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Flash is a very powerful tool that allows a photographer to extend his or her shooting time into midday hours. Pictures taken without flash that would otherwise display too wide a contrast range can be tamed with its help. Technology has made calculating fill-flash as simple as dialing in the amount you want on the rear of the flash or the camera. From point-and-shoot cameras to sophisticated 35mm SLRs with dedicated flash units, automated fill-flash is a snap.
Programmed fill-flash automatically balances the flash output with the ambient light. A perfect ratio of illumination is given to the foreground subject via the flash and the background lit by the existing light. As soon as the sun reaches an angle that casts unpleasant shadows, I attach my flash. Based on tests I’ve run, I dial in anything from minus two stops to plus ½ depending on the harshness of the light. The stronger the sun, the greater the fill. If the light is very harsh and the subject is wearing a hat, + ½ works well. In soft light, - 2 stops works to add a sparkle to the eyes. Run some tests to see what settings best suit your needs for the look you desire.
Midday sunlight is extremely contrasty. Eye sockets become black holes void of any expression. Shadows under the nose appear awkward. Through the use of fill-flash, the shadow areas can be lightened, show details, and yield a more pleasing effect. Additionally, catchlights are added to the eyes. This gives them sparkle and makes the person appear more life like.
While the above makes flash seem like a miracle cure for midday blues, there is a realization that needs to be addressed. The light from a flash can only travel a limited distance. If this distance is exceeded, it has no effect. The smaller or less powerful the flash, the greater the limitation. If you’re working with a built-in pop-up flash, any subject greater than 10-15 feet using an ISO of 400 or less will be rendered flash-less. The beauty of digital photography is being able to see the effect on the LCD. If no effect is visible, move closer to the subject. If you have an auxiliary hot-shoe flash, doubling the distance is practical.
The amount of fill has a big impact on the success of the image. The goal is to use just enough to make the image appear natural. The contrast between the dark and bright areas should be reduced, yet not look artificial. The more you use fill-flash to improve your images, your instinct to judge just how much you’ll need will become natural.