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Cape Coral FL 33904
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Fill-Flash Basics
by Harry Cutting

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Most pictures of people made outdoors in sunlight suffer from dark splotchy shadow areas on faces, particularly the eyes. There's too much contrast; the camera's sensor or film cannot capture detail in both the bright highlights and the dark shadows at the same time.

We've all seen these pictures: dark featureless faces, black eyes and way too-bright highlight areas.

Young boy child fishing.
Sneaking up on the big one.
Somewhere in the Florida Keys.

The quick and dirty solution is to use fill-flash. This will simply puff a little bit of light into the shadows, reducing the contrast so that the camera can record a picture that looks "normal". This is an easy photographic technique (nowadays) that does not deserve its aura of mystery. Photo details > >

Back in the day, however, fill-flash could be a confusing technique because there are really two exposures being computed for fill-flash pictures: the camera's exposure setting and also the flash's exposure setting. So the photographer needed to compute the general overall camera exposure, set the camera shutter speed and lens aperture, then calculate how much flash power was needed and set the flash output setting.

Today though, most modern cameras and flashes make these calculations automatically, and for the most part, accurately. Here's how to do it:

FILL-FLASH WITH POINT AND SHOOT (P&S) CAMERAS

Man and woman in boat having their picture taken.
Fill-flash when you need it most - bright sun.
On the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River, without passports.

For bright sunlight, make sure you're using a low ISO setting or low ISO film in the range of 50 to 100. Set the camera to "Auto" or "Program". Also, for now, select a multi-pattern, wide area type exposure metering setting. This is sometimes the camera's default setting. Different camera makers use different terminology for this selection (Matrix, ESP, Honeycomb, Multi-mode, Evaluative Metering, etc). Typically you're given three metering choices: spot, center weighted and "X". Choose "X", but check your manual to be sure. < < Photo details

Then turn the camera's flash on; use the "fill-flash", "forced flash" or similar setting. Usually the fill-flash icon looks like a lightning bolt but check the manual to be sure. It's normally not the "auto" flash setting that you would normally use for indoor photography. Make sure you don't select any red eye reduction along with the flash selection.

Many P&S cameras also allow you to tweak in a little extra or a little less fill-flash. Never mind this feature for the time being.

Now you're ready to make pictures using fill-flash with your P&S camera. Just make sure you're close enough to your main subject so the flash can reach it. Most P&S built in flashes can reach up to 8-12 feet in bright sunlight at a 100 ISO camera setting. Photo details >>

For basic photos you don't need to do anything different than if you were not using a flash. Compose your shot, click-flash. The camera automatically computes a basic exposure, and simultaneously computes the flash exposure needed. This will work flawlessly for most pictures. For any quirks you may experience, see "Fill-Flash problem solving" below.

FILL-FLASH WITH SLR AND EXTERNAL FLASH OR POP-UP

This is much the same as using a P&S camera. Set camera to "auto" or "program" exposure mode. Use a low ISO setting or low ISO film in the range of 50 to 100. For now, select a multi-pattern, wide area type exposure metering setting. This is sometimes the camera's default setting. Different camera makers use different terminology for this selection (Matrix, ESP, Honeycomb, Multi-mode, Evaluative Metering, etc). Typically you're given three metering choices: spot, center weighted and "X". Choose "X", but check your manual to be sure.

Girl beside tree.
Just a small puff of flash for a natural look.
Trees to the rescue.

Next, turn on the external flash unit or pop-up flash. Normally there's no setting specifically for fill-flash. Make sure the external flash is set to TTL (through-the-lens). Some external flashes have a button that tells the flash you're using it in bright light. This button sometimes looks like the sun, a globe with radiating dashes extending out from its perimeter. Press this button if available but check the manual to be sure. << Photo details

Now you're all set to make fill-flash pictures with your SLR and external flash unit or pop-up flash. Be sure to keep your main subject within flash range. External flashes have much more flash power than built-in P&S flashes. Depending on your model you may be able to light your subject from as far away as thirty feet or more. One more thing: make sure your camera shutter speed is no higher than the maximum "flash synch" speed, typically 1/125 to 1/300 of a second. Check your manual for the maximum synch speed of your particular camera.

For basic fill-flash photos simply make your picture like you normally would. The camera automatically computes a basic exposure, and simultaneously computes the flash exposure needed. This will work flawlessly for most pictures. For any quirks you may experience, see "Fill-Flash problem solving" below.

FILL-FLASH PROBLEM SOLVING
Boy wearing hat.
With dark backgrounds flash can over-expose. Use a little "minus" flash compensation.
Superfly in white suburbia.

Flash doesn't fire every time - The flash needs to recharge (recycle) between shots. Sometimes this can take several seconds. You may be trying to fire the flash before it's charged. Remember that the further your main subject is from the camera, the more flash power is used and the longer the recycle time. Also, flash is a real battery drainer. Use freshly recharged batteries, or fresh non-rechargeable batteries. Change them often. It's good policy to have at least one spare rechargeable battery with you at all times, and / or many non-rechargeable batteries. Photo details >>

Too much flash, subject is too brightly lit - Most flashes do a good job of making a fill-flash picture look natural. They throw just enough light into the scene, usually slightly less than the main exposure, so that the main subject looks normal. Sometimes, however, the flash brightens the subject too much. Here's an easy fix:

If your camera or flash allows "flash exposure compensation" set the adjustment to minus 1 stop for starters and try that. This tells the flash to output one stop less exposure. If still too bright try minus 1 2/3 stops. You can tweak it more or less from there. Personal taste accounts for a lot with fill-flash. Whatever looks good to you is the right exposure. With some camera / flash combinations I routinely adjust the flash to minus 1 or 1 1/3 stops. But some equipment makes fine fill-flash pictures with no adjustment. How much flash adjustment is a matter of taste, yes, but also depends on your own equipment. Cameras and flashes differ widely in how they make fill-flash pictures. You need to experiment.

Young girl reading a book.
It's possible to use fill-flash techniques indoors.
I'll keep reading, but I won't pose.

If your camera or flash doesn't allow for flash exposure compensation try this: move slightly out of flash range and zoom in a little to regain your original composition. Make a fill-flash picture. If still too much flash, back up a little more (and zoom in a little more to regain your original composition). And so on. This technique allows some flash to reach your subject, but not a full dose, resulting in a little manual "minus" flash compensation. << Photo details

Subject too dark, not enough flash - This could be one of two things. The flash may be firing before it's fully recharged. Usually there's a blinking light that indicates the flash is charging; when fully charged it glows steady. Alternately, the light may simply not glow when recharging and glow when charged. Check your manual. In any case, let the flash fully recharge before making another picture.

The other possible reason is a very bright background, like an expanse of sky, will cause the flash to reduce output. The remedy is simple. If your camera allows "flash exposure compensation" set the adjustment to plus 1 stop and try that. If you need more try plus 1 2/3 stops and tweak it more or less from there. This tells the flash to send more light than it normally would.

If your camera or flash doesn't allow flash exposure compensation try moving or zooming in tighter to cut out the offending brightness.

These are the basics of fill-flash. This simple but neglected photo technique can dramatically improve your outdoor people photography. With practice you'll become familiar with different photo situations and know instinctively when, or if, you need to use flash exposure compensation and how much is needed. My final advice: always carry plenty of batteries, including spare rechargeable batteries if that's what you use.

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