There is nothing magical about fill-flash. You just have to recognise when you are in a situation that needs it. Then it is just a matter of flipping up the built-in flash and proceeding as normal. Provided you have the fill-flash setting enabled, it will come into operation automatically when you raise the pop-up flash and your DSLR will (usually) do the right thing without your needing to worry too much about it.
A situation that calls for fill-flash is one where you want to use natural light but the light is coming from behind the subject, causing the subject to come out too dark. With fill-flash operating, the background will still be lit by natural light, and the automatic exposure will be set accordingly, but the flash will also fire so that the combination of natural light and flash will result in the subject being properly exposed too.
An example from my recent cruise. Naomi was dressed up for the gala night and we went out onto our cabin’s balcony, which was facing out from the back of the ship, to see the sunset. I realised that by using fill-flash I could capture both Naomi and the sunset, with both correctly exposed. It does not always work perfectly but on this occasion I was very pleased with the result, aside from the fact that the horizon could have been straighter.
The reason fill-flash sometimes does not work properly has to do with the flash sync shutter speed. Assuming you are using Aperture Priority, as many photographers prefer to, the camera will set the shutter speed to expose the background correctly. But if the background is reasonably bright and the chosen aperture is too wide then the shutter speed needed to expose the background correctly could well be higher than the camera’s shutter sync speed. If the flash were to fire in conjunction with a high shutter speed the shutter would never be fully open and only a part of the subject (a strip) would be illuminated by the flash. Trying to use fill-flash in those circumstances would force the camera to reduce the shutter speed to the sync speed and probably overexpose the entire image.
Professional photographer Peter Krogh was interviewed on the TwiT Photo video podcast a few weeks ago. He was kind enough to give the viewers a live demo of the Lightroom technique he used on a recent shoot in Africa. He was mainly taking portraits of the locals and adopted a very stylised approach to his post-processing, producing an HDR-like look (from a single exposure) which is very effective on portraits of dark-skinned people.
I fancied trying the technique out for myself but found myself short on suitable images. Still, I decided to try it with a portrait of a Peruvian woman I took in Ollantaytambo, near Cusco, while on holiday a few weeks ago.
The technique itself is based around the idea of taking the fill light and black level sliders right up to half way or beyond, to lighten up dark skin without blowing out the highlights, but preserving and even thickening up edges, cartoon style. A liberal dose of clarity slider exaggerates the effect and heavy desaturation rounds off the rather stylised look. With the right subject matter it can be very effective, but to see it at its best look at Peter Krogh’s work not mine. For me it was just a one-off experiment inspired by Peter’s creative use of Lightroom.
We seem to have taken a lot of photos of Esther lately. I suppose it’s because she keeps attending events and getting dressed up for them so we feel obliged to capture her in her pomp for posterity.
This was taken at home just before Esther went out with her friends. Taken with available (tungsten) light, colour corrected later in Lightroom. I didn’t dare take ISO beyond 400 due to noise concerns and, being limited to an aperture of f5.6, was faced with a shutter speed of 1/5th second. I jammed my back against a door for support and seem to have avoided camera shake.
The neutral background was easy enough, we have a plain wall in our hall. The shadows were cast by the tungsten light fitting on the ceiling. Nothing I could do about them. Nor about Esther’s slightly smirky smile.
Dress by Karen Millen, courtesy of the Boxing Day Sales.
My wife took this portrait of our daughter dressed up for her school leaver’s party. And while it may have been my wife who wielded the camera and pressed the shutter, I think of the end result as more of a joint effort.
I rather went to town in Lightroom to deal with a host of exposure issues. The picture was taken late afternoon on a clear, sunny day, using available light only. No fill-in flash, no reflectors, no nothing. The light is coming from behind my daughter so her face is in shadow. The contrast levels were quite high and it was a bit of a job to rescue her features without blowing out the highlights.
The biggest remaining problem is noise. The ISO setting had been left at 400 from a previous shoot, so the base image was noisier than it need have been. The fiddling with exposure in Lightroom added to the noise, particular in the area of my daughter’s face. The fact that the final image is heavily cropped has made the noise even more noticeable.
I think the tight crop works best, but my wife had originally shot a full length portrait to show off the dress. This is the image before cropping:
The much improved noise reduction system in Lightroom 3 makes a big difference. The noise is visible but has not ruined the portrait.