Flash exposure intimidates pretty much everyone because it seems like it's so hard to predict and control. There are two aspects of exposure going on at the same time: the exposure from the flash on the foreground and the ambient light exposure on the foreground as well as the background. The truth is, these are very easy to manage.
There are two functions on our cameras that are used to deal with both aspects of exposure: 1) the exposure compensation feature (for ambient light), and 2) the flash exposure compensation feature (for the flash). If you don't know where these functions reside on your camera, it's time to find out. Check your manual. Every camera is different.
Here is the procedure I use when using off-camera flash such that I want to balance the lighting on the subject with the background as you can see in the outdoor shot (at right) and the interior photo of a model on a staircase in a palace below. When I say "balance the exposure," this doesn't necessarily imply that the foreground exposure is equal to the background exposure. In both of these pictures, you can see that the background is somewhat dark. This is what I wanted because that forces more attention on the subject, and it makes the subject more dramatic.
These functions - the exposure compensation feature and the flash exposure compensation feature -- work independently of each other. It's a simple matter of adjusting these controls to get what you want. Once you tweak the exposure, take another picture to see the results. If you need to make a further adjustment, do so and then shoot again.
In the past, professional photographers used Polaroid film to make test prints to judge exposure and lighting. Now, with digital cameras, we have the liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor to do the same thing. This takes the guesswork out of flash photography because you can see the results immediately.
Don't make the mistake of thinking experienced photographers don't need this kind of trial and error approach to flash photography, and that if you can't get it right the first time, you are not doing something right. Trust me - we have to do it exactly as you do.
More about Jim ZuckermanJim is a top stock photographer who teaches at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school. His interactive Web courses include:
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