Great photographer’s have recognizable styles, and a great balance of flash/ambient light in their images. It’s a tough art to master, but when you find a good balance between the two, your work will standout!
The most common mistake new photographers will make, is to use too much fill flash on a shot. Sure, it makes the subject matter pop, but it also looks too unnatural. Finding a good balance of light involves building up the image in a series of natural steps.
First, build up the ambient exposure to where you would like it if you were not using flash. Try to retain a shutter speed of 1/320th, or 1/250th for flash sync by compensating using ISO and aperture. The smaller the aperture and ISO, the more the flash will have to be powered up to create an image so monitor this. Shutter speed will not affect the flash.
Shutter speed affects ambient, while aperture controls the flash and ambient light. Keep this in mind and you’ll know what to do when the lighting doesn’t look right.
Once you have a correct “flash-free” exposure, it’s time to build in the flash/flashes. Power the flash on and place it in manual mode. Take your best guess at what setting will work and start building up, or lowering the power based on test shots. When possible, I will have the athletes stand in on the shot at roughly the same location they will be for the actual shot. Fire your tests and check them on the screen, adjusting the flashes as needed. You can always use TTL too if you are using the new PocketWizards or Radio Popper units. If this is the case, you may still need to compensate the flash a bit, so do test shots anyway.
When you’re sure it looks good, check your histogram to make sure the athlete is not being blown-out or is too bright from the flashes. Everything look good? It’s time for the shot!
Remember to build up your flash shots and you’ll be far more successful in every flash endeavor. And always remember that shutter speed controls the ambient light exclusively. This way you won’t waste time trying to fix the flash part of the shot by dialing in different shutters!