Behind the Lens - Fill-flash
Using a flash in bright daylight seems crazy, but the technique can improve harshly lit subjects and help eliminate shadows.
Elvis has left the building. Then he walks toward me, and I photograph him using a bright flash in the August sunshine.
Sound like I’m having a heat stroke? Using flash outside where there’s plenty of light seems crazy, but it can improve many photographs. Oh, and the part about Elvis? He was an impersonator, but it was still the King and he deserved a spotlight.
Direct sunlight is a harsh and very directional light. Midday sun puts shadows beneath eyes, and hats can completely hide a person’s face. It’s all pretty unflattering. Early-morning and evening light can be beautiful for some subjects, but can lead to insufficient illumination on parts of a subject facing away from the sun’s rays. A creative option is to use flash as a means to fill in those dark shadows.
Here are some tips on putting your point-and-shoot (P&S) flash to work in daylight.
• On P&S cameras, look for a menu selection or icon that signifies “Flash ON” or “Fill-Flash.” This forces the flash to fire regardless of the amount of light falling on the scene. In most automatic exposure modes, the camera will continue to expose for the overall illumination of the scene and fire the flash, which can lighten shadows and darker areas of a subject shaded from the sun.
• Since most P&S camera flashes are not powerful, it is important that you stay relatively close to your subject for this technique to work well. Ten feet might be as far as your P&S flash can reach. Experiment to find the useful range of your flash. The nice thing about using flash outdoors is that you shouldn’t have to worry about the dreaded red-eye effect that occurs when a person is flashed in low light with a dilated pupil. A person’s eyes will already be adjusted to bright light outdoors.
• Be careful photographing subjects that are close to other surfaces or objects, or your daytime flash may create unintentional shadows on those surfaces.
• If you’re taking a posed photograph of a person or small group in bright sun, and you notice everyone squinting at the camera, have them change position and turn away from or to the side of the sunlight. Using your flash option, you can then fill in the shadow areas of the repositioned subjects, and they will appreciate not being blinded by the sun.
• Even outdoors, flash can also be a harsh light when directed straight at a subject. One thing you can try, especially when photographing close to fill-flashed subjects, is to tape paper tissue, a handkerchief or a piece of translucent plastic over the flash to diffuse the light. This will create a softer and more pleasing light. But because it also greatly reduces the power of the flash, you need to be near your subject for this to work well.
In my next column, I’ll talk about outdoor flash options for photographers with digital single-lens reflex cameras.