Advanced Flash Tips for Outdoor Photographers

© Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Obtaining consistent results with the TTL (through the lens) flash systems on my 35mm SLR bodies eluded me for a long time.  I got frustrated.  “Surely, there must be something I’m missing,” I thought.  Indeed there was!  I’ve assembled here some of the insights that have given me greater control and consistency when using an accessory shoe-mount flash to illuminate my outdoor photos.

(c) Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Flash Exposures Involve Two Exposures. It took me a long time to understand a simple principle: outdoor flash requires managing two independent exposures: a flash exposure and an ambient light exposure.  The flash exposure generally includes your primary subject.  The ambient exposure is based on the light available in your subject’s surroundings.  Applying this two-exposure mind-set led me to realize that I can adjust the ambient light exposure to produce one effect and adjust the flash exposure to create a second effect.

Tip: Think of outdoor flash as a two-step process: establish your ambient light setting first, and then establish your flash setting.  This simple insight yields myriad creative possibilities, and pictures that aren’t possible otherwise.

(c) Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Flash fill to soften shadows (reduce contrast).  Outdoor scenes, especially people outdoors, typically contain more contrast (the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image) than film can capture.  Deep shadows will often obscure your subject’s facial features. This is especially a problem when the subject is wearing a hat that shades their face.   Flash fill adds light to “bring up” or fill those areas to reduce the shadows and reveal the facial detail.  Generally it is desirable to retain some shadow, as it looks more natural and reveals texture giving the image a three-dimensional feel. 

A burning question is:  What’s the proper flash level for fill flash?  Folks using manual flashes often set the flash to expose the subject 1 or 1 1/2  stops below the ambient light level.  This lightens and keeps detail in shadowed areas that would otherwise go black in your photo.  Choosing a fill level with modern automated flash equipment is complicated because some flash systems are programmed to automatically reduce flash output in bright light settings.  When and how much flash is automatically reduced is a little documented feature. 

Tip: Experiment with your flash in different situations to learn how your system adapts (always use slide film for these tests!).  Note the situations in which the flash looks too hot (over exposed) or cold (underexposed).  These are the situations for which you will need to help the system by adding flash exposure compensation.

Tip:  On some flash systems--Canon is one--flash exposure compensation is added to (subtracted from) the flash exposure compensation automatically introduced by the system’s daylight flash-fill program. You can cancel the automatic preprogrammed reduction via one of the custom functions.  Read your manual to see if this applies to your system.

(c) Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Make your subject pop.  Sometimes you want a subject to “pop” out of the background.  A telephoto lens combined with a wide aperture is one way to extract your subject from the background.  Use flash to heighten this effect.  First, meter the ambient (background) light.  Now, treat the ambient light exposure as a creative decision.  The more you underexpose the background, the more prominent your flash illuminated subject will become.  You can even purposefully underexpose the background so all background detail is “lost” in a sea of blackness.  Careful use of this effect can create very dramatic photos.  Alternatively, overexposing the background can produce exciting photos with backlit subjects.

Banish black backgrounds. Black backgrounds happen often with macro photography where flash is the dominant light.  Macro subjects often require small apertures, to render adequate depth of field, and the fastest shutter speed possible to freeze moving bugs or windblown flowers, or to tame photo blurring camera shake. The easiest way to eliminate black backgrounds in flash photos is to use a longer shutter speed.  If that’s not possible, try these tips:

  • If the zoom level of your auxiliary flash is manually adjustable, set it wider than the lens you are using.  When using a 100mm lens, set the flash zoom to 28mm, for example.  Be aware that this will reduce your flash’s effective range.
  • Bounce the flash off a reflector.  A white reflector often yields results that look harsh to my eye.  I often prefer the results obtained by bouncing flash off a warm tone reflector.
  • Use multiple flash units:  one aimed at your primary subject, another at the background.  The IkeLite Lite-Link ( makes multiple flash photography easy and wireless.

The sync speed fallacy.  Your camera’s flash sync speed is a maximum shutter speed at which you can take flash assisted pictures.  Think of it as your flash’s speed limit. As modern TTL cameras often feature flash sync speeds up to 1/200, or faster, restricting your flash shooting to the sync shutter speed severely limits your creative options.  Shutter speeds slower than max sync speed are often desirable.  For example, a slower shutter speed may allow a smaller aperture for more depth of field.  Or, a long shutter speed can be used to expose properly a dark background, while the flash is used to expose properly a foreground subject. Mount your camera on a tripod when using long shutter speeds to eliminate camera shake induced image blur.

(c) Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Do the impossible. It was sunrise at Newagen, at the Southern most tip of Maine’s photogenic Southport Island.  A cluster of flowers begged to be a foreground element.  Dawn light dappling the ocean provided the perfect backdrop.  One problem: sunlight had not yet reached the flowers.  The brightness range exceeded what film can record. How could I shoot this without blowing highlights or having shadow areas go black and featureless?   I considered my ND grads, but they work best with a uniform horizon.  The flower cluster was irregular shaped.  Flash to the rescue!  Use flash to illuminate a darkened foreground element that is within flash range – a person, a cluster of flowers, a colorful bush – that would otherwise be rendered as black on film. Shots like this require careful flash placement.  Remove the flash from the hot shoe and attach it to your camera via a TTL flash extension cord.  In situations like this, my flashes often deliver great results in fill mode.  Experiment to see what works best with your equipment.

Get gelled.  Auxiliary flash units produce light that resembles daylight at high noon on a cloudless sky.  This is fine, if you are shooting at high noon.  When shooting in the magic warm light of morning or evening, a flash illuminated subject often looks out of place.  Use a colored gel filter, taped over your flash head, to alter the color of your flash’s light.  Gel filter packs by manufacturers like Rosco ( fit most flash heads perfectly.  Experiment with different filter colors until you find the filters that produce effects you like.  My favorite gel filter is the scandalously named “bastard amber.”

Additional Considerations

Use second curtain flash.  Your flash system may let you choose whether the flash goes off at the beginning of the exposure (‘first curtain’) or at the end of the exposure (‘second curtain’).   Second curtain flash generally gives more natural looking results.  Shoot a running subject with ‘first curtain’ and she will appear to be running out of her body.  Interesting, but unnatural.  The same running subject shot with ‘second curtain’ flash will gain a sense of movement; a ghostish shadow will trace the path she moved during the exposure.

Use a flash bracket.  Nothing improves outdoor flash photos more than getting your auxiliary flash unit out of the hot shoe.  Holding a flash while juggling even a tripod mounted camera gets cumbersome.  A flash bracket frees your hand so you can better concentrate on your photography. A flash bracket also dramatically reduces the likelihood of flash shadows and red eye when shooting mammals.  Many macro enthusiasts praise Kirk’s flash brackets ( and those made by Really Right Stuff (  I find the StroboFrame QuickFlip flash bracket especially versatile (  Unlike some flash brackets, it adjusts easily for horizontal and vertical shots.

(c) Rob Kleine, All Rights Reserved

Subject tonality. Be alert to subject tonality when shooting flash dominant photos.  Like your ambient light meter, your camera’s TTL flash meter assumes your subject is of medium tonality.  Subjects lighter and darker than medium tone may require flash exposure compensation.  If your subject is lighter, like a white flower, you must dial in plus flash exposure compensation to avoid underexposure.  Subjects darker than medium tone may require some negative flash exposure compensation to avoid over exposure.  Depending on your equipment, flash exposure compensation is set via a dial on your camera’s body or a control on your auxiliary flash unit.  Check the owner’s manual that came with your equipment.

Tip: Experiment with your system to discover what amount of flash exposure compensation produces the best results for light toned subjects, like a white flower, and dark toned subjects, like a bear.

Think like your flash sensor.  Do the photos you take with the auxiliary flash on your SLR sometimes baffle you?  The dark bush in the near background is well exposed but your model in the foreground is horribly over-exposed, for example? A mismatch between your camera’s flash sensor and your primary subject is a possible reason; your main subject is outside the image region covered by the active flash meter segment(s).  Advanced TTL (through the lens) flash control systems, like those found on most contemporary SLR bodies, feature a multi-segment flash sensor.  Depending on camera settings, certain sensor segments have more impact in determining flash exposure than others. 

Tip: Get to know the approximate shape and size of your camera’s flash meter segments, when they are active, and how ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ segments contribute to determining proper flash exposure.  Consult the owner’s manuals for your camera or flash for this information.  With this knowledge in hand, you can better arrange your photos so the active segment(s) are over your primary subjects.  The quality of your flash pictures will improve, and surprises diminish, as you learn to view situations through the eyes of your flash sensor.


So, there you have it, my suggestions on how to enhance the effectiveness of your flash illuminated outdoor photos.  Take these ideas as starting points for your own flash explorations.  Play and have fun with your flash.  You never know when an experiment will reveal new ways to use your flash.

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