Flash on the Go
Ten tips for creative fill-flash

Reprinted from Outdoor Photographer Magazine

By Nevada Wier


As a travel photographer, I'm at the mercy of whatever conditions are thrown my way. So, when I find myself in a tropical paradise during a drenching downpour or at a resplendent festival at high noon, I have to be a master and magician of light.

The arrival of TTL-balanced fill-flash has helped me overcome the tyranny of bad light and the limited contrast range of film. Our eyes possess the remarkable ability to see a 16-stop range of contrast from light to dark. Slide films can "see" only five or fewer stops with detail; print film extends the range to about seven stops.

Don't think only of using a flash when it's dark outside. Used subtly, it minimizes unwanted shadows, brightens dark scenes, and highlights areas of interest while preserving the ambient light.

1 Balance ambient light with fill-flash.

Tip 1

I find even modern, intelligent TTL flashes are calibrated too brightly for my taste. Balancing your flash with ambient light means learning to alter the exposure intensity of your flash, depending on your distance from the subject, the darkness of the shadows and the effect you're trying to create.

Usually, I take a manual exposure reading of the ambient light and then adjust the output of my flash. My experience is that setting a - 1 1/3 or -1 2/3 EV on any brand-name dedicated TTL flash gives the best results. If your flash doesn't offer exposure control, this feature alone makes the price of upgrading worth it.

Practice using your flash at its various outputs in different lighting conditions to gain an intuitive feel for what's best for any given situation. There are no fixed rules.

2 Use fill-flash to soften hard light.

Fill-flash can lighten the harsh, unflattering shadows of high noon on faces, but it can't obliterate them. I prefer turning my subject into the shade, exposing for the sunlit background and using fill-flash to light the face, as I did in a portrait of a young girl in western Nepal. I used a LumiQuest Mini Softbox on my Canon 540EZ, set with a -1 1/3 EV, to diffuse the light at this close range. I was photographing less than a foot away, so a low flash output was the most appropriate.

A note about diffusers: There are many different types available, including plastic domes that slip over the flash head, inflatable diffusers and soft boxes. The larger the diffuser, the more light it scatters, but requires you to be closer to your subject.

3 Use fill-flash to emphasize movement.

When you combine flash with an ambient-light exposure and a slow shutter speed, you get what's called "flash ghosting" - a flash-illuminated subject within a motion blur. For an image of a school parade in southern China, I intentionally used a slow shutter speed to blur the image. By adding fill-flash to the scene, I accented the children closest to my canera. You can see the "flash ghosting" around their edges.

4 Use flash to add a provocative catchlight or sparkle to an image.

On a rainy day in Guizhou, China, while photographing a spring festival, fill-flash was essential to add some sparkle to the dull, flat light. It was so dark that I was pushing Kodak E100S film to 200 with the lens wide open. A - 1 2/3 EV on my flash highlighted the dancer's eyes and lips and silver necklace, saving this image from the trash bin.

Even in the best conditions, I often use my flash on a -1 2/3 or -2 EV setting to add a catchlight in someone's eye. It's a subtle addition, but can make the difference between a mediocre and a provocative image. I also use flash with telephoto lenses up to 300mm. Even at 60 feet, a flash can add a hint of light to a person's or animal's eyes.

5 Use flash and pan" for interesting stop-action.

Tip 5

I've found that using a panning action with a bit of fill-flash is a striking combination. It was high noon in Myanmar and an outpouring of Burmese monks were heading to their morning meal carrying black rice bowls. It was a stunning scene, but the light was miserable - harsh midday light streaming through trees. It was impossible for film to handle the contrast. In a moment of inspiration, I set my flash at -1 EV and my shutter speed at 1/15 sec. Standing just a few feet from the monks, I "flash and panned" as they walked by. SInce I was panning faster than they were walking, the final image was slightly blurred.

6 Use colored deflectors or gels with fill-flash to match the ambient light.

Tip 6

I photographed a young girl winnowing wheat just as the sun was setting. The light was golden and lovely, but I wanted a tad of fill-flash to accentuate the movement of the wheat falling from the winnowing tray. However, I didn't want the white light of a flash to diminish the golden glow. So I used a LumiQuest Pocket Bouncer with a metallic gold insert on my flash, set at -1 EV, to emulate the glow of last light.

Another way to balance flash color with ambient light is to tape a gel over the front of your flash. You won't get the diffusing effect of a bounce or softbox, but you'll lessen the harsh white light of the flash.

7 Tunnel your flash.

Sometimes you may want to highlight only a small portion of your image with flash as a creative choice or to avoid a hot foreground exposure from your flash. If your flash has manual zoom control, you can fool it into thinking you need a narrow beam of light. For instance, I can set mine for a 50 - 100mm lens, when in reality I'm using a wide-angle lens, then aim my flash with the rotating head to target the important spot.

8 Use rear-curtain sync to capture the natural flow of light movement.

Rear-curtain sync is a significant addition to flash photography. Instead of firing at the beginning of the exposure, the flash triggers at the end of the exposure, just before the shutter curtain closes. This is important for long exposures when you need a stream of light, such as car headlights, to follow a moving object.

9 Use a battery pack for flash.

When I know that I'll be using fill-flash in rapid succesion, a quick recycle time is important. I use a Canon battery pack with my flash and attach it to my belt or tripod. I prefer to use lithium AA batteries, as they have a faster recycle time and discharge completely (more environmentally sound than alkaline). However, not all cameras and flashes can handle lithium, so check your manual to be sure. Rechargeable batteries are also a practical option.

10 Don't underestimate the capabilities of your built-in flash.

Although this article has extolled the virtues of powerful add-on flashes, don't assume the built-in flash on your camera is worthless. You may be able to adjust the flash output or use rear-curtain sync or long shutter speeds. Read your manual, and you may find that the built-in flash can do more than you had expected.

Note:This article is not intended to be an advertisement for these companies. I love their equipment, gear and film but feel no obligation to peddle their names. By no means do I feel that they are perfect for everyone. Still, people are always asking me what I take on assignments - so now you know. Also, see Photo Stuff which is my new page on the equipment I use.

© 1999 Nevada Wier and Outdoor Photographer Magazine