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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Built-in Flash Techniques- Part3

Built-in Flash Techniques #3: Create Dramatic Portraits with Daylight Sync

In the first article, we learnt how firing a flash in daytime can help our shots. This is a technique called "daylight sync", and its most basic use is to balance out the lighting in the foreground and background in when shooting under bright, natural light. In this article, we learn how it can be creatively used to create a dramatic effect that resembles a spotlight shining on your subject. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

Portrait with spotlight effect

FL: 18mm (28mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/11, 1/200 sec)/ ISO 100
Flash exposure compensation EV+2

In this shot, the background is darker than the subject, making it appear like she is under a spotlight. The tricky part is to make the effect obvious while ensuring that the contrast between the background and subject is not too harsh and unnatural-looking.


Step-by-step: How to create the effect


A: Use the following camera setting guidelines to get the exposure for the background.

  • - Exposure mode: Manual
  • - ISO speed: Low (Here, we used ISO 100)
  • - Aperture: Relatively narrow (f/8 is good to start with)
  • - Shutter speed: The camera's flash sync speed (Usually 1/200 sec)

B: Apply positive flash exposure compensation to light the subject. Take your shot.
C: Check the result of your shoot, and adjust the flash exposure compensation as necessary.
D: If you need to make the background darker, increase the f-number.

Below, we explore the concepts behind the steps in greater detail.


Concept 1: The camera's basic exposure settings determine the brightness of the background

To create the spotlight effect, you want the subject to look brighter than the background. One trick to achieving that is to make the background look slightly darker, which can be achieved with a narrower aperture and a faster shutter speed.

Increasing the f-number also captures the details in the background, which helps to give the shot its surreal effect.

Using manual exposure mode gives you control over both the aperture and shutter speed settings.


Slower shutter speed, brighter background

Portrait with background too bright

FL: 18mm (28mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/80 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto/ Flash compensation: EV+2

In this shot, the slow shutter speed has resulted in a brighter background that is almost the same brightness as the subject. It works as a normal shot, but it's not the effect that we want. 

Faster shutter speed (flash sync speed), darker background

Portrait with background just nice

FL: 18mm (28mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/200 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto/ Flash compensation: EV+2

Other than the shutter speed, this was shot at exactly the same settings as the previous shot. The darker background makes the spotlight effect more obvious.


Know this: What is flash sync speed?

The flash sync speed is the fastest shutter speed that you can use with a flash. Beyond this shutter speed, the camera will not be able to fire the flash fast enough before the shutter curtain closes, which results in parts of your image appearing dark, either completely or in the form of dark horizontal stripes known as banding. The flash sync speed on most cameras is around 1/200th of a second.


Concept 2: Flash exposure compensation controls the brightness of the subject and the "spotlight"

While this depends on your distance from the subject, you most likely will have to increase the flash exposure compensation to make your subject appear brighter and complete the spotlight effect. If you feel that the effects are too bright, decrease your flash exposure compensation value.

You will probably need to keep adjusting the brightness of the background/subject until you get the look that you want. 


Flash exposure compensation EV±0: Subject too dark

Subject too dark

There is little difference in exposure between the background and subject. The entire shot looks too dark.

Flash exposure compensation EV+2: Good spotlight effect

Well-lit subject

Applying a large positive compensation for the flash exposure creates a greater contrast between the subject and background, increasing the spotlight effect.


TipUse the wide-angle end of your lens

This increases the proportion of the dark background in the image, which makes the "spotlit" area stand out more. It also increases the sense of spaciousness and makes for a vibrant image.

Congratulations! You just achieved a unique outdoor portrait shot with nothing but your camera, lens and built-in flash.

Take it further with a Speedlite

Not only can the light from an external flash reach further, allowing you to shoot further away from the subject, you can even fire the flash off-camera for different creative effects. An external flash also has a high-speed sync mode that removes the shutter speed limit, allowing you to use a wider aperture to create bokeh effects.

Here's how a wedding photographer used daylight sync on an off-camera Speedlite to create dramatic shadows:
2 Simple One-Light Techniques for Gorgeous Day/Night Wedding Portraits


In the next article, we will learn how to use slow sync technique on the built-in flash to photograph portraits against the sunset.


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Teppei Kohno

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.