I was trying to make a photo of my girlfriend around 9 pm with a D7000, Sigma 24-70 2.8, and SB-900. She was in the center of the frame, taking up about 20% of the frame. About 40% was taken up by ground, and the rest was the dark heavens.

I set my camera dial to A (aperture mode), aperture to f/2.8, ISO set to 400 and the SB-900 set to TTL mode. I was also experimenting with exposure (+0,7), yet all my photos had a dark background.

What can I do to expose at night without a totally black background?

  • 5
    Care to attach an example? Jun 7, 2011 at 20:57
  • Interestingly, when a Canon camera is set to Av mode, then the exposure is automatically calculated for the background and the flash fires as required for the main subject. I am surprised that Nikon does not do that automatically.
    – ysap
    Jun 8, 2011 at 10:07
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought Nikon does do that if you set the flash to slow sync mode?
    – Daniel T.
    Jun 14, 2011 at 0:33

9 Answers 9


Ok, so I totally misread the question.

Bulb mode, get your exposure right for the stars behind. Once you have this, set the shutter open for the required time, put the lens cap on / something over the lens (you'll have to count the time, the shutter needs to stay open).

Have your girlfriend stand where you want here, charge the flash and set it for the power you want. Take the cap off and fire the flash.

If you really want to have some fun, you could 'paint with light' on her using a torch to illuminate what you want. It takes some trial and error but you can get some fun effects.

==================== old answer One way of doing this, depending on the scene, is:

  • Use a tripod
  • Set your flash to 2nd curtain mode (so it fires just before the shutter closes rather than just as it opens)
  • Set your exposure settings for the background so you get the detail
  • dial down the flash power to an appropriate setting (this might need some trial and error to get right)
  • Tell the model to keep still
  • Take the shot!

The shutter will stay open long enough to get in some light from the background and the flash firing at the end of the frame will illuminate your girlfriend, because the flash is a short burst of light it will freeze any movement in her so you don't have to worry about losing sharpness in her features.

  • Unless she's somehow much darker than the background, you'll start to get some of her exposed before the flash. Why use second curtain here - I've always seen it used more for things like sparklers or stuff where the background is still dark, but there are moving bright parts that you want to use the movement in.
    – rfusca
    Jun 9, 2011 at 23:18
  • 2
    You won't get enough of an exposure on the foreground for it to cause an issue at night most likely. Using 2nd curtain flash, any movement you get in the background is exposed first, so when the flash goes off the now properly lit subject is exposed in the foreground of the image - like the top most layer, if you see what I mean. If you flash first and then leave the shutter open any residual exposure will expose movement in your model. It does work, give it a try :) Yes it can be used as you have mentioned too
    – JamWheel
    Jun 10, 2011 at 8:21
  • New way leads me to believe it'd work better - even though it might take a few tries.
    – rfusca
    Jun 10, 2011 at 17:03
  • it would probably be pretty good fun trying though :)
    – JamWheel
    Jun 10, 2011 at 19:04

I'm a novice in the field, but here's what I'd do:

  • do NOT use flash (it'll blow out your subject and darken the background)
  • crank up the ISO to 1600 (D7000 should produce great images at that ISO), this will allow you for faster shutter speed and sharper image

p.s. pro's are welcome to correct me if I'm wrong, I'm still learning :)

  • 1
    Exactly! The D7000 has great high-ISO performance and it should be used. Flash power falls off with distance, so if the background and subject are not close to each other, it is impossible to have them both properly lit by flash alone.
    – Itai
    Jun 7, 2011 at 20:53
  • You can certainly use flash fill to freeze motion of the subject, and use an appropriate shutter time to get the most out of ambient light. This is a foundation of a lot of outdoor shoots for things such as sportswear - where a model might use a trampoline for a freeze-motion jump shot, but the ambient scene is still of some interest, even if it is of dense urban scenery under a shallow DOF blur.
    – ddri
    Jan 13, 2012 at 4:27
  • @Itai not really impossible, a single flash fired/bounced from location at similar distance (or just using multiple off-camera flashes) does enable having separate objects properly lit. Well, in some cases at least (most effectively indoors); not in the heaven case as in this question though.
    – Imre
    Oct 19, 2012 at 22:06

What you can try if you want a nice background is to first set up the picture so that the background looks nice. Maybe some deep blue skys at this time of night. Do this in Manual mode. Then when you have the background looking nice, bring your girlfriend into the photo, keep the same settings as before, but use the sb900 to light her. It won't matter if the shutter speed is slow as the flash will 'freeze' her quite sharply. You may need to play around and adjust the strength settings of the flash. This will only be useful if you are not too far from your girlfriend or have a remote/wireless trigger for the flash

  • 4
    If the picture starts to expose her properly without the flash and a slow shutter speed- flash won't magically freeze her, there will just be ghosting.
    – rfusca
    Jun 7, 2011 at 20:40
  • Very true, it will all depend on how dark the background is and how much light is still falling on her
    – Dreamager
    Jun 7, 2011 at 22:52
  • Basically this what @Dreamager said and plus read this: neilvn.com/tangents/flash-photography-techniques/…
    – user1681
    Jun 8, 2011 at 7:53

If the sky is completely black, it will be almost impossible to get color in the background and also have a sharp image of your girlfriend, even at high ISO.

However, at 9:00, depending on where you are and the time of year, the sky might still have a little glow. Try this:

  • Turn off your flash (for now.)
  • Face toward the west, where the sky is (hopefully) still lit. Your girlfriend should form a silhouette
  • If you have a tripod use it. If you don't, and you have an image-stabilized lens (Nikon's VR, Canon's IS, or Sigma's OS), turn on image stabilization.
  • Turn your mode dial to M
  • Turn your ISO up to 1600, 3200 or maybe 6400
  • Keep your aperture at f/2.8.
  • Adjust your shutter speed until your sky has some color. If you have to go slower than 1/10", increase your ISO.
  • Ask your girlfriend to hold very still while you take the picture. Adjust your settings to make the sky as bright as you want.
  • Turn on the flash, and set it to TTL.
  • Ask your girlfriend to hold very still again, and take another picture. This time, the sky should be as bright as before, and your girlfriend should be lit by the flash.

If you have time, go out before sunset, and stay until dark. The changing light will be challenging, but will give you many different opportunities for different looks.


The SB900 will obviously not light the background, so you would need a slower shutter speed to brighten the background. If using exposure compensation you might set it to +2.0 or higher. You then may need to set the flash compensation to a minus setting to avoid your subject being too bright.

Easier is set the camera to Manual. Take test shots without flash, lowering the shutter speed until the background looks good. Then turn on the flash and use the flash exposure compensation until you like the lighting on your subject.


You can always take a picture exposing for the the background and then another exposing for your girlfriend and use fuse the two images together (with Photoshop for example) to pop the two together and delete the background, which is hopefully jet black, from the (layer) picture of your girlfriend. You will aim for a natural result which is the difficult part of this approach.


I am a newbie when it comes to strobing, so please correct me if I lead the questioner in a wrong direction :-)

You could also play around with slow sync flash. Using the flash in slow sync mode lets the camera use a slower shutter speed to capture the ambient light and will fire the flash, either when the shutter opens or when the shutter closes (rear-curtain sync), to light the foreground subject properly. If your subject is moving, this technique will produce streaks either from or to the subject. So if you do not want any streaks, your girlfriend has to hold still for the time of the exposure.

Check out these examples to get an idea: http://www.digital-photography-school.com/13-great-slow-sync-flash-images


I've used a flashlight (white diode) with a soothing filter (colored glass, slightly yellow, some rills on the glass if you can get it) on a second tripod with great success, and just not worry too much about the flash at all (I don't like flash much; too unpredictable at times, especially outside where the object is some distance away) in fact to do these kinds of pictures I mostly do without, and then do what others have said with increasing the ISO to get the background into the contrast of the picture (although I wouldn't go as high as 1600, possibly 400-800) but still have about a .2-.5 second shutter speed. Shine the flashlight either on the person or on something it can reflect off (depending on distance), and the idea is to match the light of the person (with a smidgen more light, but not too much) with the light from the background.


Here's what I do:

  1. Remove your subject from the composition, put your camera in manual mode and play with aperture, shutter speed and iso till you get the background according to your liking. Remember to keep your shutter speed to (or less than) the maximum supported by your flash.
  2. Add the subject to the composition, refocus but not play with the camera parameters, but rather play with flash exposure setting to get the right exposure for the subject.

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