Ahhh…. summertime. Long days, warm weather, vacations, and sun. Many of us will be snapping away, taking pictures of our kids at the beach, or at historic landmarks or tourist areas that we’ll be visiting on our vacations. We’ll be shooting outdoors in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky so you would think there would be no need to use the flash, right? Not necessarily. Hand-in-hand with the bright sun are dark shadows and unfortunately, our cameras can’t properly expose for both in the same image. We can expose for the subject that’s in the sun, OR expose for the subject that’s in the shade, but not both… unless we use our camera’s flash.
Harsh shadows are a problem especially when photographing people wearing baseball caps or visors. The shade cast by these is usually too dark to reveal any detail in their face below. This problem is not limited to people with shaded faces, anything that is in half sun and half shade will be hard to expose for. As will subjects that are back lit - their front in darkness, they usually show as silhouettes.
The easiest solution to these problems would be to move your subject into more even light. However, if what you’re photographing can’t be moved, or there’s no good place to move it to, you may have no option but to compose your image with these extreme differences of light and dark. If that’s the case, the best solution would be to use your flash. In fact, odd as it sounds, bright daylight is one of the best times for using your flash. It will correct for the imbalance of light allowing you to capture a more evenly lit subject or scene. It will fill in the shadows and expose areas that would have otherwise been rendered dark (hence the name, fill flash).
Fill flash is particularly useful for lightening the shadows on people’s faces, it also adds a bit of sparkle in their eyes. Even without a cap shading their faces, when the sun is high, people’s eye sockets may appear as black holes without some help from the flash. Additionally, by using the flash, you can position people with their back to the sun for a more relaxed facial expression without squinting - the flash will light up their front keeping them from being a silhouette.
Some tips to keep in mind when using your camera’s built in flash.
* You’ll need to take your camera off the Auto mode to use the flash in bright light. In any of the Auto modes, the camera makes the decision whether to flash or not, and in bright daylight, it will not fire. If you’re not comfortable using the manual modes try putting your camera on P (program mode). It will still automatically select the exposure but will allow the flash to fire when it’s turned on.
* If you use the Aperture, Shutter or Manual modes, simply turn your flash on.
* Don’t forget to select Red-Eye Reduction to avoid demon-eyes.
* Most flashes can only light up subjects within an 8 to 10 foot range. Don’t expect yours light up shadows that are 20 feet away.
* Many flashes throw strong, harsh light resulting in overexposure of your subject. To correct for this, either put more distance between yourself and your subject, or decrease the strength of the flash by using your camera’s flash exposure compensation setting.
Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) allows you to increase or decrease the strength of the flash. If you are close to your subject, you may want to decrease the flash output so as not to overexpose it. Try dialing the flash exposure compensation down by a third, two thirds, or even one full stop. If your flash is not lighting the shadows adequately, you may want to increase the flash exposure compensation by a third, two thirds, or even one or two full stops. Experiment with the strength of the flash by changing the flash exposure compensation until you get the desired results.
You may find the controls for FEC in the camera menu under the flash settings, or on the body of the camera. On the body, it’s usually represented by an icon of a lightning bolt with a +/- next to it. On some cameras, you’ll press this button and then turn the command dial to the right or left to increase or decrease the amount of flash output. (You may want to refer to your camera’s manual under Flash Exposure Compensation to learn how to activate and use this setting.)
Experiment using your camera’s flash on bright sunny days this summer. You’ll find yourself quickly convinced of its usefulness and a handy tool to have up your sleeve.
Depending on where you want to go with your photography, consider the next step; an off-camera flash unit. These give you a larger light source and many options to modify or soften the light and will really help you take your photography to the next level. Watch for our class, Demystifying Off Camera Flash, taught by Tim Cooper in the fall.