Black (& White) Friday: Fade to Black

Not having had the chance to get out and shoot the streets of Ottawa very much, I have found myself dipping into my catalogue more often. This is an image I made late one night while experimenting with different lighting positions.

Self portraits are tricky, and I often find it easiest to accomplish using old manual focus lenses attached to my camera using an adapter. This image was accomplished using an old Minolta MD manual focus 50mm lens on my Sony, with a single flash positioned at 90 degrees to my left (camera right) that had a Rogue FlashBender on it to diffuse the light slightly.

low key self portrait

There are two types of light to consider when doing flash photography – ambient light (the light we see that fills the room) and light coming from the flash itself. What people don’t often realize, is that the amount of these two light sources can be controlled by making simple changes to our shutter speed and aperture settings, and if you know these two things, the overall quality of your photography can improve dramatically whether using flash or taking pictures on a bright sunny day.

Shutter Speed controls ambient light

Shutter speeds are identified by numbers that look like fractions – 1/100th, 1/200th, 1/400th, etc and can go up to 1/4000th on most DSLRs today. The higher the number, the faster your shutter will click, and the less light will enter your sensor resulting in darker images. Conversely, the lower the number, the more light will be let into your sensor resulting in brighter images.

For the image above, I wanted to eliminate the ambient light in the room. To accomplish that, I set my shutter speed to it’s maximum sync speed of 1/250th. This is the fastest that my camera can take a picture using a flash before it starts to cut off the image. If I had set my shutter speed to a faster setting, such as 1/500th, then part of the left side of my face would have been cut off. If I had set my shutter speed to a slower setting, such as 1/100th, then some of the wall in the background would have been visible in the image.

Aperture – controls flash light

Yes, you can change the flash power by making adjustments on the flash itself, but it’s often easier to accomplish the same effect by simply changing the aperture on your camera. The aperture is identified in f-stops, such as f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc and can go up to f/22 for most standard lenses. The higher the number, the darker your image will be because it will be letting less of the flash light hit your sensor.

I don’t remember where my aperture ended up on the image above, but I would have started with an aperture of f/5.6 and my flash at half power, and made the appropriate adjustments from there. That’s always my starting point. If I had to guess, I would have probably ended up at f/10 or f/11 to get this look.



      1. Thanks for the informative reading. It’s not often that I shoot with flash, so it’s always good to pick up some knowledge here & there. BTW: back from work now and I’m “home alone” (just me and the sleeping kid).

  1. Great image, Shane! You are quite accomplished at capturing low-key portraits, selfies or otherwise. Thanks for introducing me to the concept when you posted your first such image a bit ago, and now for revealing the method. And while I’ve heard of sync speed before, I hadn’t yet figured out what it meant, so thanks for that info too!

  2. Thanks for the great tips – I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know about aperture and shutter speed settings after taking a years-long break from using my old SLR. Now I have a pretty new camera and I’m getting back into it (though I still use my phone more often). 🙂

    1. Thanks Kay,

      There’s really not much too getting comfortable with the basics if you put in a tiny bit of practice, but if you knew it before, then it should come flooding back… just like riding a bike 😉

  3. Hi Shane,

    I haven’t thought about whether any of my older prime lenses can be useful on any of my newer cameras via an adaptor. That’s something for me to look into.

    Great image and thanks for the method behind it. 🙂


    1. Yes, you can absolutely use all of them. The types of lenses (manual focus vs auto focus) will determine they adapter you need, but they now make adapters for absolutely every camera/lens combo.

  4. A great tutorial, whether you meant to write one or not. Very simply put. Even those of us who are brain dead can understand it. Thank you!

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