Day +241: Learning Light Pt 1 (fill light)

Whether you’re on vacation, taking pictures of your family, or just doing photography in general, you will be confronted with different lighting conditions. Learn what to do in different scenarios, and your pictures will be a million times better. For most of my early photographic journey, I avoided flash- because I was scared of it. Back then, I couldn’t afford a real Canon flash, so I settled for a generic brand. It didn’t even have TTL (the flash equivalent of auto exposure), and the photos all came out terrible. So for years, I never used flash.

Yes, natural light is great- but sometimes it ain’t available. Reflectors can help, but who carries one of those around, and natural reflectors (eg. grass) are not always appropriate. Enter flash.

Most of you guys don’t need to learn how to use manual flash, and that’s fine. But you’ll almost either have a pop-up flash that sits on top of your camera, or an external flash that you attach to the hot shoe. The quality of your pictures will depend on how far you’re prepared to go, in terms of cost, effort and portability. The rest of this post provides examples of different flash techniques; I’m still learning (and this post is as useful to me as it will be to you).

Here is the basic rule I used: One flash only (used on manual, at 1/32 power unless otherwise stated), ISO fixed at 100. All images were shot using the 55/1.8 lens. I didn’t have any living models, so I used some soft toys as the subject, but the principle is the same! The toys were placed on a coffee table, on a white sheet, with light coming in from the window behind them.




The above picture is what is typical of a backlit scene (1/160, f4). The camera exposes for the background, and the subjects are dark. Yes, you can save the image somewhat by bringing out the shadows using Photoshop, but it’s not the same.

Yes, you can expose for the subject, but then this happens. Notice that the background is blown out. The shutter speed was decreased to 1/30 (we’re now starting to get into “camera shake” territory), with the aperture kept the same. To get proper exposure for our friends, I probably would have had to decrease the shutter speed to 1/16 or even 1/8, and the background would have been completely white!




Using the same settings as the first picture (1/160, f4), but this time with a flash mounted on my camera pointed straight at the friends, you get the “deer in headlights look” (but the background is OK).


By increasing the shutter speed to my camera’s “maximum sync speed” (the fastest shutter speed you can normally use with flash), the background is a little darker, but the friends are the same (ie. shutter speed ONLY affects ambient exposure, not flash exposure).


For the next picture, I’ve increased the aperture to f8. The friends are now not overexposed (eg. changing aperture changes the FLASH exposure). However, the background is underexposed, and is no longer blurry. The window frame now looks like it’s sticking out of sloth’s head.




A lot of power is lost when you bounce the flash (pointed at the ceiling), so at the same f8, no light reaches the subject.


The next shot is at f4:


Now, keeping the aperture the same, I increased the power of the flash.

This is at 1/16:


At 1/8:


This is at 1/8th power with the white bounce card pulled out of my flash. Note that the shadow beneath Stitch’s chin is gone, because the bounce card helped to fill in the shadow:


And this is at full flash power:


In the next picture, the flash was bounced off a wall, behind me:


So far, the best image is the bounced flash at 1/8th power with the white bounce card.

In summary: if possible, get an external flash with a bounce head, and pull out the white bounce card.

If you then take the next step, things get even more fun!



The following picture were taken using Gary Fong’s Lightsphere, with the flash pointed straight at the subject, using the same settings as the “deer in headlights” shot above.


Note that the light is diffused buy the dome of the Lightsphere, and the resulting image is now much more pleasing.


OFF-CAMERA FLASH USING A SOFTBOX (positioned at 11 o’clock):

Using a softbox, this is the best image. The light is diffused, with no shadows. And the best thing is, that it doesn’t even look like a flash has been used. Now obviously there is some sacrifice when you use a softbox (it’s big and mounted on a light stand), but it does deliver the most pleasing image.


I hope you enjoyed reading my blog about lighting a backlit scene. My next goal is to blog about using artificial light as the main light, and not the fill light. See you soon!