Using a Flash When Outside :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using a Flash When Outside

by David Peterson 9 comments

It might not occur to you to use a flash outdoors, especially in the middle of the day. After all, there’s plenty of light around, and all of your shots should expose without any camera shake issues. I won’t argue with you that there is a lot of light outdoors, but where is it coming from? The sun is basically one giant lightbulb in the sky, and it only shines in one direction on the surface of the Earth. What are you going to do if it isn’t shining on your friend’s face?

Fill flash to the rescue

You use a fill flash. Photos with shadowy areas in the foreground don’t appear balanced, and they rarely look good. As a general rule, you will want to remove shadows on people’s faces or any subject in the foreground. A fill flash simply adds an extra burst of light to balance out the light in your photo and make it more visually appealing.

The following is an example of a backlit outdoor photo with no fill flash:

As you can see, her face is a little dark. The sun is actually behind her, so the only light reaching her is the light reflected off of the water. When I talk about an “imbalance” in a photo, I am talking about the fact that everything around her is much brighter than she is. The sky, the water, the boat, the clouds, everything. She seems a little out of place.

But if we add in a fill flash, you’ll be able to tell the difference right away:

Despite the fact that her smile will always make the picture much more appealing, she doesn’t seem as out of place in the photo any more. The fill flash basically throws just enough light on her to make her the same brightness as everything else in the scene.

When to use a fill flash

So when should you use a fill flash outdoors? I suggest you use one whenever the light source is not directly on your subject or it is too dim. If the sun is behind your subject, your subject is in the shadow of some other object, or the sun has gone down and its light is too faint to get a good exposure, use a flash.

You will find as a photographer that the best creative photos don’t always line up with the light available in the scene. Maybe you have found a great backdrop for your subject, but the sun won’t be on your subject’s face if you shoot in front of it. If you have a fill flash, this minor problem shouldn’t stop you from getting a great photo. But if you don’t, you’ll always be limited by the location of the sun and the light available in the scene. Using a fill flash opens up your creative possibilities.

Follow the correct order, and the process is easy

Once you have decided you need to use a flash, how do you go about it? It’s best to think of it like you are exposing two different kinds of pictures at the same time. You must setup your camera to expose for the background before you setup your flash to expose for your subject. Usually, there is some kind of a relationship between the two that will lead to a balanced photo.

First, figure out how you want to expose the background. I say this because the way you use your flash will depend entirely on how you choose to expose the background. On a bright sunny day at noon, you are going to use a high shutter speed and mostly closed aperture (a high f-number) to filter out the large amounts of light. In the evening, you will want to expose your background with a slower shutter speed and a more open aperture (lower f-number). This lets as much light in as possible. Also, if you are shooting just after the sun has gone down, it’s a good idea to use a tripod. The slow shutter speeds can lead to camera shake problems.

Once you have determined the perfect aperture and shutter speed combination to expose your background, you will want to adjust the settings of your flash. Luckily, if you have an extenal flash, many do this automatically with the Auto/TTL (Through The Lens) mode. Oftentimes, this is very accurate, and it is all you need to get the right amount of fill. You can even choose the “Bounce” option if you plan on bouncing your flash off of a wall, an umbrella, or some other surface.

Bouncing Flash

Bouncing a flash off a surface can be extremely helpful. The light from a flash, as you are aware, is very harsh. A flash aimed directly at a person can appear uneven (but still better than no flash). When you bounce a flash off of a surface before it reaches your subject, the flash spreads out and appears more like it has come from a faraway source. The effect of bouncing a flash off of a surface makes it appear more natural. It reduces red-eye and other unintentional shadows that can result from direct flash.

Don’t let too many variables complicate what should be a very simple process, and you will have some beautiful and balanced shots, even when outdoor lighting won’t cooperate.

Thanks to Anne Easton for the use of her photos.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. chai says:

    Hello all,i need some advise here,my shutter speed cant go higher after use external flash(sb700) (d5500)
    Max shutterspeed 1/200
    Any idea how to make it to full 1/4000?
    Want to shoot outside big sun

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Chai,

      Cameras won't let you increase the shutter speed above around 1/200 second because otherwise only part of your image will be lit with flash, or your camera's shutter might miss the flash entirely.

      You'll need to purchase a flash called a 'High Sync Flash' to use faster shutter speeds. I explain all about it in my Flash Photography ebook:


  2. Willi says:

    Can someone give me some tips for indoor flash photography? Almost every time I take a picture of someone inside using flash.. such as on a cruise ship on the stairs.. my subject comes out fine... but the background comes out dark or black.. what am I doing wrong?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Willi,

      You're not doing anything wrong. Your camera's flash does not reach very far so anything past your main subject will be dark.

      The way around that is to use the night portrait mode if your camera supports it. That fires the flash, but keeps the shutter open for longer so the background will also show up. You'll probably need to place your camera on a tripod so the background is not blurry.

      I hope that helps.


      • Jun says:

        i think you are both right but i would have to be on David's side for this i do think Willi's flash is weak

  3. jhv says:


  4. Irv says:

    Hi David: two years ago, I purchased a Canon Poweer Shot SX-20 after dropping my Kodak 12 x, which is no longer made. That camera had a setting for fill flash and worked wonderful. My Canon doesn't seem to have a fill flash and the flash won't work, even indoors, if there is light coming in. I would love to find a fill flash setting on this camera, but it doesn't seem to have one. Any ideas?

  5. David Peterson says:

    Hi Arnold,

    I'll see what I can do to write a tip for you.


  6. Arnold says:

    I have read quite a few articles on fill flash lately, but every article explains fill flash in theory but does not mention any specifics as on how to calculate the correct fill flash exposure manualy or when for instance using an on-flash diffuser when e.g. doing wedding photography in bright sunlight. Even used automatically flash instruction booklets are vaque. I am using a Canon 430 EX on my 350D.

    Any help out there?


  7. Aldis says:

    Yes, sure, too little light on some main object makes the image less appealing and even worthless in the utter case.

    But of the two images above it is the one with fill flash where the girl looks more out-of-place - because the human perception adjusts to what is in front of us and we feel where something is 'unnatural'. It appears that a regular flash aimed straight at the object at rather high power setting has been used.
    Therefore fill-in-flash and any additional lighting must be used extremely carefully - if the only aim is getting all details on the image, it does not matter. If we want an image where everything is well lit but it does not appear unnatural - well... that is a bit of a science problem to solve. I do not mean that one needs all the most expensive gear to do it, but it definitely requires experience and knowledge. The latter two are things I do not possess in sufficient amount, therefore my advice is not of great value. But, if I had to find a solution for the above situation, I would have used a flash bouncing from a reflector (best if built in the device) or used the flash in manual setting and decreased power.

    Well. Of course. tastes differ. There are not too many people who like my images, I must admit...

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.