You have almost certainly used your camera’s built-in flash to brighten up a low-light scene. Sometimes, after the sun goes down or you’re in a dimly lit room, it is the only way to get a photo. But did you know that you can use flash during the day, too?
If you just raised your eyebrow of doubt, stick with me. Now think about some of the photos you’ve taken of your friends or family when the sun is high and the day is bright. Have you ever noticed those black shadows that form over eyes, under chins and under noses? The problem with bright sunlight is that it always goes hand-in-hand with shadows, and shadows can obscure detail. When you use a flash on a bright, sunny day, you “fill in” those shadows and you get a nice, evenly-lit image.
Let’s look at an example. This image was taken with fill flash:
You can still see some faint shadows on the face of this person, but if fill flash had not been used those shadows would have been much darker—perhaps even obscuring facial features, such as the eyes, altogether.
How do you know when to use your flash? Pay attention to those shadows, but remember that they’re going to look darker in the photo than they look to your eyes. If it’s a sunny day and the sun is high in the sky, look for those shadows on your subject’s faces (and on other subjects, too). If you see them, that’s a good indication that you should use fill flash.
Now let’s look at this pair of photos:
I'VE STILL GOT INFINITY AHEAD OF ME by Flickr user P❀ppy Happy New Year
These images were both shot with back lighting, which is light that comes from behind the subject. The usual problem with back lighting is that it fools your camera’s meter—and your camera can’t cope with that very strong difference between the bright light behind your subject and the very dim light that might actually be illuminating her. So you’ll get a photo with a nicely exposed background and a subject that’s completely in shadow.
Sometimes you want to capture your subject as a silhouette, and sometimes it’s OK to let the background blow out (which is the other choice you have in the absence of fill-flash). But if you want good exposure in both places, the best solution is to simply pop up your flash.
Now remember that your pop-up flash is a small, direct light source—so it’s possible to be either too close to your subject or too far away. Too close and you may end up with a face that’s burned out (in other words, it turns white and loses detail), too far away and the flash may not be powerful enough to cover all that distance. Another factor is how bright the light source behind your subject actually is—on a cloudy day, you won’t need as much light on your subject as you would need on a cloudless day. So take a test shot first and look at your results on your camera's screen. If your subject’s face is too bright, step back. If it’s too dark, get a little closer.
Many cameras have a “fill flash” mode, which can really help get the light right in these situations. An external flash (a separate unit that mounts on top of your camera) will also give you this option. Start out in “fill” mode and then gradually increase your flash’s strength until you get an image you’re happy with.
Bouncing or diffusing
One of the problems with flash in general is that it tends to be too hard—hard light can cause unwanted problems like black shadows behind your subject or white/overexposed faces. This is why it’s often a good idea to diffuse or bounce your flash. On an overcast day, the clouds act as a diffuser—sunlight has to pass through those clouds and when it arrives on the other side it’s a lot softer. You can do small scale diffusing with your flash, too. If you’re using popup flash, try placing a piece of tissue over the flash. The tissue will help scatter the light, and by the time it arrives at your subject it will be a lot softer. You can also buy professional diffusers—there are even some designed to work with your popup flash, and there are others that are designed to work with external flashes.
You can also bounce your flash off of a large, white surface—this is tricky with built-in flash because a built-in flash doesn’t pivot, though you can hack something by putting a white business card under the flash and angling it towards the ceiling. External flashes make this easier because they have pivoting heads, so you can aim them directly at the ceiling or other large, white surface and get excellent results. Like a diffuser, the ceiling will scatter the light—and when the light arrives at the subject it will be a lot softer.
This really only works when you have a large, white object either above you or to one side of you, which generally means you need to be indoors. Pros often use external flashes mounted to reflective umbrellas, which is one way to take that large, white object with you where ever you go.
Not just for faces
You can use fill flash for any subject, not just human ones. Any time you have a subject that is very brightly lit with a lot of hard shadows and bright highlights, fill flash can help (although macro or close-up subjects need a special type of flash). The secret to using fill flash well is to adjust the brightness—you can do this by walking towards or away from your subject, or you can change the flash’s strength, use a diffuser or simply bounce the light. Your screen gives you a wonderful tool to check and see how you’re doing—make sure you review each shot so you can make adjustments if your photos are too bright or too dark. Like anything worth doing, this requires a little bit of practice, so don’t worry if you’re not getting great results right away. Keep trying and checking and eventually you’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
More on Flash
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