Balanced Fill Flash

At my lighting seminar (Learning Light from Wrong: A Discussion of Photographic Lighting with a Shadowy Figure), I explain that I’m more inclined to use flash outdoors than indoors. Indoors, an on-camera flash pointed directly at a person often blows out the subject and casts the background into shadow. That’s why we always try to bounce flash when indoors. Outdoors, a flash pointed directly at a person can lighten shadows, especially around the eyes.  The trick is to LIGHTEN shadows, not eliminate them. Shadows provide a bit of three-dimensionality to our two-dimensional images.

Jodi and Scott against a reasonably dark background. The test of fill flash is whether or not the resulting image appears to be lit by flash. What do you think? Could I have brought out Jodi's eyes with more flash power? Not without blowing out Scott's shirt and both faces.

Modern cameras often include a setting for “balanced fill flash.” “Balanced” is the key word. A fill flash should provide a mere kiss of light to an ambient light exposure, softening the shadows and adding a little catchlight to the eyes. During the last few months, I’ve been doing so much indoor, multiple flash shooting, I decided I’d better get some outdoor flash exercise before my big CD cover shoot this afternoon. Fortunately, I attended an outdoor wedding reception yesterday.

The late afternoon affair took place in a shady picnic area at a local park. The light was beautiful, but often dappled or downright dim. On the parking lot side, where there were no trees, there was strong backlighting. Fill flash to the rescue! I used my Nikon D300 and an SB600 flash. Knowing I would be drinking beer, I set the camera to P (automatic setting of both shutter speed and aperture) and matrix metering. I set the flash to its “Balanced Fill” mode, but dialed it down by 2/3 of a stop, because I did not want an unnatural separation of subject from background. With these settings, I was in virtual point and shoot mode. White balance settings would have been tricky, because I was moving in and out of shadow and direct sunlight, and there was a flash in the mix. I left the white balance on auto, but shot in RAW so I could easily reset white balance in post processing.

Another photographer used a Gary Fong Lightsphere for more diffusion of her fill flash. I'm not sure that's necessary when all you want is a little kiss of fill light, but when working up close, that extra diffusion will reduce the likelihood of hotspots. I just didn't feel like carrying mine.

As usual, it sounds more complicated than it is, especially with our modern cameras. Fill flash used to require a lot of mental math – not my strong suit. Now I let the camera do the math, and I adjust the flash power up or down depending on how I like the images on my LCD screen. Not only does this produce better images than I used to get, but it allows me to drink more beer at parties.

Stepping out of the shade, fill flash is even more important for lightening eye sockets - especially with a hat in the picture. Of course, the flash intensified the hat shadow on John's forehead, but I consider that an acceptable compromise.

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Filed under Camera Settings, Post Processing, Professional vs. Amateur

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