideal would be further from the background but I wanted to get their feet in some of the shots.

    Good luck.

    Chas

  • Great Entry! This will help me a lot. I will myself a nice flash so I can try this. Thanks!

  • Bilka

    @ Darla

    Your diffusion will work against you in this case as it breaks up the light too much. Your lighting needs to be more specular or “point source.”

    Controlled directional lighting with an undiffused flash with a grid, barndoors or even using a small snoot on the flash (nothing more than a tube that narrows down the light beam) would go a long way to help you with this effect.

    I don’t know what ISO you are working at or what the Guide Number of your flash is but try this to start (Assumes 200 ISO; 100 Watt Second Flash; reflector on flash; no diffusion lens; camera is capable of synching flash at faster shutter speeds) —

    — Camera and flash on all manual settings

    — Set your camera distance to subject at about 10′, set your subject about 6′ from your background

    — Aperture at F11

    — Shutter Speed at 1/500 second or faster

    — If you can offset your Key flash to 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to the side of your subject from your camera position that will help

    — Shoot away and work from here making adjustments accordingly until you achieve the look you are seeking

    Good Luck,

    Bilka

  • Been playing around with this using table lamps and am quite pleased with the results so far. An example can be found here –>

    http://www.crcshetland.co.uk/index.php?album=portraits&image=DSC_1588_colour-1-3_8x10_2.jpg

  • I am a Nikon user also.

    I too have an SB600.
    I use it a lot with wireless -both Nikon CLS and triggers.

    I was confused by yoru statement on dialling down the on-camera master flash. It says in the manual that this never gets picked up in a shot because it fires before the shutter opens.

    Are you now saying this is incorrect?

  • If you are triggering the flash with your pop-up, it will definitely impact your exposure. Nikon provides 3 flash group adjustments in commander mode: Built-in, Group A, Group B. Each can be set as strong or as weak as needed. Hope that helps.

    Chas

  • Cheers Chas.

    That statement did not sit with me, something about it was just not right so I did some research of my own.

    The effect the commander flash has on the exposure depends on the camera body used.

    For example the Nikon D70 will not be affected at all from the commander flash. I believe this to also be the case for the D80.

    In contrast the D200 has a specific feature to allow you to include/remove the commander flash from the exposure.

    No doubt there is somewhere out there a table with all the models listed on it and whether they auto remove or are manually removed.

    Of course there is an exception to this. If you are shooting really close to your subject then there is probable chance that there will be minor inclusion of the commander flash. But that is more of a lens choice debate than what happens with the wireless flash and commander flash.

    Does any of that make sense?

  • Great research. I’ve only done it with a D200 and D700 so that’s probably why I always saw that adjustment. The D70 must be different as it uses the pop-up primarily to control other SB’s. Thanks.

    CHas

  • Here is my try

    thanks for the tip

    i have a d80 so the fastest the shutter goes in commander mode in manual is 200, so i downsized the flash to 1/32 and iso 100

    here is the results:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858478816

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858478718

    Amir

  • Angela Butler

    Thank you for posting this. I am getting ready for a great photo session in which the client requested a black background! I cannot wait to try this. I am shooting with a Nikon D600 and have two Speedlights. I think this should work! Angela Butler – Clarksville, TN –
    Family and Newborn Photographer

  • Jayprakash Parmar

    Hi guys,,, thank you for the post. I have Canon 1200d with kit lens 18-55 mm & 55-250 mm. I do not have external flash lights.
    I would like to capture such postures. Please let me know the setup details. I understood the ISO-Aperture-Fstop setting. I am confused with others…

Some Older Comments

  • amir paz August 26, 2009 04:00 pm

    Here is my try

    thanks for the tip

    i have a d80 so the fastest the shutter goes in commander mode in manual is 200, so i downsized the flash to 1/32 and iso 100

    here is the results:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858478816

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858478718

    Amir

  • Chas January 23, 2009 03:29 am

    Great research. I've only done it with a D200 and D700 so that's probably why I always saw that adjustment. The D70 must be different as it uses the pop-up primarily to control other SB's. Thanks.

    CHas

  • Avangelist January 22, 2009 12:41 am

    Cheers Chas.

    That statement did not sit with me, something about it was just not right so I did some research of my own.

    The effect the commander flash has on the exposure depends on the camera body used.

    For example the Nikon D70 will not be affected at all from the commander flash. I believe this to also be the case for the D80.

    In contrast the D200 has a specific feature to allow you to include/remove the commander flash from the exposure.

    No doubt there is somewhere out there a table with all the models listed on it and whether they auto remove or are manually removed.

    Of course there is an exception to this. If you are shooting really close to your subject then there is probable chance that there will be minor inclusion of the commander flash. But that is more of a lens choice debate than what happens with the wireless flash and commander flash.

    Does any of that make sense?

  • Chas January 21, 2009 02:52 pm

    If you are triggering the flash with your pop-up, it will definitely impact your exposure. Nikon provides 3 flash group adjustments in commander mode: Built-in, Group A, Group B. Each can be set as strong or as weak as needed. Hope that helps.

    Chas

  • Avangelist January 21, 2009 09:32 am

    I am a Nikon user also.

    I too have an SB600.
    I use it a lot with wireless -both Nikon CLS and triggers.

    I was confused by yoru statement on dialling down the on-camera master flash. It says in the manual that this never gets picked up in a shot because it fires before the shutter opens.

    Are you now saying this is incorrect?

  • Craig Robertson November 14, 2008 02:46 am

    Been playing around with this using table lamps and am quite pleased with the results so far. An example can be found here -->

    http://www.crcshetland.co.uk/index.php?album=portraits&image=DSC_1588_colour-1-3_8x10_2.jpg

  • Bilka October 29, 2008 12:23 am

    @ Darla

    Your diffusion will work against you in this case as it breaks up the light too much. Your lighting needs to be more specular or "point source."

    Controlled directional lighting with an undiffused flash with a grid, barndoors or even using a small snoot on the flash (nothing more than a tube that narrows down the light beam) would go a long way to help you with this effect.

    I don't know what ISO you are working at or what the Guide Number of your flash is but try this to start (Assumes 200 ISO; 100 Watt Second Flash; reflector on flash; no diffusion lens; camera is capable of synching flash at faster shutter speeds) --

    -- Camera and flash on all manual settings

    -- Set your camera distance to subject at about 10', set your subject about 6' from your background

    -- Aperture at F11

    -- Shutter Speed at 1/500 second or faster

    -- If you can offset your Key flash to 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to the side of your subject from your camera position that will help

    -- Shoot away and work from here making adjustments accordingly until you achieve the look you are seeking

    Good Luck,

    Bilka

  • Bonn Vener Monzon October 28, 2008 07:29 pm

    Great Entry! This will help me a lot. I will myself a nice flash so I can try this. Thanks!

  • Chas October 27, 2008 10:49 pm

    @Chudez:

    Because I had the flash set to 1/1 in manual mode, I had to stop my aperture down quite a bit to compensate for the brightness. The camera was in manual mode and I used f/18, shutter 1/250 and iso 200. No TTL or anything. As others mentioned, you may get similar results without having the flash set so bright.

    The subjects were standing on the bottom of the blanket to give you an idea how close they were to it. Ideal would be further from the background but I wanted to get their feet in some of the shots.

    Good luck.

    Chas

  • chudez October 27, 2008 07:05 pm

    i read a similar post in strobist but i confess that my reaction was "huh?". the problem with strobist is that it assumes familiarity with flash photography jargon ("expose for the background and stop down the shutter ..." leaves me again with a reaction of "huh?"

    this is much clearer example geared towards newbies like me. thanks!

    if it isn't too much to ask for, could i get the shutter/iso/aperture info for the above pics as well as the relative distances between a.) subject to background b.) subject to camera c.) subject to flash ... this would help me replicate your pics then hopefully i can pick up the ball from there.

    again, thanks!

  • Sunnyman October 25, 2008 08:25 pm

    @darla: I guess the secret here is he lets the *external* flash unit give the subject a very intense light - which doesn't fall on the background much, since it is aimed at the subject from the side at close range. The background is therefore strongly underexposed = black.

    Using a diffuser on the built-in flash won't ever achive that type of effect.

  • Sunnyman October 25, 2008 08:21 pm

    Great post! This shows what you can do with a modern digicam, one external flash unit, plus a blanket!

    Personally, I am so fed up with all those horrible pictures I see which are made with the built-in flash only, that on my blog I try to convince people not to use flash at all.

    But this shows how you can actually make excellent flash-lit pictures with very simple means, provided you know what you're doing.

  • Max Hughes October 25, 2008 09:48 am

    I use a similar technique with my Powershot S3, and an old Sunpak Automatic Flash mounted on a Slave Unit.

    Those of us without SLR's can enjoy this, too!

  • Steven Erat October 25, 2008 08:05 am

    Here's a portrait shot last Saturday in a studio on *white* seemless, but it goes completely black. See the strobist info:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenerat/2970410584/

  • David October 25, 2008 03:39 am

    I just purchases a Speedlite 580EX II and ST-E2 Speedlite transmitter for my Rebel xTi and they work really well together. Just fit the ST-E2 fits onto the Rebel's hotshoe, turn it and the Speedlite on, make sure they use the same channel, and hold down the Zoom button on the Speedlite for about 2 seconds to autodetect the ST-E2. Works like a charm.

    Thanks for posting this! I was planning to use them at a photoshoot this weekend so now I have some more ideas to play with.

  • Darla October 25, 2008 01:06 am

    I'm trying to take pictures of my friend and baby with a black background. I dont understand about the flash. I have a large diffuser for my nikon sb800 and a piece of black velvet. could you tell me in detail what to do.

  • Jeff October 24, 2008 09:13 am

    yeah using 1/1 is = full power. Don't want to do that. Waste of battery and slow recycle times. Instead, open up that aperture. What i've learned from strobist.com when working with off camera flash:

    Shutter speed controls ambient light
    Aperture controls the flash

    So having a fast shutter speed (max sync) will cause darker backgrounds. Its not only for 'blackening' the bg of a shot. Also great for when you're shooting into the sun. You get that deep blue, rich color. Sunsets are even better! Give it a try!

    The flash only cares about the aperture. So if you open it up (smaller number), you'll have more umph! on your flash. So it would be better to open up your aperture to f/8 or so and crank down the flash to 1/8 or 1/4 power. That way u get instant recycle time and not nuking your subjects with every flash. You're subject and flash will thank you.

    Hope that made sense.

  • Nadia October 24, 2008 02:41 am

    It may be worthwhile to invest in a large piece of black velvet to use as your background which will wonderfully absorb the extraneous light. If you have a dark-haired subject, you can place a small light behind them to create a bit of a halo.

  • Paul October 23, 2008 11:12 pm

    Is it necessary to use spot metering? Seems like matrix will try to fix the dark background...

  • Sime October 23, 2008 08:09 pm

    @EdB - Canon doesn't have the functionality built into it's cameras to do what the Nikon CLS does. You need either a 580 to control your other flash units or the STE2 RF trigger.. I've just ordered some of the Alien Bee flash triggers, in fact, they arrive today... yippee

  • Bilka October 23, 2008 02:57 pm

    An easier way to achieve this effect when shooting in a room like a church or a wedding reception hall:

    Set camera and flash on manual

    Set camera aperture based on the calculation of flash to subject distance against the Guide Number of the flash

    Set shutter speed to 1/500 sec

    Shoot

    This can be used with abandon if you are using a leaf shutter or with some thought if using a focal plane shutter because you must have a camera that will allow synching at higher shutter speeds. If your camera will not allow synching at higher speeds you will capture the curtain travel in the focal plane.

    What happens is that your camera will record the prominent light hitting the subject and darken the area behind the subject because of fall-off caused by the Inverse Law of light. This is best used where there is some depth to the area behind the subject. Walls should be at least 10 feet away. Darkened rooms offer best results.

  • mayk October 23, 2008 10:16 am

    great post very helpful. thank you!

  • Natalie Norton October 23, 2008 09:48 am

    Nice post Chas.

    This also works in broad daylight:

    I was messing around with this last week when I was on a shoot in CA. I just used a brick wall. . . it was literally BROAD DAYLIGHT so my iso was at 100. . . high fstop, fast shutter speed. I was set at 1/1 which was a huge pain as Klaidas said because the recovery time was LONG. Since I needed the 1/1 to overpower the daylight but I didn't want to brighten up the background I zoomed my flash completely so the light was completely directed at my subject. I just hand held my flash out to my left and above my head.

  • Chas October 23, 2008 09:04 am

    Correct. I should have said 1/1 is full power not normal power. Right about being able to get the same result with less light, although the more light you pop the greater the difference between the subject and background will be. I'll experiment with lower power settings though. Thx.

  • EdB October 23, 2008 06:52 am

    @How, unfortunately that seems to be the case. I can not find any menu option on the 400D to set the onboard flash to commander/master nor control the intensity of the flash.. Bummer.

    Anyone know a way around this?

  • alex October 23, 2008 06:49 am

    is there any way to do this with a film camera, a 50mm lens, and no flash? or with a 80-200mm lens?

  • kettlepot October 23, 2008 06:17 am

    good point, Klaidas. strobists (http://strobist.blogspot.com/) talk about that, as well. don't make your flash work harder than it has to; use a wider aperture. better refresh times on the flash, too, not using full power. you can also then set the aperture to what you want for creative purposes (maybe you really want the small aperture for max DOF); but the point is that you don't have to. you can adjust the aperture and flash power to achieve the same result with more control. the general rule was that shutter speed is for ambient light, aperture for flash.

  • Steven Erat October 23, 2008 05:40 am

    No, AFAIK, Canon speedlights have IR slaves not Optical slaves. Although, there is a IR transmitter that sits in the hotshoe but doesn't have flash. IR slaving enables TTL, something not available with Pocket Wizards. If slaving with Pocket Wizards, though, you can still have something pretty darn near TTL by using "Auto Thyristor Mode", available as Custom Function 5 value 3. On Auto Thyristor mode the flash does its own intelligent light metering.

  • How October 23, 2008 05:21 am

    Now, I'm not 100% sure but i don't think Canon cameras can control an off camera flashgun using the onboard flash.

    Maybe someone can confirm this?

  • Klaidas October 23, 2008 04:56 am

    One more thing i couldn't get past without commenting... 1/1 isn't "normal power". It's "full power". It goes "KA-efing-BOOOOM". Why would you want to nuke your subjects? You can just as easily get the same effect with 1/32 at f/8 at 1/200.

    Use your brain, and don't follow instructions blindly, folks.

  • Klaidas October 23, 2008 04:51 am

    Simply put, the more flash-to-subject distance differs from flash-to-background distance, the darker the background is.
    Hence, with enough light, you can make a white wall black.

    Also, you can just use a desk lamp. Physics works the same way...

  • Craig October 23, 2008 04:21 am

    Seems a very strange idea, but I've got the kit to give it a go. I feel inspired - great post.

  • G. Chai October 23, 2008 03:56 am

    Howcome no mention of cheaper, ebay flash triggers for off-camera flash management?

  • EdB October 23, 2008 03:46 am

    Great post, just received my brandnew canon 580 Ex, will try it soon!

  • seals October 23, 2008 03:25 am

    i was thinking to buy a commander or a sb800 to complete my remote flash but ur writeup saved my money. the SB600 did not explain clearly. I tested and it work....now I know how to make my D70s a commander and my sb600 as slave. Thanks again

  • Mark October 23, 2008 02:55 am

    Great post! Your tip can turn any living room into a professional photo studio.

  • Henrik October 23, 2008 02:38 am

    Great post! Great tip! I also still have to buy an off camera / remote flash.

  • Christina October 23, 2008 02:12 am

    You made using my flash as a slave sound easy. I'm going to try!

  • Bruce Elliott October 23, 2008 02:02 am

    If you're struggling to get your head around it it's easiest to get the exposure for the background right first before adding the light for your main subject. Start with no flash, drop the exposure until the background goes black, then start adding your light from the flash until your subject is lit as you want.

  • Rafiq October 23, 2008 01:58 am

    I love these kind of portraits and was experimenting with it for the first time a few weekends ago. Only thing is that I especially bought black cloth from a sewing/material store and didn't realise I could get the same look with anything non-black.

    The thing I don't understand though, is that the subjects are surely quite close to the background so why doesn't the flash pick up any blue or wringkled cloth in the background? Do you use a snoot or something similar?

    If you want, you can see some of my tries at my flickr site http://www.flickr.com/rafiqs

  • James October 23, 2008 01:53 am

    Wow, seriously talk about draining the battery at 1/1!

    bad advice, crank it down and bump the ISO up a bit instead

  • Jeff Baldwin October 23, 2008 01:48 am

    Great intro to off camera flash stuff. A 'holy grail-esque' site about off-camera lighting is Strobist.com and you should definitely bookmark it if you want to learn about off camera light.

  • Dennis October 23, 2008 01:44 am

    Nice tutorial - thank you. I was wondering how this is possible before!

    One thing though: "Wala!" is hurting my eyes. The word you wanna use is "Voilá" is French for "behold" (literally, "look there"). In English, the terminal a is not accented, so voila would do.

  • Steven Erat October 23, 2008 01:30 am

    "seems counter intuitive, but by having a bright flash so close to the subject, you end up darkening the rest of the photo"

    When you actually *get* the inverse square law, then magic happens!

  • fromBrandon October 23, 2008 01:22 am

    I would love to start playing around with flash photography, but right now I am just having to get by with natural light.

    One day...one day...

  • Fernando October 23, 2008 01:20 am

    Great post... I have played with this a little bit before, however I really need an external flash to get the great results you have shown.
    Curious..... does the Canon XTI have a commander mode? I dont think I have ever seen it in the menus. Maybe they call it something else?

  • Jeff Kennedy October 23, 2008 12:48 am

    Something you left out that can also be an important key is light falloff. If you place your lights far away from your subject you will tend to light the whole scene - including the background. If you place your lights closer to your subject the falloff will keep the background darker. Since the lights are closer you don't have to worry about having so much power. This allows you to shoot with a modifier like an umbrella to achieve softer more pleasing shadows on your subject.

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