Creating Drama in Your Photos with Flash

Creating Drama in Your Photos with Flash

In my last article on flash photography, I gave you a few simple techniques for keeping your flash looking natural and allowing it to blend in with your existing light without calling attention to itself. This time around, we're going to do exactly the opposite, and look at how varying the amount of ambient light in a photograph can affect the way your flash appears and how this can be used for dramatic effect. 

You may have heard the term 'flashy' being passed around photographic circles. We often use this to describe an image that feels like it was lit. Especially when ambient light is under exposed, and the flash is obvious to the viewer. Sometimes this is not the desired effect, but it can be just what the doctor ordered to create some drama, or separate your images from the photographer down the road. Especially once you get the flash off your camera, you are able to start creating all sorts of different lighting effects.

Below, I will take a step beyond trying to make the flash blend in, and start trying to make it a feature in its own right. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but should provide a good starting point for using your flash to create a mood or type of lighting that may not be present in your scene.

Somewhere in Between

Although the image below looks like it has some form of augmented light, it doesn't draw attention to itself exclusively. The goal here was to enhance the light on the couple, but still maintain the natural ambience of the scene.

To achieve this, we put a Nikon SB-800 with a half CTO gel into a Westcott Apollo Orb to camera left, and I 'under exposed' Todd and Danielle by approximately 1 1/3 stops. This gave the scene a deeper look, and allowed me to use the flash to draw your attention to them. As I kept the flash/ambient balance fairly similar, I still keep a reasonably natural feeling.

The other thing at play here is my warm gel and the deepening twilight; the warmth of the flash draws you into the couple, and the white balance of 5750k leaves the cloudy evening light looking very blue.

Without using flash, I could have created a much more airy scene by allowing the sky and river to blow out, and warmed the scene significantly using my white balance. However, I feel here that the flash allowed me to keep the atmospere I was working in.

Getting More Dramatic

By under exposing a scene by 2 or 3 stops, you are able to create some very dramatic looks. This is where a scene generally starts to look manipulated and 'flashy'. This is not necessarilly a good or bad thing, and when done well can be used to make very interesting photographs.

When working with my friends from the street-tap group Ground Jam, I wanted to bring a gritty quality to the light. I decided to use small modifiers and cut the ambient light by around 2 stops. This gave me relatively sharp shadows, and enough contrast to pull your eyes straight to the dancer in the circle. However, there was still enough detail retained in the surrounding members and the scene itself that we are able to see what is going on.

Filling in the Gaps

Dramatic was the only way to portray Mr. Lee the tuk tuk driver. He was quite a character, and needed to be shown as such. We discussed his favourite old westerns as I set up my light, and he showed me how he'd like to be portrayed. I exposed for the dramatic sky and the outside of Mr Lee's tuk tuk. If he hadn't been in the scene, I would have left it there. However, this meant that his face (under the roof of the tuk tuk), was going to be around 3 stops under exposed.

I brought in a flash in a small softbox just outside the frame to camera right, and used it to illuminate Mr. Lee. The light here feels unnatural because there seems to be no natural source for it. However, it allowed me to keep all the important parts of the scene in register. It also allowed me to keep the drama around, and keep the focus on, Mr. Lee.

What would this scene have looked like if I had exposed for Mr. Lee without using a flash? The sky would be blown out and all the deep mood mood lost. It would have been a very different portrait.

All but Killing The Ambient

To go extremely dramatic, and really call attention to our light, all we need do is reduce the ambient level even more. In this image, I am 4 stops under what the meter read for Daniel's skin. From there, I brought the flash in to illuminate him to a good level. With this being a small light source, and being very directional, it calls attention to itself. In this case, it works. We were not going for something soft and subtle, but something dramatic and moody. A small modifier and extreme under-exposure of the ambient light give this effect.

The ambient light here was actually coming from the same direction as the flash, but it was very soft in quality as we were inside a large garage door. We could have used this light and got a similar direction to the light, but it would have been nowhere near as dramatic because the source would be much larger.

In Conclusion

There are no right or wrong ways to go about using flash, but there are a huge number of possibilities once you start experimenting. The above are just a few ways you can play with the balance between your flash and the ambient light. The closer your ambient and flash are in colour and exposure, the more natural that combination will look. Conversely, the larger the disparity in colour and/or exposure, the more dramatic it will be. Enjoy playing with it, find a look you like. Flash is a wonderful tool, and a great addition to your photographic arsenal. At the very least, learning to use flash will give you a better understanding of how to use light.

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1 Comment

Great article thank you for posting. One of my favorite flash photographers for portraits is Neil van Niekerk his use of flash is amazing.