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I've purchased a TTL flash today and was surprised to learn that the camera (Canon 77D) is apparently not taking it into account when you set it to aperture priority or any other automatic mode. The proposed exposure settings are similar with or without the flash, even though there's obviously much more potential light when you have it on.

Why is it so? Can't the camera estimate the light available from the flash based on the information provided through TTL?

  • What camera are you talking about? Certainly some cameras meter flash in the "creative" modes. – Caleb Mar 23 '18 at 6:10
  • @Caleb Canon 77D in aperture priority mode – JonathanReez Mar 23 '18 at 6:15
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Why don't semi-automatic modes on a DSLR take flash into account when calculating exposure?

They do. But when using Aperture Priority exposure mode with flash in low light situations, the camera usually assumes the photographer wishes to use a technique called 'slow shutter sync' or 'dragging the shutter'. When using Av mode with TTL flash for brightly lit scenes the camera usually assumes the photographer wishes to use the flash for "fill."

Before we can understand what happens during TTL flash metering, we must first understand how metering works in general. There is no single "correct" exposure value for an entire scene, there are only correct exposure values for objects with a specific luminance value within that scene. If "correct" exposure is equivalent to 18% gray, then only one luminance value in a scene can be rendered at that level. Everything brighter than the object rendered 18% gray will be closer to saturation, everything darker will be closer to black. Many scenes include differences in brightness that are greater than a camera's ability to record. Either some of the scene will be pure white, some of it will be pure black, or maybe even some of both.

When we choose a simple metering mode, we are telling the camera what part of the scene we are most concerned with exposing properly or we are telling the camera to expose for the areas halfway between the darkest and brightest parts of the scene. With more sophisticated metering modes we are telling the camera to compare the scene to a database in the camera and apply the proper settings to the scene based on which preloaded scenario our current scene most closely matches.

Here's where adding flash can get confusing: the flash will not raise everything in the scene in terms of 'stops' by the same amount. Consider two scenarios:

  • Fill flash. If a scene has 5 stops of contrast between the darkest and brightest parts of the scene, that means the brightest parts are reflecting 32 times as much light per cm² as the darkest parts (2^5=32). Assume all objects are roughly the same distance from the flash and the camera. If we add enough light to quadruple the amount of light reflected by the objects in the shadows (4x the light = two stops), we only increase the amount of light from the highlights by 1/8 (4/32) which winds up about 1/6 (8/√2=5.65) of a stop. That is half the smallest adjustment to exposure you can make by changing the aperture or shutter speed of your camera! What we accomplished was bringing the shadows two stops closer to the same brightness as the highlights without adding any significant light to the highlights. Think of it this way: if you have two buckets the same size and one has 1" of water in it and the other has 32" inches of water in it and you add 3" of water to both buckets the first bucket now contains four times as much water as it had before but the other bucket only has 1.09x as much water as before.

  • Slow Sync. If a dark subject is fairly close to the camera/flash, but the background is lit by ambient light, the camera meters for the background to set shutter speed and/or aperture and then adds enough flash to properly expose the subject in the foreground. Since the power of a flash is 1/4 as much for each doubling of distance the flash raises the brightness in the foreground much more than it raises the brightness of the background. And if the background is brighter to begin with than the subject in the foreground then the difference in the effect of the flash will be even greater because not only is the background receiving less of the flash's light per cm², but the flash's light the camera is receiving from the background is a lower percentage of the total light to the camera from the background.

So now the question is, "How does the camera tell each situation apart?" The answer to that is also twofold: It depends on the way the camera has been programmed and on the settings you have selected. Different camera makers design their TTL flash logic systems differently. And within a particular camera model the settings you choose tell the camera how you want it to act under different scenarios. Most recent TTL systems use the AF distance information reported by the lens and the focus point selected in the viewfinder to determine which area of the frame includes the subject. In general the brighter the scene the more likely the camera will try to provide fill flash and the darker the scene the more likely the camera will attempt proper exposure of the subject using the flash as the primary light source and then expose the rest of the scene as well as it can.

My Canon 5D Mark II, for instance, will assume I want to use slow sync when I am in Av mode and will allow for shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds to properly expose the background in low light situations (I can modify that to 1/60 second or even to 1/200 second via custom functions). On the other hand, if I am in P mode it will use a shutter speed of 1/60 second at the slowest and use enough flash to properly expose the subject at that Tv. It will adjust the aperture to try and properly expose the rest of the scene, but if the widest aperture and 1/60 second is not enough the background will still be dark. Likewise, if the background is much brighter than the subject it will use full flash power and attempt to reduce the exposure as much as it can with a smaller aperture and/or a faster shutter speed up to the camera's flash sync speed.

For more, please see:

What exactly does TTL flash sets its power to?
Why is flash TTL metering independent from ambient light metering?
How do TTL flash metering systems calculate how much power is needed?

How do I get my Canon 60D to use short shutter speeds with flash in Av mode?
Canon 600D Exposure Lock and Flash Exposure Lock
Why is my Metz 58 AF-2 using long shutter values when my Canon 60D is in Av mode?
What is this shadow in my photo?
Taking a skyline photo with a person closer to the camera during night time

What is "Dragging the Shutter"?

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Can't the camera estimate the light available from the flash based on the information provided through TTL?

The whole point of TTL, which stands for "through the lens," is to be able to adjust the amount of light from the flash by measuring the exposure as seen though the camera lens. So yes, the camera can measure the light from the flash, and yes, the camera should be adjusting the amount of flash in order to make a good exposure.

There are a number of things that could explain what you're seeing:

  • incompatible flash: If you bought a 3rd party flash, it's possible that it's not fully compatible with your camera. This is probably unlikely if the flash is meant to work with EOS cameras.

  • wrong mode: You may have inadvertently set the flash to manual (M) mode, in which case the camera won't adjust the flash power.

  • misunderstanding: If you have the camera in aperture priority (Av) mode, for example, the camera can adjust exposure by changing either the flash power or the shutter speed (or the ISO, if you've set that to auto). If you're expecting one parameter to change and the camera picks a different one instead, it might look like the camera isn't metering the flash.

  • subject not being metered: If the subject isn't in the metered area when you take the shot, the camera might be metering something else, giving you an exposure that's different than what you want. Use the Flash Exposure Lock feature: point the camera at the subject and press the ✱ button. The camera should display "FEL" in the view finder to indicate that the flash exposure is locked, and then you can frame the shot as you like without having the flash power change. Alternately, perhaps you're pressing the ✱ button and inadvertently locking the flash exposure, preventing the camera from changing the flash power when you think it should.

  • sync speed: Check page 224 of your user manual (PDF), which covers flash sync speed in Av mode. Your camera may be set to use the fastest sync speed (1/200s) instead of one of the other modes that allow the shutter speed to vary.

  • Ok, I think I've figured it out. The camera does change the auto exposure settings, but not in a smart way. Adding the flash suggests a 10x faster exposure, regardless of what setting you pick on the flash. So 1/1 and 1/128 are treated in the same manner. Likewise TTL seems to be preferring a lower flash rate instead of using 1/1 and trying to maximize the exposure speed. – JonathanReez Mar 23 '18 at 7:27
  • @JonathanReez Does your flash's manual mention something about using manual flash in non-manual (camera) mode? My Sony explicitly recommends against it, and in fact it is disabled by default. I'm not sure what happens when you try, though, I always shoot full manual anyway... – user29608 Mar 23 '18 at 7:50
  • @JonathanReez Are you using a Canon EX speedlite, or some other brand? Knowing exactly what equipment you're working with will help. Canon's ETTL-II system is very sophisticated, but 3rd party units may not be as capable. Either way, there's a lot of information about working with flash in your user manual -- see the last item in my list for a link. – Caleb Mar 23 '18 at 13:44
  • @Caleb Its a Godox TT685C. I'll check out the manual, thanks! – JonathanReez Mar 23 '18 at 16:15
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Is the flash the same brand as your camera, or an after-market model? It may be that you need to do some set-up, or that the hot-shoe isn't registering the flash's existence. It does sound like something could be going wrong I'd suggest troubleshooting by seeing if the same issue persists, using any additional pairing modes you might have (radio or wired) to see if this could be a hot-shoe issue. In any case, I'd need more information to be sure I was onto the cause of your problem. Of course it also could depend on subject distance, the aperture you'd set, and the power of the flash. It's possible that, in a bright area, when you're stopped down, and your subject isn’t close by, that a "TTL" flash might still not have the power (if fired from the camera position) to even produce significant fill. And that could mean you'd see the "same settings", with or without the flash. In that case, there might be "obviously more light" with the flash on, than off, but not enough to meter it.

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