Flash and the trouble with TTL metering.

Modern camera systems are amazing in the capabilities they bring to the table, but really, seriously, nothing beats some good old-fashioned experience, and the human eye.  As high-tech as our camera systems become they still can’t make every interpretation necessary to create consistently high-quality images that flatter our subjects.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: you (yes, you the human) can best determine how your subject should look in the resulting image that you are trying to capture.  The camera does not have a brain that can make distinctions between a pale person and a white shirt, and even with some of the greatest metering modes in the world, you still have to be in control and make sure you’re feeding the correct data into the camera.

That being said; I’ve yet to see a TTL metering system that can consistently deliver appropriate amounts of flash throughout an event.  The problem is quite simple really, people where different clothing and scenes change frequently enough that the camera will have a widely varied amount of light bouncing back through the lens.  This situation can cause the same person to look different in every photo depending on who they are standing next to or where in the scene they are standing.  Is that really acceptable to you, or your client, when you go into doing post-production on those images?  Yes, this is where I get accused of sounding like a real jerk because I’m going to tell you that there is absolutely no substitute for experience.  And the only way to gain experience is to get practice.  What I’m going to tell you here is the same thing I tell my students all the time.


  1. Learn the basics.
  2. Read the Manual for each piece of equipment you’re using.
  3. Take that equipment out and practice.

When you head out to practice, don’t throw yourself a bunch of curve balls that leave you with completely unpredictable results.  Instead, you should start out with one simple subject and work your way through all of the possible settings you might use for shooting that subject until you understand the results you’re getting from each setting you change.  Once you’re comfortable with getting good exposures under favorable conditions, then you can start to challenge yourself with added difficulties like shooting in low light situations, or constantly changing scenes.  You MUST get this practice under your belt to develop the experience you’ll need when the shots really count. 

If you go out to shoot a wedding before you’ve had at least 10-20 hours of practicing with flash and getting to know your flash equipment, you’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll have good results.  There is no easy way to say that except to put it out there like I just did.  If you need to borrow a flash in order to go shoot a job, there is no way you are prepared to shoot that job.  That is; not unless your flash is broken and you need a loaner until it gets back from the repair shop.

Ok, now I’m ready to offer you a simple starting point for working with your flash in manual mode the way I do for events.  First of all I will set my camera and flash to manual mode.  Depending on the conditions I anticipate at the event I’ll set the flash power to whatever level I believe might be needed along with setting the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed as appropriate.  For instance I setup for a shoot last night by starting with my ISO at 400, Flash at 1/4 power, Aperture at f/5.6 and Shutter Speed at 1/125.  Once on scene, I did a couple of test shots to fine-tune the settings for my subject being between 6 to 8 feet away from me.  I found the room to be dark enough that I wanted to be at 1/2 power on the flash and that’s where it stayed for the rest of the evening.  The only setting that got changed during the shoot was my Aperture.  This is really simple (assuming you’ve learned the basics already):

  • If you move closer than 6 feet to your subject, you close your Aperture as appropriate to avoid over-exposure and to ensure adequate depth-of-field. 
  • If you move further than 8 feet away from your subject, you open your Aperture as appropriate to avoid under-exposure; the added distance will ensure adequate depth-of-field.

End of lesson.  No really; that’s really the end of the lesson.  Now you  have to get out there and practice.  Oh yeah, set your White Balance to FLASH.

Photo Seminars by Jeff Cowell© 2010 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com

~ by jrcowell on August 8, 2010.

One Response to “Flash and the trouble with TTL metering.”

  1. Good article on the the art of the flash. Clean and simple. Thanks for another helpful article.

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