Fill Light; Use Your Flash Outdoors

Although some outdoor photographers prefer to shoot everything by available light, electronic flash can be surprisingly useful. In the past, it was difficult to produce a natural looking effect with flash in outdoor photography without a bit of expertise. All too often the results appeared to be artificial, with a harsh effect caused by flash becoming the primary light source. Today, with high-tech flash metering systems, much more "natural" results are possible automatically, or by using a simple camera override.

Extra light can be valuable in heavily overcast conditions, of course, producing bright, clean colors instead of gray and muddy tones. But it can be just as appropriate on bright, sunny days as well. There are three primary reasons why you'll want to use flash in such conditions.

On sunny days, I rarely see anyone else using flash and yet, the extra burst of light can be very beneficial in such conditions particularly for people pictures. It's often useful for lightening faces, moderating high contrast, adding a sparkle to the subjects' eyes and in some lighting conditions, also for enriching colors.
All Photos © 2007, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

·The extra burst of light can soften hard shadows that obliterate important subject detail: shadows cast by the bill of a hat over a person's face, for example. It can also fill in dark eye sockets caused by "top lighting": by the sun when it's high in the sky around noon.

·When shooting toward an extremely bright area--the sun, a bright sky, snow, sand or surf--flash can even out the lighting. You should get a nicely exposed subject without an excessively bright background.

·On windy days, flowers and grasses will be moving and may be rendered as blurred. The short burst of flash can "freeze" the subject for a sharper photo.

For some photos, you may want a particularly gentle flash effect, filling in the darkest areas and adding a "catch light" to the eyes but not eliminating all shadows. Effects such as this require a lower (minus) flash exposure compensation with most cameras. (A -1.33 setting was used to make this photo.)

Flash With D-SLR Cameras
D-SLRs employ sophisticated flash metering; the features differ depending on the camera you use, but typically they allow you to achieve some very pleasing effects. Most cameras provide "daylight balanced fill flash"; they automatically reduce flash intensity to avoid overpowering the ambient light. However, you may still want to use + or - flash exposure compensation for a stronger or a gentler effect. Particularly with very tight close-ups, a -1, or perhaps even a -2 level may be necessary to avoid excessive brightness. And, in very strong backlighting you may need to set a +1 flash exposure compensation level for adequate brightness.

Note: When using a D-SLR be sure to use a flash that's fully compatible with digital cameras. Check your Owner's Manual as to suitable flash units.

Even a high powered flash unit has limited range so it's rarely useful for distant subjects. That's quite easy to solve with a flash extender accessory as discussed in the text. Do note however that this device was designed only for use with a 300mm or longer lens in 35mm photography or a 200mm or longer lens when using a digital SLR camera. Increasing the ISO level can also be useful since that makes the sensor more sensitive to light. (Image made with a 480mm equivalent focal length.)

Try Advanced Techniques
For serious outdoor photography with an SLR, experiment with the following techniques; some of these require a specific high-end flash unit or an accessory.

·Set both ambient light exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation simultaneously. This allows you to control the brightness of the primary subject as well as the background. For example, consider this technique when taking photos of people against a bright background of snow, sand, surf, or sky. Set the camera's conventional exposure compensation control to -0.5 so the background will not be excessively bright. Then set the flash intensity control to +0.5 or +1 to ensure that the subject will be brightly rendered.

·To freeze the motion of nearby subjects, such as a flower waving in the breeze, try high speed flash sync available with many high-end flash units. A 1/500 sec shutter (sync) speed often works well. Because the effective range of flash will be very short at low ISO levels, set ISO to 400 or 800 if the subject is not within a few feet of the camera.