Simple Fill Flash Tips - Digital Photography School

Simple Fill Flash Tips

A Guest Post by Mia Johnstone.

Learning some very simple fill flash tips will help elevate the quality of your photographs. This tutorial will teach you to fill in shadows and help create more professional looking portraits. These tips can be applied to shooting indoors with window light and can also be great for shooting outdoors in open shade (no direct sunlight).

IMG_1965.jpgYou need:

  • A DSLR camera
  • Basic working knowledge of manual mode
  • An off camera flash with variable light output (you can get basic ones for $100)
  • An optional filter for your flash (softens light).

1. Have your model sit facing a window. Photographer should have the window to their back. See photo below. The whole point to fill flash is that it’s just ‘fill’. You will need a main light source. Natural light is free and readily available. See below how we set up the shot.

2. Depending on how strong the window lighting is, your ISO should be at around 100 or 200. I usually shoot at an aperture of 3 or 3.5. Then set your shutter speed appropriately, but not faster than 1/250. My settings=ISO 100, aperture 3.5, 1/125 speed.

3. Set your flash to manual mode and your variable light output to 1/34. If you are using a filter on your flash, your flash head should be at a 45 degree angle, if possible. Take a test shot. If I am only a few feet away from my subject, this is usually too bright. I love 1/64 or 1/128 light output from a flash. It gives that extra splash of light to help fill in the shadows.

Metered for natural light. Added fill flash at 1/64 power. A balanced image.

No flash. Dark shadows around nose and eye.

flash at 1/32 power. A little too bright

Flash at 1/32 power. A little too bright.

Taking a good portrait is very simple. The portrait above with no flash isn’t a bad image. But when you add some flash, it gives the model and photo a whole new dimension. You can use these simple tips when you take wedding photographs, at the beach on cloudy days, or when you just want to give your photos some extra life.

Mia Johnstone is a professional photographer in Los Angeles. Read about her love of photography at www.mialovesphotography.com

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  • http://portraitinspiration.com/ Jai Catalano

    I think the idea is dead on and I agree with you but the photos could have been so much better.

  • Mei Teng

    Thanks for sharing this simple tutorial. The image with the added fill flash is definitely much better.

  • Jessi

    When shooting outside, do you still tilt your flash at a 45 degree angle, even though there is no ceiling for bounce?

  • http://www.mialovesphotography.com Mia Johnstone

    Jai, thanks for that feedback. I chose the simplest photos to demonstrate the fill flash. I was more focused on teaching the technique than getting the best photos (poses, background etc). You can see the actual results from this photo shoot at http://mialovesphotography.com/headshot-love/ . I love how the images came out.
    I should have worn a different shirt in that last photo. Silly me, I was focusing on my model.

  • http://www.luclodder.com Luc Lodder

    I disagree. The photo with the flash show an ugly shadow of her nose below her nose. I’d use no flash and post-process the shadows lighter. With today’s technology it’s no problem to enhance shadows 1 stop.

  • http://500px.com/yoan_mitov/ Yoan

    I can only agree with Jai. Those shots aren’t bad but they should’ve been taken from a lower POV and with a longer lens.

  • Magno

    Of course the photos could have been so much better, but I guess that’s not the point. It’s just a simple tutorial.

  • http://vbdphoto.com vinyp

    I wouldn’t get all caught up the details of the model and set…it’s a simple tutorial. I agree with this technique and employ it on a regular basis. The only difference between this and my process is that since I am in manual mode, I prefer to underexpose the metering of available light just a bit (maybe 1/3 to 2/3) to make the subject pop a bit more from the background.
    http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/8951105_XRQSSR#!i=769210706&k=ThpDQ

  • http://energizeyourphotography.blogspot.com EnergizedAV

    Good short and sweet . I like the simple sheers set up in your last image.
    Thanks Mia

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Eik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Fill flash is essential for outdoor work – here we had the model in partial shade and then gently lit her up

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/ariel-mcas-miranar-model-shoot/

  • jeff

    Completely agree with Eik. I find that unless it’s a bright day (and associated issues with that), fill flash is required for even decent pictures of the family.

    I’m now a Sony DSLR shooter. Any suggestions for a small, light hotshoe flash? The super portable Sony flash is no good, as it takes FOREVER to recycle to the next shot – the on camera flash is faster. It’s ridiculous.

  • Gail

    The basic tutorial is fabulous for people like myself who’s knowledge is very limited. It matters not about the final shots, just that I can differentiate between them after the description of the tutorial. And I can. So job done, and well done. I am also a Sony dslr shooter, and have taken some great shots, but I want to learn more.

  • Gingerbaker

    Why have the subject face the window? I think you will find that a back-lit subject illuminated by fill flash is a recipe for outstanding portraits, especially outdoors against an early morning or evening sky.

  • jackie

    i actually like the one that you say is too bright – her eyes sparkle more :)

  • Jim

    Great Looking Model. (wow)

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Jessi
    There is no point in angling the flashgun if there is nothing for the light to reflect from. In that case, point the flash directly at the subject, and reduce its power.
    Also, I agree that in the illustrations, there is an ugly shadow under the model’s nose. That too would be eliminated by a direct flash.
    The trick is to limit the power of the flash to less than that of the main light source, so that it simply “fills in” the darker areas, without adding shadows of its own. And make sure that there isn’t a double highlight in the model’s eyes.
    Finally, you don’t need a DSLR. You just need any camera with a hot shoe or able to control the output of the on-camera flash. You can also reduce the power of your flash with a diffuser, including improvising with a piece of white paper or a handkerchief. Experiment!

  • ROD FERMIN

    Asian brides are normally brown-skinned…I therefore adjust fill flash strength, as the case calls for it.

  • Sillyxone

    Could have been clearer about the 1/250 sync speed limit, some camera can have higher number

  • http://bit.ly/oufr4c Brian Fuller

    As soon as I noticed the shadow from the flash under the nose on that first pic, now I can’t not see it. The natural photo with no flash is definitely better – though way too close as it draws attention to her nose. Should have taken the photo from further back with a longer zoom.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • http://mcgramb@yahoo.com Beverly McGrath

    How do you set the variable light output on the camera?

  • AJ

    I’ve just started in photography but I have read a lot of books. Surely it would have been better to shoot at eye level (down on one knee) rather than shooting down on the subject. This would having eliminated the shadow under the nose.

  • ron

    You are so lucky to have those windows for natural light. Consider buying two foamcore boards and use them for fill. Forget the flash in that room.

  • Johan Bauwens

    The folds in the background are very distracting

  • Taschja Hattingh

    I like the over exposed pic better

  • Taschja Hattingh

    You can fix that in photoshop

  • Jon

    Look at that beautiful difused window light… No Flash necessary

  • Jason

    Using a reflector would have got rid of the shadows and filled in with a little light. Metered for natural light? explain please? I would spot meter off the skin.

  • Dave Pearce

    For those who prefert the bright version. The first shot is more even and would brighten up better as it has no un needed shadows and no blown highlights on the skin.

  • colleenpf

    That room with the two windows is perfect for creating portraits, although I would back up all the way against the wall, move the subject farther back, and shoot with as long a lens as possible. As to the flash, I agree with others that the shadow under the nose is distracting, caused by bouncing the flash up as shown in your photo. If you aimed your flash towards the back left corner behind the photographer, the light would bounce from the same direction as the window light, creating a more natural shadow in line with the natural light.

  • jumbybird

    That room is a perfect light box.

  • Dru

    OR…you could take some time to steam out the wrinkles. Get it right in-camera!!

  • Jill Dufour

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Deborrah Cooper

    The image that you describe as “a little too bright” is absolutely perfect for photographing the mature female. The high key lighting softens the lines in her skin – specifically in her neck and around her eyes, and gives a more brightened, youthful appearance. The slightly higher angle of the camera also reduces the double chin effect if a woman has that. This is the way I shoot all my portraits of women over 35 and it saves on retouching time and effort. You’re welcome.

Some older comments

  • ron

    March 21, 2013 12:53 pm

    You are so lucky to have those windows for natural light. Consider buying two foamcore boards and use them for fill. Forget the flash in that room.

  • AJ

    October 1, 2012 11:52 pm

    I've just started in photography but I have read a lot of books. Surely it would have been better to shoot at eye level (down on one knee) rather than shooting down on the subject. This would having eliminated the shadow under the nose.

  • Beverly McGrath

    September 30, 2012 08:57 pm

    How do you set the variable light output on the camera?

  • Brian Fuller

    September 25, 2012 02:37 am

    As soon as I noticed the shadow from the flash under the nose on that first pic, now I can't not see it. The natural photo with no flash is definitely better - though way too close as it draws attention to her nose. Should have taken the photo from further back with a longer zoom.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Sillyxone

    September 22, 2012 10:21 am

    Could have been clearer about the 1/250 sync speed limit, some camera can have higher number

  • ROD FERMIN

    September 21, 2012 09:43 pm

    Asian brides are normally brown-skinned...I therefore adjust fill flash strength, as the case calls for it.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    September 21, 2012 09:14 pm

    Jessi
    There is no point in angling the flashgun if there is nothing for the light to reflect from. In that case, point the flash directly at the subject, and reduce its power.
    Also, I agree that in the illustrations, there is an ugly shadow under the model's nose. That too would be eliminated by a direct flash.
    The trick is to limit the power of the flash to less than that of the main light source, so that it simply "fills in" the darker areas, without adding shadows of its own. And make sure that there isn't a double highlight in the model's eyes.
    Finally, you don't need a DSLR. You just need any camera with a hot shoe or able to control the output of the on-camera flash. You can also reduce the power of your flash with a diffuser, including improvising with a piece of white paper or a handkerchief. Experiment!

  • Jim

    September 21, 2012 11:52 am

    Great Looking Model. (wow)

  • jackie

    September 21, 2012 08:33 am

    i actually like the one that you say is too bright - her eyes sparkle more :)

  • Gingerbaker

    September 21, 2012 05:53 am

    Why have the subject face the window? I think you will find that a back-lit subject illuminated by fill flash is a recipe for outstanding portraits, especially outdoors against an early morning or evening sky.

  • Gail

    September 21, 2012 03:10 am

    The basic tutorial is fabulous for people like myself who's knowledge is very limited. It matters not about the final shots, just that I can differentiate between them after the description of the tutorial. And I can. So job done, and well done. I am also a Sony dslr shooter, and have taken some great shots, but I want to learn more.

  • jeff

    September 21, 2012 01:33 am

    Completely agree with Eik. I find that unless it's a bright day (and associated issues with that), fill flash is required for even decent pictures of the family.

    I'm now a Sony DSLR shooter. Any suggestions for a small, light hotshoe flash? The super portable Sony flash is no good, as it takes FOREVER to recycle to the next shot - the on camera flash is faster. It's ridiculous.

  • Eik Kerstenbeck

    September 21, 2012 12:39 am

    Hi

    Fill flash is essential for outdoor work - here we had the model in partial shade and then gently lit her up

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/ariel-mcas-miranar-model-shoot/

  • EnergizedAV

    September 21, 2012 12:28 am

    Good short and sweet . I like the simple sheers set up in your last image.
    Thanks Mia

  • vinyp

    September 20, 2012 11:41 pm

    I wouldn't get all caught up the details of the model and set...it's a simple tutorial. I agree with this technique and employ it on a regular basis. The only difference between this and my process is that since I am in manual mode, I prefer to underexpose the metering of available light just a bit (maybe 1/3 to 2/3) to make the subject pop a bit more from the background.
    http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/8951105_XRQSSR#!i=769210706&k=ThpDQ

  • Magno

    September 20, 2012 09:16 pm

    Of course the photos could have been so much better, but I guess that's not the point. It's just a simple tutorial.

  • Yoan

    September 20, 2012 06:33 pm

    I can only agree with Jai. Those shots aren't bad but they should've been taken from a lower POV and with a longer lens.

  • Luc Lodder

    September 20, 2012 04:46 pm

    I disagree. The photo with the flash show an ugly shadow of her nose below her nose. I'd use no flash and post-process the shadows lighter. With today's technology it's no problem to enhance shadows 1 stop.

  • Mia Johnstone

    September 20, 2012 03:50 pm

    Jai, thanks for that feedback. I chose the simplest photos to demonstrate the fill flash. I was more focused on teaching the technique than getting the best photos (poses, background etc). You can see the actual results from this photo shoot at http://mialovesphotography.com/headshot-love/ . I love how the images came out.
    I should have worn a different shirt in that last photo. Silly me, I was focusing on my model.

  • Jessi

    September 20, 2012 12:34 pm

    When shooting outside, do you still tilt your flash at a 45 degree angle, even though there is no ceiling for bounce?

  • Mei Teng

    September 20, 2012 10:08 am

    Thanks for sharing this simple tutorial. The image with the added fill flash is definitely much better.

  • Jai Catalano

    September 20, 2012 06:39 am

    I think the idea is dead on and I agree with you but the photos could have been so much better.

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