Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight

Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight

When I first picked up a DSLR and got a taste of artificial lighting, I loved shooting in darkness. I felt like I could control light a lot easier without having to fight the ambiance of a location or sun. Using an array of speedlights, I would light the location and subject how I wanted. Sometimes, that included putting speedlights in lamps or mounting them in the background. Eventually, that style took a sharp 180 degree turn, now I love using natural light in my favor to create a dramatic portrait.

Being a self-taught photographer, I always matured from my mistakes, but never quite knew how to pull off the look I wanted. The more I advanced as a photographer, the more I was asked to shoot in extravagant locations. But, no matter where I shot I would struggle with using strobe and still maintain the ambiance of the location, so naturally I would setup multiple background lights. That is until I learned one simple rule: shutter only controls ambient light and aperture controls artificial light(and ambient). It was like a light bulb that went off. It is a mild statement that may seem like an amateur standard to advance photographers, but it was a game changer for my photography. Simply drag the shutter until you find the proper balance of ambient light within the "mood" of the flash. In other words, shutter won't alter the flash. Make sense?

Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight. Shutter only controls ambient light and aperture controls artificial light(and ambient)

No need for background lights to light up a location, I would just use the natural ambiance of the location and then incorporate artificial light on the subject. This is where that whole “one light-mimicking daylight” comes into play. Photographers like Joey L, Miller Mobley and the great Annie Leibovitz are known for placing a strobe where the sun or light sources would actually be. Follow the steps below and I guarantee you’ll capture the shot.

  • Use a tripod. If you’re shooting indoors, depending on the amount of ambient light, you’ll have to drag the shutter to have a good balance of light between your strobe and ambiance coming from lamps and/or window light. In order to avoid annoying subtle motion blur and maintain sharpness, when I'm shooting on-location indoors, I always shoot with a tripod. I recommend a brand called 3 Legged Thing, a versatile tripod system that can transform from 7 feet overhead to 5 inches off the deck.
  • Setup your shot. Pay attention to the natural light in the building or on set. Then, see where the sun is falling and place a strobe where the sun may hypothetically be shining from where your camera sits. Also, observe what light sources you are dealing with, you may have some conflicts including fluorescent, tungsten or even LED(from TV’s or large screens). For instance, if sunlight were to shine through a window where would it fall on the subjects face?
  • Pre-light. This is very important. Instead of wasting the time of your talent, have an assistant or even yourself(with a remote) stand in for testing. It can really take the wind out of a subject's sails if you leave them hanging while you are chimping, then moving light, chimping, then moving light. It also saves a whole lot of time. As much as photographers hate being in front of the camera, it's a necessary evil to keep the morale of the shoot high and the timeline on target.
  • Lock in proper white balance. From my experience, playing with a custom Kelvin white balance and trying to balance 2 or 3 different light sources gives me a headache, even more so in post processing. Place your white balance on “Daylight.” It will look warm, but will be consistent and can easily be processed correctly in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.
  • Find the sweet spot. With any strobe or modifier there tends to be a sweet spot at the proper power. In my case, I’m shooting with a Profoto D1 modified with a Photek Softligher II. The light has to be extremely close to the subject’s face and with a good assistant or boom, I angle the light for a nice soft 45 degree “Rembrandt” style technique. I tend to use the strobe at its lowest power so I can open up my aperture for more shallow depth of field or “bokeh”.
  • Use ISO. With such powerful low noise-high ISO DSLR cameras now available, you can push that ISO to 800 and sit comfortably with practically zero noise. So, if that shutter is over a second, then bring the ISO up for a faster shutter and less chance for motion blur. But, ISO affects the flash too, so balance the exposure by closing the aperture or decreasing the power of the flash.
  • Structure your subject. Make sure to let your model or subject know your intention beforehand. If you’re pulling your shutter below 1/60 then they’ll need to remain as still as possible to reduce the amount of motion blur, which can easily become a nightmare in post processing.
  • Tether. There is nothing worse than importing your images, seeing them at full resolution, and realizing you screwed up. That is why I recommend tethering using a laptop via Adobe Lightroom or a device like CamRanger to make sure you’re getting what you need. A company called Tether Tools has created an amazing line of tethering gadgets to make your life easier on location.


Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight

Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight. Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight.
Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight. Up the Ambient, Create Beautiful Portraits by Mimicking Daylight.


Even though most shoots are on a strict schedule, remember to take your time and be patient. It’s always important to get it right in camera, and to accomplish that you must pay attention to details, especially when shooting at slower shutter speeds. Furthermore, when mimicking daylight with a strobe, it’s all about balance, so before bringing this technique to your next client project… grab a friend or model, hit a cool location and test this approach to find the right balance for you and your work.

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Previous comments
c.edward brice's picture

HI Clay

This is one of those areas where there is so much misunderstanding its amazing. Until you start to understand that strobe power and aperture control exposure by your strobe and ambient exposure is controlled by shutter and aperture (ISO does affect both). However; when mixing the two light sources your aperture defaults to controlling your strobe as your now mixing two light sources and need to control exposure for both sources (ambient light source/"continuous" light source and Strobe) and realize your vision. It was one of the first things people tried to teach me yet its taken some time to even start to understand it (I'm slower than most) and still working at it.

In this article written by one of your Fstopper colleagues I thought that Julia's reference to photographer Oleg Titayev's visual demonstration of continuous light vs strobe exposure is a great resource to really see visually how the two light sources play against/with each other and what you do to control the exposure when mixing these two different sources of light generation: http://fstoppers.com/shooting-with-mixed-studio-lighting

To your point the pallet of your ability to creatively control a scene and better leverage all your tools and techniques really gets added to when your utilizing the one light source that's already present whether to remove, bring in partially, or create artistic effects.
Good post.

Joshua Lee Penrod's picture

I'm worried about shake with a lower shutter speed. With the flash from the strobe work to freeze the image or should I use a tripod when trying this?

Clay Cook's picture

Joshua, to avoid motion blur, use a tripod! On location, I'm always using a tripod.

Jai's picture

The one question I have is with slow shutter speeds, what about movement of the subject - Yes, the strobe will freeze the person, but then there is the long shutter speeds for the ambient light and if if the subject ( a person ) moves during a 1/20 or 1/5th of a sec. will that not be recorded as a blur of the person vis-a-vis the background which would be lit by the ambient light ?

Terrence Chambers's picture

Thanks for the great article Clay. (I need a bigger fill.)

Miguel Gomez's picture

Really enjoyed this article Clay. A lot of useful information. I do have a question though, How do you work around fluorescent or tungsten mixing in with the flash? would you gel your flash heads to whichever type of ambient light you are working with? or is there a a more simple way? Thanks