Flash Away the Shadows

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This post is a new instalment for me. I have decided as of today I will – on and off – provide you with simple tips here on this blog, tips that can improve your photography. Of course there aren’t really any simple and easy tricks that will magically result in great photography. Nevertheless, there are techniques and small secrets of the trade that may be handy to know about to handle certain situations or just to increase your creative toolbox. This is a little bit of an experiment for me, so please let me know what you think of it.

I will start this instalment with showing a helpful way of using either the camera’s built in flash or an external flash mounted on the camera. The thing with either types of flashes is that they provide a very harsh and usually very unattractive light. In addition, the light is completely flat since it radiates along the camera’s axis, thus not modulating the forms of the subject at all. Actually, the way most people use the flash on the camera is not particularly favourable. You know, it’s indoor, it’s dark, and to help capture a picture you turn on the flash. The result is usually – and in all honesty – awful, for instance with the people in the foreground burned out completely by the flash light with white faces and every thing else going pitch black. In situations like that, I would rather crank up the ISO and forget all about the flash – or use a flash method I will get back to in a later post.

Today I will show a way of using the flash when most people don’t think it’s necessary to use a flash. The little flash on the camera can really come in handy when the sun is shining from a clear blue sky. Not that you need more light, but maybe you have noticed the dark shadows the sun often creates – particular around midday? Like a hat shading the face or just the eye sockets growing dark in their own shadows.

If you, in a situation like this, use just a little pop of the flash, it will provide enough light into those shaded areas and bring out enough information to make them more than just black holes in the photo. At the same time it will not be noticeable in areas lit directly by the sun. There are different ways to accomplish this. On a point-and-shoot camera, you will usually look for a setting that’s either called slow sync or fill-in-flash. Just turn it on and let the camera do the rest. It can’t be more simple than that. Of course, you have no control over the amount of light the flash emits, but the result is usually very pleasant.

On some cameras, particularly on more advanced ones, and certainly on most external flashes, you can decided for yourself how much the flash should light up the shadows. You can dial the amount of flash light up and down usually in increments of 1/3 exposure values (E.V.) up to +3 E.V. or down to -3 E.V. The trick is not to make the flash too apparent, only to add light in the shadows and not in the areas that are already lit by the sunlight. I usually go for something between -2 E.V. or -3 E.V. Set the camera on program mode or aperture-priority mode and let it handle the rest. If you have a green or fully automatic mode, make sure you don’t use this since it will overrun what you are trying to accomplish. I also recommend not using shutter speed-priority mode to make sure you don’t accidentally use too fast a shutter speed, faster than the camera can synchronize the shutter with the flash.

One more thing: Remember that the flash doesn’t have a range of more than a couple of yards or meters. Anything beyond that will not be affected by the flash.

That’s it. I don’t always use this method in harsh sunshine – it depends on what I want to achieve. Sometimes I want the shadows to grow dark. Furthermore, with editing programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop you can easily lighten the shadows in post-production, but the result is quite different from using fill-in-flash at the time of capture. With the latter, you bring out more colours and saturation in the shadows. In addition, when photographing people, the little extra flash creates an attractive sparkle in their eyes (just look at the picture above and you will see two white spots in both eyes. It’s the reflections of the flash) .

About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Creativity, Photo Techniques, Photography, Practical Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to Flash Away the Shadows

  1. YellowCable says:

    Very useful tips. Thank you Otto!

  2. So that’s what ‘fill in flash’ means! Very helpful tip and I look forward to practicing – thanks.

  3. Mary says:

    Great tip. There are times I could use this tip, I will have to look at my nikon and get it figured out before I need it.

  4. Dawn says:

    Good tip. I haven’t thought about using flash in the daylight. I don’t like using flash at all if I can avoid it…so I will have to explore what my camera has. I can see now there would be times it would be helpful.

  5. seabluelee says:

    A useful tip, very clearly explained. Your photo illustrates the point beautifully!

  6. rangewriter says:

    Great tip. I’ve use this one myself on occasion, but not often with my Nikon.

  7. Lisa Gordon says:

    Very helpful, Otto.
    Thank you!!!

  8. Jane Lurie says:

    Well written and helpful post, Otto. Thanks.

  9. viveka says:

    Love the image … what an interesting man .. I wounder what he is thinking.
    I was asking somebody else this week about the harsh light … and what to do. I only work with an advanced compact camera, but maybe the flash will be the answer. Even when I have the back against the sun … the light is so harsh and the blue sky .. just turns white. Thank you much, Otto. I wish you a pleasant weekend.

  10. Most people don’t think about using their flash for fill in it. It’s good to hear someone explain it properly.

  11. Otto, you’ve found another way to share your experience and expertise. It will be a treat to read what tips you have selected (over time, of course).

  12. leecleland says:

    Great and too often forgotten tip Otto, look forward to this new tips and trick section of your Blog.

  13. loisajay says:

    Thank you do much for this tip, Otto. Here in Florida, I about put my camera away for a greater part of the day due to the intense sun. I cannot wait to try this!

  14. themofman says:

    I love seeing catch lights in eyes. It is almost always a great effect to achieve in portraiture.

  15. Debra says:

    This is really helpful, Otto. I appreciate the detail in providing direction about the settings. I have been spending time each week taking my camera out to more or less practice. There are so many features on my camera that I have never explored, and it’s been a challenge trying to learn new techniques. Shadows have been really difficult for me! I am really eager to see what I can do with this direction. Thank you!

  16. shoreacres says:

    This is wonderful, Otto. I’ve heard of fill-in flash, but I’ve never used flash at all, because the results have been so unattractive. Now that I have my new Canon — and now that I’ve found the place in the little book that explains how to vary the flash settings! — I’m looking forward to some experimentation. Your suggestions and comments were very clear, and helpful.

  17. Thanks a bunch. This has been very helpful. I will try this the next time I am out shooting! I also have a remote trigger for my external flash I thought about experimenting with during the daytime. Any suggestions?

    • By setting up the flash away from the camera you will be able to let it bring out the forms in the subjects. I would just experiment and start out there (there are plenty of books about if you need some back-up information later on).

  18. rebeccahaegele says:

    Great tip!

  19. Ptck says:

    Important to have a small flash with you to unclog shadows !! if not a reflector, but more imposing carrying around!

  20. Patrizia M. says:

    Thanks to these tips, very useful for those who have to learn the tricks of photography, even the tricks that the camera allows us to use for improving the photograph. Very nice idea to give tips dear Otto. Ciao, Pat

  21. Dalo 2013 says:

    Very good advice Otto ~ back in the day, I often would bring homemade diffusers with me (cloth of different hues and colors) and even sometimes a bottle (brown, green, etc…) to serve the purpose of lessening the harsh impact flash often has on the subject.

  22. Truels says:

    This was very helpful for me, I must try using flash photographing portraits! I have never used the flash in this way. Thank you VERY much for this article!

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