Lighting is the most crucial element in photography, and, in fact, it’s at the very core of image-making, be that photographs, paintings or drawings. An artist needs great light to produce great images. In photography, the most basic source of illumination is “available light,” a general term that describes the existing light on hand. Sometimes that’s enough for capturing landscapes or a realistic interpretation of a scene. But quite often, we need to supplement this available light with some auxiliary light or “fill light” by using flash, studio strobes or continuous light sources.
In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary. —Film Director Aaron Rose
Using Portable Flash
A portable flash is the most common lighting source carried by professional photographers, and it’s, by far, the most underutilized by everyone else. Modern flash units are a vast improvement over the flashes of the past, and photographers are now empowered with features such as E-TTL (evaluative through-the-lens) metering, total exposure control and wireless remotes. Yet, even among those who do use them, most just slip the flash into the hot-shoe, fire directly at their subject and hope for the best.
One of the best practices I can recommend is a technique referred to as “fill-flash.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a common practice where the strobe is used to add additional illumination to that of the main ambient light source. Now this may seem counterintuitive when shooting in bright daylight, but the goal is to achieve a well-lit scene using a balance of both natural and artificial light.
An appropriate use of fill-flash would be when photographers pose their subjects outdoors on a bright, sunny day. By placing their subjects with their backs to the sun, they can use the flash to illuminate their features. The bright daylight naturally illuminates the background, but the supplemental fill-flash eliminates the silhouette and shadows on the subject, resulting in a natural-looking image.
Additionally, all flashes have a power control setting that enables the photographer to dial the intensity of the flash up or down to match the available light. The advantage of the E-TTL system is that the strobe and camera work together, analyzing both the flash and ambient light to determine the proper exposure. Analyze any advertising portraits shot outdoors, and you’ll discover that most pros use this fill-flash technique to light their models, producing a flattering and natural outdoor portrait.
While direct fill-flash is useful in brightly lit environments, in dimly lit areas, it will be needed as a primary lighting source. Here, you want to start thinking “beyond the hot-shoe” and deciding how to modify and soften the flash output. One of the easiest methods is to adjust the flash head and “bounce” the light off a large neutral surface that will reflect back onto your subject. The diffused light coming off of the ceiling, a wall or a reflector will be quite flattering. Another method is to purchase an off-camera extension cord, which maintains all of the automatic E-TTL features and allows the flash to be repositioned off-axis from the lens. This will add directionality to the light and eliminate the dreaded “red-eye” in the subject’s eyes.