NOTE: Jim Zuckerman is a top stock photographer who teaches many terrific online photo courses at BetterPhoto.com, including Perfect Digital Exposure, Developing Your Creative Artistic Vision, and Techniques of Natural Light Photography.
Question: I'm not always getting good flash exposures with my Nikon D5100 and SB-800 Speedlight. Sometimes the photos are too bright and in other cases they are underexposed. Any suggestions?
Answer from Peter B.: This is a common question from my students who own other brands of cameras. You’re using very sophisticated, high-tech equipment with “intelligent” Matrix metering and i-TTL flash metering, so you should be getting excellent flash exposures in many situations. Of course, that assumes that all camera and flash features are at the appropriate settings. For example, make sure that the SB-800 Speedlight is set for i-TTL mode and that you have not inadvertently set some Flash Exposure Compensation. Also, check to ensure that the metering pattern on the camera is set to Matrix for the greatest reliability (not Center Weighted or Spot).
Whether indoors or out, a flash unit can be an essential accessory. With the right settings, you should get beautiful flash exposures. (ISO 200; Matrix metering; i-TTL flash; -2/3 Flash Exposure Compensation). (c) 2010 Peter K. Burian
Using bounce flash or a diffuser -- whether the built-in wide flash adapter panel or an add-on light modifier accessory -- will reduce the effective flash range. And if you use the FP High Speed Sync mode, the flash range will be very short. In such situations -- or with a distant subject in low light -- set a higher ISO level (to make the sensor more sensitive to light) or move closer to the subject. When the subject is unusually close to the camera however, set the lowest ISO level and also flip the built-in diffuser down over the flash head.
Full-size flash units with an LCD data panel are particularly useful and convenient. The display provides feedback as to current settings as well as the effective flash range at any ISO level that you set. Courtesy of Nikon
One of the benefits of digital photography is that you can snap a test photo and check the results instantly to see if you need to make any adjustments. The “correct” exposure, especially for fill-flash photos, is often a matter of personal judgment. If you don't like the results you’re getting at default settings, start experimenting with Flash Exposure Compensation. For a more gentle effect outdoors, try setting a -2/3 level on the flash unit (not on the camera). With very light toned or highly reflective subjects however, you may need to set a +1 (or similar) Flash Exposure Compensation level to prevent underexposure.
Practice with basic flash photography at first but study your owner’s manual and consider taking a BetterPhoto online class, such as Taking the Mystery Out of Flash Photography or Creative Flash Photography. (The courses covering specific cameras, such as my Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels, usually also include a section about flash photography.) While getting good flash exposures should not be difficult, you will also be able to achieve some pro-calibre lighting effects after developing a bit of expertise.
Editor's Notes: Peter Burian teaches three excellent interactive courses here at BetterPhoto.com: Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography, Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels, and Boot Camp for New Digital SLR Owners.
See more of Rob's thoughts on this subject:
Read more about "zooming with your feet" in Rob's excellent article ...
Check out these recent photography articles by two top BetterPhoto online instructors:
For more tips and techniques on this topic, don't miss his photo blog:
NOTES: Jim Z is a top professional photographer who teaches online at BetterPhoto.com's digital photography school. See his interactive online classes... In addition, he contributed to The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.