One of the biggest mysteries of photography is when it comes to adding light when you take a picture, whether that light is from a flash, a strobe, or even a lamp. I am going to take the mystery out of it for you here and I will explain it in a simple enough way to make it really easy to understand.
Most people when they need to use a flash for any reason keep the camera in auto mode. And while you are most likely going to get an image that is evenly lit, it most likely will just look like another snapshot for the scrapbook. Wouldn’t you like to take a picture using a flash and make it look like you imagined it would and not another snapshot? And while some cameras have wonderful settings for fill flash and such, they don’t always get it right. And you want it right.
I won’t tease you and make you read all the way through this article to find out what the secret is behind the mystery, here it is: Put your camera in manual mode, meter the scene, turn on your flash, and adjust the flash light with your f/stop. It really is that easy. But there are some things you really do need to know about when you do those few things, so you really should read on. Ha, I got you didn’t I?
As I said, the best way to shoot with flash is in manual mode. What I mean here is put your camera on manual mode and keep your flash set on TTL. If you don’t have a dedicated flash unit then your pop up flash basically is a TTL flash. By doing it this way you are letting your camera control the flash and you control the camera. If you keep your camera in a program mode and try to adjust the some settings or the flash power all you’re doing is mixing up the settings and making everything work against one another. Basically the camera is trying to get it back to 50% neutral. So I am a believer in Keeping It Simple and simple here is manual mode.
Before I go any further there is something that you need to understand about the camera settings and how they control the light here. The shutter speed controls the ambient light while the aperture controls the flash light. This is important to remember when you start to make your camera settings when you meter the scene.
Let’s imagine you are outside on a deck one beautiful early evening and the sun is starting to set, the sky is turning a wonderful orange and red and there are some remarkable clouds. Someone you know is with you and they ask you to take a picture of them since this sky would make a beautiful backdrop for a portrait. You pick up your camera and you freeze, what do you do to get this image to look great?
Step one; Put your camera in manual mode and keep your flash off (or if it is a pop up on camera flash keep it closed at this point). Pick an f/stop to use, I would suggest somewhere around f/5.6- f/8. Now you are ready to meter the scene to get the correct exposure. When you go to meter this scene you are concerned with the sunset light and not the whole scene. The camera meter will be trying to meter the whole scene at 50% neutral, so I would either zoom in (if you’re using a zoom lens) on the sky or use the spot meter on the sky to get the correct exposure. Then dial in your meter reading with your shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Now with your flash still off take a test shot to verify your settings. How does it look? Don’t worry about your subject they are going to be dark here. How does your sky look? If you like the results keep those settings, if not adjust your shutter speed, not the f/stop, to get the sky to look like you want. You can even take a couple of shots to see which shutter speed looks best.
Step two; With the settings now set for the ambient light turn on your flash (or pop it up) and take test shot. How does it look? I bet you can see your subject now and they are not a silhouette anymore. What does the light look like on them? Here is where you adjust for the flash. Remember what I said a while back, the aperture controls the flash light and the shutter speed controls the ambient light. If the flash light on your subject is too bright you need to close down the f/stop. Most likely your subject will have been either nicely lit in which case you do nothing, or a little on the dark which means you will need to open up the f/stop.
Step three; Once you have the fill light on your subject correct, compose and shoot away.
See, I told you it was very easy. Now there is another way you can control the amount of light that the flash puts out and that is with the flash compensation button. This button sometimes gets confused with the exposure compensation button, they are two different things. The exposure compensation button controls the camera’s meter as where the flash compensation controls how much light the flash puts out or basically how powerful the light is.
Here is where I tell you to “Get out your manual” and look up flash compensation to find out where it is on your camera and or dedicated flash unit. Once you find it all you do it push the button and control it with one of the dials. If you go in the minus range that means there is less power or light being put out by the flash. And the opposite is true if you if you go into the plus or positive range, there is more flash being added. Remember, this is the actual power of the flash light.
Now this article is titled “Shooting with added light” and I have so far discussed only using a flash for added fill light. There are other ways to add light if you don’t have a flash.
You can use anything that emits light to use for fill light. A flashlight, a lamp, a work light or shop light, even headlights from a car. And to control the light from any of them you do the same thing you did when you controlled your flash. The shutter speed controls the background light and the aperture controls the fill light, or the light that is closer to the lens.
That is the basic and easy way of understanding and shooting with fill light.