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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Using Fill Flash

Using Fill Flash

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 1601
1 Introduction  (253)
2 Purpose of Fill Flash  (334)
       2.1 How to Set Fill Flash  (795)
              2.1.1 "Burst" Effect  (98)
              2.1.2 Back Shadow (121)

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1 Introduction

Flash Burst
(Kyoto, Japan)
asia, burst, flash, horizontal, japan, people, photograph
Many people think of the flash on their camera as a main light source for when the scene is too dark to take a picture: a night photo, inside a restaurant, at a party, etc. They almost never use the camera's flash for any other purpose. The problem is, a full strength flash tends to blow out the foreground with a big burst of light. This helps you see the smiling subjects well, provided that they are close enough, but the background is left completely dark. How close do the people have to be? A flash's light is typically effective between 5-10 feet (1½-3 meters). While a stronger flash may illuminate stuff further back, it'll only overexpose the foreground even more. In other words, a flash distorts the normal light balance in the picture, which isn't what your eye sees, yielding an unsatisifying "snapshot" where the background is all black.

Many consumers are happy with this, but more serious photographers generally are not. It isn't really possible to get a "good" picture in the dark using solely a flash on your camera because of this. Instead, you have to use additional lights or other methods discussed in other articles. You should understand the issues behind this in the section, Techniques on Metering Light with your Camera. However, you can use your camera's flash to strongly improve other kinds of pictures where people traditionally don't think of using a flash, such as a mid-day sun, and other brightly lit scenes.

No Fill Flash
Face in Dark Shadows
hat, kqed, tech, noflash, hat, kqed, tech, noflash, photograph
Because camera manufacturers calibrate the flash to be used in the way people expect (as the main light source), the flash has become one of the most misused components of the camera. As mentioned, people often use their flash when they don't think there's enough light in a scene to take a normal picture, resulting in "bursty" snapshots. On the other hand, when the main light comes from another source, like the sun, or other naturally-lit situations, people don't use their flashes, leaving dark shadows under the eyes, or an entirely black area under a hat because the contrast between dark and light is too much for film (or digital cameras) to capture.

Fill Flash—Face is Bright
hat, kqed, tech, flash, hat, kqed, tech, flash, photograph
Shooting with a flash in the daytime using the flash in its default setting will burst light thinking it's the main light source (because that's how the camera was configured because that's how most people use a flash), causing an equally bad, albeit different picture. That is, the flash will burst the same amount of light as the main source, leaving a complete flat, bland and pretty ugly photo. Worse, it'll also likely be out of balance with the background or other elements that the flash may not reach (as noted above).

So, if using a flash makes for too a flat image, and no flash makes for too much contrast and shadows, what do you do?

The secret is to find that middle ground by setting the flash so that it only bursts enough light to illuminate the shadows, but maintain the balance that your eye normally sees. This is called "fill flash" because it fills in the details that would otherwise be lost because of the high dark and bright contrasts in the scene. The general guidelines suggest to reduce flash output anywhere from 2/3 to 1-1/3 stops, depending on creative control and the degree of which there is a lighting imbalance in the scene.

Point-n-Shoot Flash (in "fill" mode)
(California, USA)
goatee, goutee, horizontal, personal, self-portrait, photograph
For regular point-n-shoot cameras, your flash is almost always set by a button that looks like a lightning bolt. Usually, you press that button multiple times while the LCD display on the camera cycles through a variety of icons that show which flash mode you're in. I'm not going to discuss each mode, so read your manual to determine which is the "fill flash" mode. When you discover which is correct, you generally have the result I discussed above. Failing that, you can consider taping paper (tissue or otherwise) over the flash or using a colored gel (discussed below).

For those using SLR cameras, most have popup flashes on the camera body itself. You can reduce the output in these as well, but not using the simplified "icon" method above. Again, read your manual, but it's generally the case that you press the button that pops-up the flash a second time to put the camera into a mode where you can set the flash output using one of the rolling control dials. You can often reduce the output in half or third-stop increments. (If you can't reduce flash by 2/3 of a stop, round up to a full stop.)

If you have an older camera that has no such dials, or you are using an external flash unit that you attach to the top of the camera, you need to set the output power on the flash unit itself. Here are some general methods to use or think about when deciding how you want to reduce flash output power.
No Flash: Harsh Shadows
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, quechua, stone ruins, vertical, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Adjust your flash exposure, not your camera's exposure!

Adjusting flash exposure is not to be confused with adjusting the camera's exposure. Exposure time is constant for any given lighting situation, set by the amount of light present in the scene. The fill flash is not going to change the exposure at all—it's just there to fill in shadows that would otherwise not show up because they're too dark. Some cameras may adjust the exposure of the photo if it thinks that the flash output has also been altered, but for these cameras, the system is programmed to do essentially what you're after anyway. (It's just another way around the mountain.) Like any other photo technique, it takes time and experience to fine tune before you're an expert.

blue-bullet.gif Place a warming filter (gel) over the flash.

Fill Flash: Natural Looking
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, horizontal, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, quechua, stone ruins, photograph
Placing a gel over a flash not only reduces the flash output (generally by anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 of a stop), but it may also add some "warmth" to the scene (if you use the right kind of gel). The easiest way to do this is to obtain a demo pack of Rosco gels. They are usually free, and available in most pro camera stores, especially those that sell studio lighting equipment. They are little strips of samples that demonstrate the full line of filter gels that Rosco makes. It just so happens that these sample strips fit perfectly over a flash head for most 35mm cameras.

Whether you obtain Rosco gels or something similar, place the lightest warming filter over the flash head. This may reduce the flash power by an 1/8 of a stop, but this is good, so don't worry about it. If you can't find a filter, use a diffuser (like tissue paper or just regular white paper) over the flash.

blue-bullet.gif Experiment with a flash cable chord.

Fill Flashes are Perfect for Hats
ecuador, equator, horizontal, latin america, people, photograph
This step is hardly "required" (I do it sparingly), but if you want to optimize your effect, it's certainly worth trying. (Some wedding photographers do this religiously.) A flash chord is used to attach the flash to the camera on the same hot shoe, but lets you move the flash away from the camera body itself. Here, you have to hold the flash with your left hand (or have an assistant hold it) while you shoot with your right hand holding the camera. All this is to keep the light from blasting directly onto the subject from the behind the lens. This effect helps remove harsh shadows. For best effect, bounce the flash off nearby walls, ceilings or other nearby objects (that are bright but not reflective, like a mirror).

blue-bullet.gif Side Effects

You're NOT going to get studio quality lighting like you see in magazines. Photographing in dark rooms, or under conditions where the main light source is my flash, always results in photos that I don't like. (You may not mind.) I try to shoot near brighter natural light if possible, but that's hardly ever your option. So, how do I shoot in darker conditions? I either suffer, or use additional lighting methods.

Flash Burst!
(California, USA)
black and white, pooches, fujipix, nose, horizontal, dogs, black and white, fujipix, nose, dogs, photograph
Two of the side effects of using any flash on a camera are: reflections and shadows. This is all the more reason to use a reduced power in the flash. At full power, a subject appears "bursty" with light reflecting too strongly off the eyes and other shiny objects (like a wet nose). The stronger the flash, the stronger this effect, but worse, the more likely back-shadows will occur and out of balance the foreground (subject) will be with the ambient background scene. A weaker, subtler fill flash will reduce this effect considerably.

Shadow Cast from Strong Flash
vertical, shadow, tech, back, shadow, tech, back, photograph
The other side effect of an overly strong flash is the back-shadow. Note, this may not always be avoided, since certain lighting conditions require some sort of light, and if all you have is a flash, then that's the best you can expect. Still, using a fill flash will reduce the intensity of this effect (although it may never entirely go away). If you have a separate flash from the camera (even if you mount it on the camera), you can angle the "head" to point in another direction, like up (to bounce off the ceiling) or sideways (to bounce off the wall). Bounced light is also diffused considerably and reduces the back-shadow effect.

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