Fill Flash on Animals

Flash is a great lighting tool when shooting animals
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Working in direct sunlight creates contrast problems of deep shadows and bright highlights. It's tough to reproduce detail at the extremes so it's essential to augment the light. Reflectors can be used to bounce light back onto the subject but they are awkward in the wind. Diffusers soften the light but if you're photographing large animals, they're impractical. I rely on flash.

Flash is a great tool as it's light, easy to use and the larger shoe- mount units can throw light a good distance. These are assets when working with animals as they can be very stubborn as to where they decide to pose and often position themselves in locations where artificial light is needed to fill in deep shadows. The use of flash can tame a contrasty lighting situation. This is true whether you're photographing animals in your backyard, the zoo or out in the wild.

The amount of fill flash is dictated by the contrast of the ambient light. The greater the contrast, the stronger the fill. In extreme situations, if I'm close enough to the animal, I'll use flash as the main light. A technique I use in this scenario is to dial in a minus compensation on the camera body and a slight plus compensation on the flash. The purpose is to slightly underexpose the ambient light and have the flash provide the main light. The result is a saturated background with a properly exposed and more evenly lit animal.

Automatic fill flash is very sophisticated yet easy to use. Dialing in a specific amount of fill on the back of the flash provides a given ratio of illumination between the ambient light and the fill.  If the natural light is soft, I find that minus two stops of flash fill works well. For the "average" sunlit condition, I prefer minus 1 stop. In contrasty light, I dial in minus 1/3 or none at all. Different lighting situations require different amounts. Run tests and vary the amount of fill to produce the best result.

The goal of fill flash is to make the end result look natural. Too much added illumination gives the image an artificial look while too little gives the impression nothing was augmented. Ideally, the look should go undetected. The contrast between the light and dark areas should be lessened, yet not appear obvious.


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