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Speedlite Know-How: Balancing flash in low-light environment


When taking low-light photos, many photographers avoid using a flash, preferring instead to boost the ISO setting on their cameras. The reason could be down to past experiences with flash that created harsh and unnatural-looking images which turned them away, or maybe these photographers have the misconception that flash is hard to operate. 

It may sound too good to be true, but it’s not difficult to take good photos with flash in low-light situations. All that’s needed is to balance the flash output with the surrounding exposure. In this article, we will walk you through several different ways of doing just that with your Speedlite.  


Understanding the exposure 

EOS 5D Mark IV, EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/15s, 70mm. Flash balanced with ambient.  

For photographers who use the automatic (Program) or semi-automatic (Aperture or Shutter priority) modes, the camera will determine the best exposure for you. So, when your lens is focused on the subject, it can gauge the distance of the subject from the camera and share this information with your Speedlite. Your flash will then put out the right amount of light for the subject according to the exposure settings. Often, the lighting from the flash looks harsh and unflattering.  

To avoid this, we need to expose for the background and subsequently balance the flash power to create a natural-looking shot. 


Using Manual Mode 

EOS 5D Mark IV, EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/15s, 70mm. No flash.  

One way to balance your flash output is to use Manual (M) mode and follow the below steps: 

  1. Take an exposure reading for the background by focusing on it and adjusting your shutter speed and aperture, as necessary.  

  1. Set your metering mode to Evaluative. This will instruct the camera and flash to work together to give the best possible light output to light your subject, with the ambient light taken into consideration.  

  1. Put your Speedlite to E-TTL mode, position your subject within the frame and take the shot. 


EOS 5D Mark IV, EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM, f/8, ISO 100, 1/60, 70mm. Flash exposed for subject.  

If you have the Speedlite EL-1, the micro flash feature fires off at 1/8192 power, ensuring that you add just a dash of light to make the subject look livelier.  


Using Flash Exposure Lock (FE-L) 

There may be situations where the camera’s meter is fooled by the surroundings, which will cause the flash to be over or underpowered, making the subject look too bright or dark. This often happens if you recompose your shot after focusing on the subject.  

This is where a feature called Flash Exposure Lock (FE-L) comes in handy. After you have focused on the subject, press the FE-L button. This triggers the flash to go off, causing the camera to take a reading and calculate the best flash settings for the shot. This reading is kept for 16 seconds, and in this period, you can recompose your shot and take the photo with the last flash setting.  


E-TTL Balance 

Photographers using the EOS-1DX Mark IIIR5 or R6 will be able to activate E-TTL Balance when the flash is taken off the camera. In the camera’s menu, the external flash control setting will show Standard, Ambient Priority and Flash Priority as options. 

Using Ambient Priority will help photographers create better photos. The camera will prioritise the ambient lighting conditions and manage the flash output to maintain a more natural look from the Speedlite.  


All this flash jargon may sound daunting, but once you have mastered the basics, you can wield a Speedlite with ease. Once you get the hang of it, no lighting condition is going to hamper you from taking a shot, since you can control the flash. After all, photography is all about painting with light, isn’t it? 


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