Dawn And Dusk Flash Photography

Learn how to incorporate the light emitted from a flash to bring your images to the next level

Etymology: The study of words.

Photography: The art of taking and processing photographs.

Photo = light

Graphy = to write   

In regard to etymology, photography means to write with light.

Flash allows a photographer to add light where it doesn’t appear naturally. Subjects that appear in shadow can now be illuminated. At dawn and dusk, when the sky is included in the composition, anything that appears in the foreground has less light. The difference may be between 4 to 5 stops. This being the case, the entire foreground reveals less detail. To even out the difference, a bracketed series of exposures can be made and optimized using HDR software. But what if the subject moves during the bracketing? When the subject is wildlife or delicate flowers that move in the slightest breeze, HDR isn’t the best solution. Incorporate the use of flash to solve the problem. Use it to provide supplementary illumination to the subject in the foreground.   

There’s a magic quality to the light right before the sun crests the horizon at sunrise and just after it sinks below at sunset. The color in the sky can be vibrantly electric. In the foreground sits a majestic specimen of your favorite subject. What if you want to show its detail against the gorgeous backdrop? When you make an exposure for the sky, the foreground becomes a dark void. If you expose for the foreground, the beauty in the sky is washed out.

The bottom line is if you need to reveal detail in the foreground and have the sky perfectly exposed, it’s necessary to add artificial light. In that flash units of today are portable and powerful, it’s become the light of choice. The option to blend two separate exposures exists, but it requires post processing.

Additionally, when you achieve the perfect balance of light from the flash with the light in the background, the animal takes on a spot-lit effect that’s impossible to achieve using software.


To use flash successfully, you need to balance the amount of light emitted from the unit so it looks as natural as can be and complements the natural light. If there’s too much flash, the background goes too dark. If there is too little, the subject in the foreground will not be bright enough. Use the exposure compensation wheel on the back of the flash to dial its output up or down. If there’s too much flash, dial down the exposure compensation on the back of the unit. If there’s too little flash, dial up the exposure compensation on the back of the unit. The amount depends on the effect you desire and the chosen ƒ-stop at which the image is made. The smaller the ƒ-stop, the more you’ll tax the capability of the flash to emit enough light.


If you’re a scenic photographer, it’s easy to get close to your foreground subject. This allows the flash to emit the perfect balance of light and not tax its output. With wildlife, it’s different. If you approach too close, you’ll either scare the animal away or it may charge and do harm. Thankfully, there’s a flash attachment known as the MagMod that projects the flash much greater distances via the use of a Fresnel lens. It magnifies and emits a smaller beam of light to greater lengths. This allows you to keep a safe working distance and still utilize the flash to improve the image.

In the four images that accompany this week’s tip, I incorporated the use of fill flash. With regards to the two images of lions and the cheetah cub, I used a MagMod to project an extremely short burst of light while I kept a safe working distance. In the scenic made in American Basin in Colorado, I used a wide angle with off-camera flash and aimed it at the most foreground cluster of columbines. 

A Tip of the Week that discusses fill flash with animals wouldn’t be complete without an explanation on safety and how flash may impact the subject. Everything above has been thoroughly researched in regard to the safety of my subjects. All conclusions I’ve read substantiate that the short duration of flash, especially in fill mode, warrants no worry about what it does to potentially harm the wildlife.

For instance, compare the short, small burst of light emitted from the flash to a bolt of lightning. Flash is much, less so all is good. When subjects glance directly into the sun compared to the small amount of light from the flash, there’s no comparison. Ponder the multiple flash setups with hummingbirds around flowers, yet they return to feed over and over. Contemplate the water holes totally illuminated by flash at night, yet the animals continue to drink—and that’s with flash at full power.

What I profess is to just use flash as a source of fill, not a main light. When the flash does fire in the fill mode, the animal doesn’t negatively react. For the purist who wants all light to be natural, that’s a completely different discussion. But in regard to the argument that fill flash harms the animal, I’ve yet to see the impact. For an animal that’s totallu nocturnal, that may be a different story, but I don’t photograph them, so I’m not worried about the way I incorporate flash into my photography.

To learn more about this subject, join me on one of my photo safaris to Tanznaia. Please visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.