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I've got a Canon 60D with a 30-70mm kit lens and a 50mm 1.8 along with a Yongnuo 568EX. I'm trying to improve on my event photography by creating a better balance between ambient and flash light.

I'd like to shoot with ISO 100, but I've read that in order to get the lighting balance I should meter for the background first, then Underexposing that slightly use the flash (bounced) on TTL to light the subject(s).

I shoot in manual but here's what I find: I have to crank my exposure up to 800 or beyond to get a meter on the ambient light for most of the indoor conference/seminar events I shoot at and I consider them well lit. My questions are:

  1. Is this the price I have to pay for a crop-sensor mid-level camera and lens?
  2. Do you have any advice beyond getting new gear that will assist me to shoot within a reasonable Iso and still get a good ambient/flash mix.
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  1. Is this the price I have to pay for a crop-sensor mid-level camera and lens?

It is a part, but not the most important. From my point of view, the benefit of the higher level camera would be better performance at high ISO to solve your problems.

  1. Do you have any advice beyond getting new gear that will assist me to shoot within a reasonable Iso and still get a good ambient/flash mix.

Just very basic tips:

As I understand your question, you want the flash to light up the people but you don't want to light up the environment. Raise your ISO and reduce the brightness of the flash. Further, use a softbox, paper or anything to get softer, warmer light out of your flash and use indirect flashing. Still use a longer exposure time to get the ambient.

Last but not least: Try to take pictures with 50mm f/1.8 without flash and wide open aperture. It lets you take the maximum ambient.

  • Thanks very much for the useful tips. I will also consider more using the 50mm f/1.8 wide open without flash as an option going forward – Lewis Patrick Jan 31 '17 at 7:47
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Even with a higher end and/or full frame camera you're probably still going to be shooting such events in the ISO 800-3200 range. It just comes with the territory. Current cameras perform very well in the ISO 800 to ISO 1600 range, even the crop sensor APS-C and smaller 4/3 format models. Some do well at ISO 3200 and beyond. Noise reduction in post processing is also improving and becoming more intelligent at differentiating noise from subject detail.

If you have very fast lenses the extremely narrow depth-of-field limits your ability to use them wide open with event photography. This is even more the case with a larger sensor than with a smaller one. Since one needs to move closer with a larger sensor to get the same framing with the same focal length, the DoF will be shallower for the same f-number.

It is often very difficult at such events to get multiple subjects/persons in the frame that are all at the same distance from the camera. So if you have an f/1.4 lens you're probably going to want to stay at f/2 or narrower for individuals and f/3.5-4 or narrower for multiple people. I find constant aperture f/4 zoom lenses in the 24-70mm or 24-105mm range will work although it is nice to have an f/2.8 zoom for the occasional isolation shot from a little longer distance.

It also depends on the type of venue and what kind of "feel" you want to give to the images whether you're better off just powering up the flash so you can stop down and use low ISO and let the background be dark or whether you want to balance the ambient and flash. If you are trying to balance ambient and flash one of the best things you can do is gel your flash to match the color of the ambient lights. For tungsten/halogen ambient lights use an orange gel or diffuser. For traditional fluorescent lights use a blue/green one. Otherwise you end up with something like this (it's not an indoor event, but it illustrates the problem well).

Assuming your flash is the YN568 EX II, which is more or less a clone of the Canon 580EX II, you have E-TTL flash capability. For more about how to use Canon E-TTL flash in event settings, please see:

Why is my Metz 58 AF-2 using long shutter values when my Canon 60D is in Av mode?
How do I get my Canon 60D to use short shutter speeds with flash in Av mode?
How do TTL flash metering systems calculate how much power is needed?
Why is flash TTL metering independent from ambient light metering?
How can I take photos during a school dance?
Understanding IR / RF flash systems
Nightclubs photography, setup to capture the real mood and atmosphere?
What exactly does TTL flash sets its power to?

  • Many thanks for your helpful input and advice. Thank you – Lewis Patrick Jan 31 '17 at 7:37
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Most of what I photograph is indoors in dim light. This is based on what works for me:

  • Forget ISO 100. Crank the ISO until it bleeds and then crank it some more. Noise is fixable in post-processing; subject movement, camera shake, and bad flash photography is not. ISO 6400 (or however high you need to go) and be there, baby.
  • Shutter speed is paramount. You do NOT want to drag this lower than you you can hand-hold without camera shake and subject blur. Keep it faster than 1/100 and you should be golden for most purposes with a reasonably short lens, though sports photography and children (the little devils are fast!) may require far faster speeds.
  • Keep depth of field in mind. A fast (for all practical purposes, a fast prime) lens is worth it weight in gold for indoors photography but at, say, f/1.4 you will have very limited depth of field and must behave accordingly. If you choose to stop down from wide open for greater depth of field, be aware that you are paying for it with a slower shutter speed and you must then behave accordingly to that sad fact.
  • IS (lens stabilization) is highly useful for static subjects in low light, if you are taking pics in a museum for example, and not terribly useful for anything that is alive in low light - in effect IS allows you to stop the lens down (or use a slower lens, to put it another way) at the expense of a slower shutter speed. However, while IS "keeps the camera steady" during the exposure the subject moves, and you end up with a blurred image. IS is not magic, keep the limitations in mind.

The above amounts to getting the best exposure you possibly can WITHOUT FLASH. Ideally you should be within say a stop or so of the "correct" exposure this way. And then you add a drop or two of flash to bring it all up to the correct exposure. The flash does not do the heavy lifting. There are a couple of upsides to this... while the flash will illuminate the foreground subject anyway, this way the background will be reasonably well lit from ambient light. The flash does not use so much power per image so your flash batteries will last longer. And, not least, the limited light output means that the flash recharges much faster.

Now - there are some gotchas with the Canon flash system. For example, if you use A mode (Aperture priority) the automatics will drag the shutter for a correct exposure WITHOUT FLASH and then add flash on top of that. If that means a two-second exposure time then a two-second exposure is what you will get. Not terribly useful for this purpose. For this and other reasons I always use M mode for this kind of indoors photography so that I am in control of what is happening, and not the camera automatics - if you are inexperienced and M mode is scary you can console yourself with the fact that it is largely a "set it and forget it" operation for this kind of job, the flash system will take care of local variations in lighting for you automatically, you only want to get close-ish with your M settings using a shutter time that works for the situation, a depth of field that is sufficent and cranking up the ISO as needed to make the numbers add up. I simply find it more predictable this way. In M you get the ambient exposure you indicate and then the automatics add however much flash they think are necessary on top of that, this works out well in the vast majority of cases. At say f/1.4, 1/100 second, ISO 6400 and flash on top you can shoot in available darkness with very reasonable results.

  • Canon EOS cameras allow the user to modify the slow-sync default when shooting in Av mode. Setting the shutter time to Auto:1/60-1/250 (or whatever sync speed is for that model) or to only 1/250 (or whatever sync speed is for that model) are options along with the default slow sync setting that will use shutter times between 30 seconds and sync speed. For more, please see How do I get my Canon 60D to use short shutter speeds with flash in Av mode? – Michael C Jan 31 '17 at 3:46
  • IS can come in handy for "camera over the head" crowd shots when the camera won't be near as stable as when the viewfinder is held to the eye. The best stuff at parties is always in the center of a ring of people! – Michael C Jan 31 '17 at 4:35
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  1. Is this the price I have to pay for a crop-sensor mid-level camera and lens?

No. It's the price you pay for using a speedlight, which is the lowest rung on the ladder of flash light output. The flash is only powered by 4xAAs. Expecting to be able to light up an entire room at iso 100 is more than it can handle. Par for the course to be using ISO settings of 800 and above, and the larger the space, the more power you need.

  1. Do you have any advice beyond getting new gear that will assist me to shoot within a reasonable Iso and still get a good ambient/flash mix.

Change your definition of "reasonable ISO". A 60D can perform quite well at 1600 and 3200, especially if you use a flash, shoot RAW, and post-process. The key is not to underexpose.

In event photography, it's almost inevitable that you'll want the ambient to do the heavy lifting for you in terms of the exposure, because you're far more liable to be using an on-camera bounced flash. Bouncing already reduces your power (think of the added distance required to get to the bounce surface and from the bounce surface to the subject).

See Neil van Niekerk's Tangents website on how he uses on-camera bounced flash. His ISO settings are nearly always high, because the ambient situation is often low-light. Them's just the breaks.

  • Thanks for your very useful feedback. In the past I set my ISO at 800 and set my TTL and shot even if the meter reading for the ambient was well unexposed. I'd then chimp the histogram and alter the flash power to keep the histogram to the right. Your feedback and others have helped me to understand that I should consider pushing the ISO for the heavy lifting and allow the flash as light touch for good balance. Also to consider using my 50mm f/1.8 wide open without flash too. Thanks very much – Lewis Patrick Jan 31 '17 at 8:07
  • @LewisPatrick, on using the 50/1.8 wide open, maybe see: Why are my photos not crisp? – inkista Feb 1 '17 at 19:20
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New equipment will not change the physical properties of light.

If you want to expose the background ambient light, the newest full frame, large sensor camera, will still need to use the same ISO as a small sensor crop camera. The only difference will be the amount of noise visible in the images.

ISO 800 from a Canon 60D should produce acceptable images. If you are getting too much noise, you may be processing the images incorrectly.

  • Very good feedback. Very grateful – Lewis Patrick Jan 31 '17 at 8:00

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