Tip #88: Fill Flash

Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) & Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Snake River Conservation Area - MN
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS + Canon 320EX Flash

Caveat emptor... I am not an authority (or even a reliable source) on this topic. I love ambient light and will do nearly anything to avoid a flash. To be clear, I’m not anti-flash... I’m a flash ignoramus, a neophyte who lacks the hours of repetition that defines experience. Thus, I suggest you take my thoughts about flash with a bit of skepticism and consult the following links to inform your flash technique: 
Balanced fill flash, when applied properly, can produce natural images that appear as if they were made in ambient light. Small birds are an ideal subject for a bit of artificial light; a little pop of flash will define feathers, illuminate eyes and add dimensionality to an otherwise flat image. My fill-flash technique works best when the subject is in shadow and at a distance from its background. To consistently produce nice images under these conditions, I do the following:
  1. Set the aperture near its maximum (in the posted shot I set the lens to f3.2)
  2. Select the corresponding shutter speed that will allow you to produce a natural and “correct (see prior blog post about correct exposures)” exposure. When photographing fast and unpredictable subjects, strive to shoot at 1/100 second or faster (in the posted shot I set the shutter to 1/200 second).
  3. Use an off-camera flash cord, radio trigger or infrared trigger to move the flash off the body. Long lenses and their hoods will obstruct the flash and create a distracting shadow. Additionally, images produced with on-camera flash often appear flat. By moving the flash off the camera, you can add light from an oblique angle and thus control the shadows.
  4. Set your flash to E-TTL (Canon), i-TTL (NIkon), or P-TTL (Sony). These are the “smart” flash settings that rely on the in-camera computer to balance the output of your flash with the subject, exposure and focus.
  5. Final Key Step... you must reduce the output of the flash by 1/3 to 2/3 stops (-1/3 to -2/3). With some cameras you set flash exposure compensation in the camera while other systems require that you do this on the flash. By reducing the output of the flash, the burst of light will only fill some shadows and add a highlight to the eyes. The retention of these shadows adds detail and dimensionality to the image without overpowering the ambient light.
Give it a try and good luck as you begin to use fill flash where natural light won’t cut it. 

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