March 15, 2011

Using Flash Outdoors

Post & Photo by Joe Farace – Follow Joe on Twitter

When making pictures of people during the day turning your built-in flash on is one of the simplest ways to improve your photographs. Instead of getting underexposed pictures or silhouettes, your friends will pop out of the background and so will the colors. So what’s the secret of good fill flash outdoors?

Basic photo books are full of rules to follow that help you obtain the mathematically correct ratios of daylight to flash but I feel only you know what looks best. Take the time to do some testing: Shoot some exposures with your digital SLR at all the flash’s automatic settings or bracket by changing the camera’s exposure compensation dial. A few cameras even permit bracketing exposures using the camera’s built-in flash. Make a few notes although the image file’s EXIF data will collect most of what you need for comparison.

If you are concerned about skin tone, make sure the test includes a three-quarter view of a person in the frame. Typically, I just make outdoor flash shots with the SLR set in Program mode (yes, Program mode) and adjust the exposure compensation control to get the look I want but not every camera/lens combination works the same. In that case I switch to manual mode, using the base exposure selected by the camera in program mode as a starting point. I think of it as a hand-held meter that’s always handy.

The left-hand portrait of Jamie Lynne was made in the shade with a Canon EOS 50D. White Balance was set in auto mode and no flash was used. While the backlighting is nice the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting produced an underexposed and slightly blue look. JL’s sparkling eyes, aren’t sparkling without light to illuminate them. In the right-hand shot the EOS 50D’s flash was popped up, which not only provided fill but also produced extra warmth, which the AWB used to warm up the entire photograph. Jamie Lynn looks great in both photographs, but using the EOS 50D’s built-in flash helps make this one a winner.

For digital point and shoot cameras make sure that the flash has a “forced” on flash setting that will allow it to fire when ambient light is high because many automatic settings might otherwise determine that flash was not required. Some digicams only allow you to turn the flash on outdoors when using the manual settings, which is a shame but don’t let that deter you from trying it. If you camera lets you put the flash on in any of the automatic settings that’s the best of both worlds and will produce balanced looking outdoor fill flash shots. Your pictures will look better and your subject’s will thank you for the nice snapshots.

Joe is the author of the upcoming book, “Studio Photography Anywhere” ( coming soon from Amherst Media.


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