Advanced Flash Tips for Outdoor Photographers
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 Im missing, I thought.
Indeed there was! Ive 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.
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 subjects
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.
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 arent
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 subjects 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
A burning question is: Whats 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.
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 systems 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.
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
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 thats 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
flashs 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
(www.ikelite.com) makes multiple flash photography
easy and wireless.
sync speed fallacy. Your
cameras flash sync speed is a maximum shutter
speed at which you can take flash assisted pictures.
Think of it as your flashs 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
the impossible. It was sunrise at Newagen,
at the Southern most tip of Maines 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.
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 flashs
light. Gel filter packs by manufacturers like Rosco (www.rosco.com)
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.
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.
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 Kirks
flash brackets (www.kirkphoto.com)
and those made by Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com). I find
the StroboFrame QuickFlip flash bracket especially versatile
(www.stroboframe.com). Unlike some flash brackets, it
adjusts easily for horizontal and vertical shots.
tonality. Be alert to subject tonality
when shooting flash dominant photos. Like your ambient
light meter, your cameras 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
cameras body or a control on your auxiliary flash
unit. Check the owners manual that came with your
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.
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 cameras
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
Get to know the approximate shape and size of your cameras
flash meter segments, when they are active, and how
active and inactive segments
contribute to determining proper flash exposure. Consult
the owners 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.