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 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?