I was chatting with a new digital camera owner on the weekend about their camera and they were telling me about how they didn’t think they’d ever use anything but fully automatic mode on their great new Canon DSLR.
They told me that ‘auto’ mode would produce the perfect shot in every scenario – so why would they ever need to use anything else.
I asked them to show me some of the shots that they’d taken on their camera and they allowed me to flick through some shots until I came to this one:
It was taken at a wedding that they attended where the bride, groom and celebrant (I was actually the celebrant – like my pink tie?) were positioned in a fairly dark gothic-like hall in front of a number of large windows.
The problem with the shots was that there was so much light coming in the windows that the super little camera that my friend was using in Auto mode thought that the scene had enough light. As a result the window and what you can see through it is reasonably well exposed – but the main subject matter of the picture (the happy couple) are well under exposed. Some of the other shots taken this day were much worse and had the bride and groom as silhouettes.
Obviously the issue with this shot is that there is just not enough light from the front of the subjects to light up the subject with the shutter speed being used.
There are a number of possible solutions to this problem but one of the easiest is to override the camera and force it to shoot with a flash – a technique often called ‘fill flash’. Fill Flash is used to supplement existing light in a scene – it’s generally not the primary light source (as a flash often is at night) but fills in light where natural light doesn’t go.
In addition to helping with backlit subjects fill flash helps in more subtle ways also by helping to eliminate shadows cast by facial features (under eyes, noses, chins) or under hats – especially when light is shining down from above. It also might just add a special little sparkle to the eye of the person you’re photographing.
In the same way it is also very useful in other styles of photography including in nature and macro photography for lighting up subjects in much the same way as when you’re photographing people.
Most cameras have a way of doing this that doesn’t mean that you have to go into a full manual mode – in fact my point and shoot digital camera allows me to force the flash to fire IN automatic mode. Check out your digital camera’s owners manual to work out how to do this on your digital camera but in most point and shoot cameras the main button to look for will be the one with the lightning bolt (flash) on or near it. Press this multiple times and it will cycle you through the different options for flash (on, off, automatic, red eye reduction are the main four). Some point and shoot cameras even have a ‘fill flash’ option that ramps back the strength of the flash a little which is ideal.
Some more advanced digital cameras will allow you to experiment with the strength of the flash you use. This will enable you to tailor your flash to the situation you’re in. Most DSLRs will let you pull back your flash output in 1/2 or even 1/3 stops. I find that at the start of a photographic shoot if I shoot off a few shots at different exposure levels and check them on my LCD that I quickly find out what’s working and can stick to that level in the shots that follow.
Keep in mind that Fill Flash can be overdone. If you beef up the flash too much your shots can look artificial and overexposed. Aim for subtlety when using a flash and you’ll really lift your shots.