I pretty much use Manual mode (in my Nikon D40) and learning quite a lot from it. Though I understand "Metering" for correct exposure, I've trouble understanding it while using Flash (both in-built as well as external flash, SB-600)

Say in a medium size room having few friends of mine with single source of light, the meter says, exposure is underexposed. I bring it back to 'correct' position my tweaking ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.

But that makes sense only with "existing" light in the room. But I'm going to take the photo "with flash". How metering works on such scenario.

  • Flash "guide numbers" are a key concept.
    – mattdm
    Feb 7, 2011 at 23:33
  • Actually, I've never given the guide numbers anything more than a passing thought myself. Buy the biggest flash you can be bothered to schlep around; don't be foolish enough to believe that it can light a gymasium by itself, and let the automatics handle the rest. Works for me anyway...
    – Staale S
    Feb 8, 2011 at 0:43
  • You may also want to take a look at this. youtube.com/watch?v=GLlDG0PSNBM Feb 8, 2011 at 4:24

3 Answers 3


Basically, you expose for the ambient ("existing") light however you want, and the flash will automagically provide the rest of the light needed for a proper exposure (for values of "proper" as decided by the vagaries of your camera's metering system).

Your flash photo in effect consists of two separate exposures; one that sucks in the ambient light in the room and one that captures the light blasted out from your flash. The sum total of the two is your photo; how you balance them decides the mood.

To take this to one extreme: If you do not want to use the ambient light at all, use a low ISO, a fast shutter speed, and a small aperture. The ambient part of the exposure will come out pretty much black, and you will have an almost totally flash-lit picture. (It will probably be rather sucky.)

To take it to the other extreme: If you want to rely almost entirely on the ambient light, use a high ISO, a slow shutter speed and a large aperture. The flash will now only give a very little 'lift' to the total exposure of the photo, and you will get spades of atmosphere from your candle-lit dinner or whatever it is.

Properly balancing the ambient part and the flash part of your total lighting is much of the trick of getting good flash photos!

  • Thanks for your info. Will try the "extremes" and post the outcome. I appreciate your time for response
    – Murthy
    Feb 7, 2011 at 23:33
  • Do that, it is the best way to learn. Do remember that the first-mentioned technique above, taken to its extreme conclusion presupposes an infinitly powerful flash, which is rarely on hand unless you have a tactical nuclear warhead in your backpack:) But in enclosed spaces it works well enough.
    – Staale S
    Feb 8, 2011 at 0:32
  • Hi Staale S... I tried both extremes and it pretty much cleared my doubts about whether to worry / not to worry about meter's indicator of correct exposure. More to learn, thanks again !
    – Murthy
    Feb 9, 2011 at 2:25

It depends on a couple of things, but basically there are a few scenarios. I'll explain first what they are, and then why you might choose one over the other.

Using the Flash as a primary light source

If flash is your primary light source, and you have ETTL (Or whatever Nikon's equivalent is), then what will happen is your flash will become your dominant light source, and the correct amount of flash will happen via the ETTL protocols.

Using the flash as a fill flash

If your image is already exposed properly, then your flash will simple give a taste of a flash so as to overcome the darker areas in the image. It's perfectly acceptable to use the flash in such a scenario, it will lead to a less contrasty image, and will probably look better with your friends, as there will be fewer shadows under the eyes and similar phenomena.

How to choose which mode

So, assuming you have ETTL, your image should be correctly exposed, so long as you aren't over exposed. The question then remains, what do you set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to? There are a few factors, so let me try and explain.

  1. If you have distant, weak background light that you want to keep exposed, and if shutter speed isn't much of an object (IE, the subject won't move, or there is enough light to minimize any movement that might exist), then you probably want to use your flash primarily as a fill flash. If your subject is much darker than the background, then just expose for the background and set your flash in ETTL mode, and it'll expose it correctly.
  2. Aperture is an artistic decision, as always. Flash is just another knob, but it won't really change anything.
  3. If you want to light your subject, but don't care much about the background, or your subject is close to the background, then I recommend that you set your Aperture and Shutter Speed so as to minimize camera shake and get the desired affect, and let the flash light the scene. Look at other posts to see how to use the flash to light the scene, but that's the general idea.
  4. If the scene is very underexposed, then the flash will cause the foreground object to be lit, but the background to appear black (Unless the background was brightly lit, or close to the subject and in the direction of the flash). The more underexposed, the more black the background will appear.

I usually set my camera to manual mode and intentionally underexpose when I'm indoors or outdoors at night, trying to underexpose by about 1-2 stops at most, unless it's a high light situation and I'm cranking up the ISO/Aperture to make sure I have enough light. I usually try to expose correctly when I'm outdoors, and just use the flash to fill in some shadows.

Hope this helps!

  • May be I don't understand it clearly. With "Ambient" light, with settings of ISO 800 and Max Aperture of 3.5 and Min Shutter speed of 1/60, the meter says, I'm still under exposed by say one stop. I typically reduce shutter speed further to 1/30 leading blurry image. Here camera's meter gives me the detail based on "Ambient" light. How can I setup apporpriate better ISO and faster shutterspeed (with the knowledge that I'll use Flash)?
    – Murthy
    Feb 7, 2011 at 23:26
  • @Murthy: I considerably expanded my answer, I hope it helps explain things a bit better. Feb 7, 2011 at 23:36
  • 3
    If you are one stop under at f3.5@1/60, this simply means that the flash will have to provide the missing stop of light. Dragging the shutter to 1/30 gives more ambient and less flash, but at the expense of probable motion blur. Flash, however, will tend to freeze motion, especially if the flash provides more light than the ambient does. This can also be used to achieve a certain look to your picture... it is all a juggling act really. Having the meter read you an underexposure on ambient is perfectly normal... if ambient was on meter you wouldn't need the flash in the first place!
    – Staale S
    Feb 8, 2011 at 0:36
  • Got the point !
    – Murthy
    Feb 9, 2011 at 2:29

Flash exposure is a more complex subject than I can answer but I believe the basics are that you mostly ignore ambient light when using flash as your main source of lighting.

Either you use a dedicated flash that your camera communicates with, in which case your camera controls the flash exposure. For example, you'd choose an aperture and the camera will choose the flash interval.

For fully manual flash exposure you have to use the guide number for the flashgun. Older flashguns had a scale on the back which would tell you what aperture to use for any given subject distance at any selected ISO.

There's an article at Sublime Light which illustrates flashgun usage for beginners.

  • Thanks for the article in Sublime Light. Will try out something today and will post the results.!
    – Murthy
    Feb 7, 2011 at 23:32
  • The link to the Sublime Light is broken.
    – insignum
    Sep 8, 2012 at 7:50

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