Have you taken a portrait photo outdoors and the background was full of color and looked exactly what you wanted, but the subject of your photo was dark, had no detail or looked like a black outline? In this post we will discuss using external light as fill flash and how it can help your photography and make your photo’s look better and more natural.
All of these photo’s were taken with a Nikon D800 with a 28-300mm Lens at a focal length of 52mm. The Camera settings were WB: 5813k, ISO 100, Aperture of f/8.0, and Shutter of 1/180 sec. The only change between photos were the placement of the flash and external diffusion added to the flash. All flash output was set manually to 1/2 for consistent lighting. The flash is a Nikon SB-700 Speedlight. The Flash was approx 6 feet from the subject in each photo.
If you have ever taken a photo like the one on the left, where your subject is in shadow nd the background looks great, then this blog entry is for you. Let us first understand why this photo look like this. When you look in the viewfinder everything looks great. Your eye’s automatically adjust to the available light, letting you see both the dark and light portions of the scene. When a DSLR or any Digital Camera looks at a scene, there is an internal light meter that determines what the correct exposure should be. There are a few things you need to understand about the internal light meter that helps determine the correct exposure. Most DSLR’s have 3 or 4 different settings for the Light metering. Spot Metering, Center Weighted Metering, and Overall Metering (Multi-Segment /Zone Metering). In the case of the photo on the left, I was using Overall metering, which gave equal weight to the dark portions as the lit portions of the frame. If I had taken a center or spot meter reading, I could have had the subject in the correct exposure, but the background would have probably been overexposed.
This is where a fill flash can help. I’m going to show 6 examples of external Flash that give different warmth, softness and/or hardness to the light. All of the techniques will help improve the photo. Some of them are more flattering than others. It really depends on how you want your photo to look. (I have purposely not taken a photo with the built-in pop-up flash on my camera, as i think it isn’t flattering at all. I only use it in an emergency if I don’t have a flash with me. I also only use it outdoor’s as a fill flash. Sometimes, I will even drap a unfolded white paper napkin over the flash to help diffuse the light. I might do a blog entry showing a before and after using this technique.)
In this first photo I used the flash directly attached to the top of the camera and pointed directly at the subject. The light is very intense and very harsh. Although the subject is bright and we can see her now and the background looks the same as the No Flash photo. It does appear as though we are using an external light and the color temperature doesn’t quite match the background. The direct flash is actually making the subject look a little cooler than the background. There are also very sharp shadows under her chin and the face doesn’t have any dimension, since it is being entirely filled in.
In this second photo, I used the flash on top of the camera and pointed directly at the subject, but I used the builtin diffuser on the flash. The light is a little bit less intense and the light has softened some. There is still a shadow beneath the chin and jaw, the color is a little warmer, but still doesn’t match the background. Since the light has been diffused some of the natural light in the shade is coming through.
In this third photo, I used the flash on top of the camera pointed at the subject, but this time I used an external diffuser on the front of the flash. The warmth of the flash is about the same as the previous photo, but it still doesn’t match the warmth of the background. It still kind of looks like an external light source. Not quite natural. The shadow beneath the chin is also the same as the previos photo. The external diffuser like the builtin diffuser allows the light to be a little warmer. Each of these techniques are making the photo a little more natural and warming up the image.
In this fourth photo, I again used the flash directly connected to the camera, but I have pointed the flash straight up and added a Gary Fong collapsible Lightsphere. The LightSphere is a nice attachment if you need to do some indoor flash photography or as a fill flash outdoors. The Lightsphere diffuses the light in all directions and really softens the light on the Subject. One issue with using the LightSphere is not as much light will get to the subject, causing the photo to be a little darker. But it allows for more natural skin tones as well. The light coming from the LightSphere is allowing the subject to be much warmer than before, there is no direct light pointed at her, so it is much less harsh. Even though there is a shadow beneath her chin, it is very soft and not a distraction like the other previous techniques. If this photo wasn’t for teaching purposes. I would probably have adjusted some of the camera settings or added an additional 1/3 to 1/2 f/Stop to the Flash to brighten it a little bit. But other than that, this photo looks much more natural than the direct flash. The camera settings are still the same, but my subject has similar color tone’s as the background. It does look like she is under shade as well, but is much better lit than before.
In this fifth photo, I have moved the flash off the camera and placed it on a light stand and pointed the flash at a 45 degree angle to the subject. The flash is being wirelessly fired using a Wireless transmitter on the Camera and a Wireless receiver on the Flash. With the flash to the left of the subject the light from the flash is coming across her face and has cast across shadows across her face. The dark hard shadow beneath her chin is gone but there are new shadows on the right side of her face. It is also a very harsh light similar to the direct flash photo (Photo 1). This light is a direct flash with no diffuser, so the color tonal range is a little cooler than the background. Very similar to the first photo, except we have provided a little bit of depth to the face because of the new shadows across her face. This is a little more dramatic effect. I probably might use this technique on a Boy or of an photo of an athlete, but it isn’t as flattering as a more formal portrait or for women, since softer light is preferred for women or children.
In this sixth photo, the flash is still on a light stand, but now I have a reflective umbrella with a light diffuser on it. The flash is pointing backwards toward the reflective umbrella which then bounces the light through a thin piece of white material connected to the umbrella that diffuses and soften’s the light tremendously. It is the most flattering of artificial light you can use for portraits.
In this photo the light is darker and warm. The photo also has the same dramatic effect that we saw in the previous photo, but the light is softer and there aren’t any dark harsh sharp shadows on the face. There is still more depth and dimension to the photo yet still more dramatic. I would probably take another photo with this setup and increase the flash output by 1/3 or 1/2 an fstop, since I’m losing some light during the reflection. I can also achieve a brighter image by moving the flash a little closer to the subject. Possibly only 4 feet away instead of the 6 feet it was during this shot. I would not want to use this image as final as it currently looks, since I think the subject is a little too dark compared to the background. But still looks better than the other 5 images.
By moving your external light off camera and diffusing the light, we get a much more natural and soft light and keep our skin tones more natural and washed out. From this one light, we can do many additional things in the camera, by either increasing the ISO or increasing the size of the Aperture or slowing down the shutter, to make the image brighter. We can also move the flash with umbrella to the right side instead of the left side, angle the light at a 60 or 30 degree angle instead of 45 degree’s. We can also add a reflector on the right side and reflect some of the light on the shadow side to brighten the dark area’s. We could also add an additional light as a fill light at either the same, less or more brightness as the primary light.
In this final photo, I used a little bit of Lightroom adjustments and brightened just the subject about 1/2 an f/stop using the exposure Adjustment brush. This allowed me to fix the photo, since I couldn’t go back and retake this photo. Usually I will take a couple of sample shots when on location until I get the lighting the way I want and then take the photo’s so I don’t have the subject under-exposed. But for illustration purposes in this blog entry, I wanted to keep everything the same in camera and on flash so I could compare the results from each flash technique. Now I have a final Image that I’m very pleased with, thanks to Adobe Lightroom.
Another effective lighting technique is to put the 2nd light behind the subject or above the subject and then highlight the hair and/or shoulders, instead of having the darker appearance. This can simulate external sunlight hitting the subject, even though we are in the shade.