Most travel photographers are totally against using any sort of artificial light or fill in flash in their photos. Maybe part of it is principle, perhaps part of it is they want to show they can get a great shot using only available light, but there are times when it is really hard to make do with the available light, especially when the area is very dark, you are shooting people, and you can’t do a long exposure. Or perhaps you are in a very high contrast lighting situation where the frame has very bright light in one part of it and very dark light in another part of it.
Take for example the floating market in Thailand. Lots of great looking market vendors to photograph with colorful food and clothing seated in boats along a canal. The problem though is most of the boats are parked under a large overhang which makes the area dark and heavily shaded. So using a flash in this sort of ambient lighting situation is almost necessary if you have any hope of seeing any color pop at all in your photos.
Well, what I discovered a long time ago is that flash light coming from on top of the camera, even though it is probably the worst sort of looking artificial light source there is (if you are going to use it as your main source of light), can be turned from your enemy into your friend if you learn how to use it sparingly and in the right situations. You can sometimes turn otherwise very drab lighting situations into great photo ops, and without your viewers really even knowing that you used a flash to capture the shot.
If you shoot with either Canon or Nikon speedlight flashes you can create some really beautiful pictures because these flashes can be easily controlled in terms of power and direction of light. The key really is to use about 70% ambient light and only about 30% light from your flash to make up your picture. With such a high ratio of ambient light to flash it becomes hard to tell that a flash is filling in a bit. The next question really is now how do you get the right mixture of ambient light and flash and how do you know if you got the percentages right?
It is actually much easier than it sounds. I first put my camera in fully manual mode. I set the aperture and ISO to what I want to shoot with. I then take a couple of quick snaps with just ambient light to figure out what is the right exposure/shutter speed for the given lighting situation. I then adjust my shutter speed so that the exposure level going forward will be slightly underexposed. Perhaps about 1/2 stop. I then put my flash also in fully manual mode and set the power output to about 1/8th power. With that small amount of power from the flash, and the exposure just being slightly underexposed, the two light sources together should give you a nearly perfect exposure with much more vibrancy than just the ambient light alone would give you.
I should let you know though that the amount of power from the flash that you should use isn’t an exact science. Of course the higher the ISO setting, and the wider the aperture setting, the more sensitive your digital camera sensor becomes to light. So in some cases 1/8th power might be too much and you may need to drop it down to 1/16th power. Or if you are shooting with a narrow aperture or a low ISO setting then 1/8th power might not be enough. You might need to set the flash to 1/4 power. It just depends. But I use 1/8th as the standard rule of thumb and sometimes what helps is simply to adjust the position of the speedlight flash on top of your camera. Tilt it up and/or to the side a bit and you can reduce the power of the flash hitting the subject without having to go back into the menus to adjust the power of the flash. So repositioning the flash is a quick way of getting less or more light from the flash onto the subject without having to fiddle with the flash’s power settings and perhaps miss the opportunity to capture a fleeting moment.
Below is a shot I took at the floating market. To me it is hardly noticeable that I used a flash and yet the flash has done so much to help bring out the vibrancy of color in this shot. There is a little bit of natural back light hitting her back, but all the light you see on the left side of her hat, her arm, and the duck on the cutting board is all coming from the flash. Yet all the light being filled in by the flash looks like natural light as it matches the natural light hitting her back.
The above shot was taken at F/3.5, ISO 400, and 1/160th of a second. The best thing about how I had my aperture and ISO set on this day is that I was able to shoot with just 1/16th power on the flash since I was shooting with a very wide aperture and a high ISO. So I didn’t need so much power from the flash to do the trick. And when you shoot at a very low power output setting on the flash then the flash refreshes and is ready to shoot again almost instantly. This is great for street photography situations like this where you are photographing people who are moving and you may want to take a number of exposures in fast succession and have the flash ready to keep firing. Also, with my fast shutter speed of 1/160th I was able to avoid most of the motion blur of the movement of the people on the boats. So by being able to underexpose a bit I am able to raise my shutter speed to a bit faster speed than usual and reduce the risk of a blurred shot.
Now below is another shot I took of the same woman, but from the front and with the same settings. This is one that I would usually delete. For one, her eyes are closed and it is not a very interesting composition to begin with, but the bigger problem is that the flash didn’t go off for some reason and you can see that the picture is clearly underexposed. Had the flash properly gone off though as intended then the shot would have looked much better and the exposure would have been just about right. Also, because the boats behind her have so much more natural light on them already than the woman does, if I increase the exposure by reducing the shutter speed then the boats in the background are going to get a bit blown out. So the flash in this case really is the only solution to balance the exposure correctly between dark areas and bright areas within the same frame.
I am not going to say that fill in flash from a speedlight on your camera is going to look like beautiful natural light all the time, but it is great when shooting outdoors using mostly ambient light and just a little bit of power from the flash together as a blend. It is also really useful when the sun is out and coming directly from above and the face of the person you are photographing is dark. A bit of fill in flash on the face to mix with the bright sun hitting the person’s head from above can be a beautiful and natural looking lighting situation too and which will also add a nice touch of catch light into the eyes of your subject to what might otherwise be very dark looking eyes.
Lastly, people often are used to shooting speedlight flashes in ETTL mode. This is where the flash is in an auto mode where it meters the light situation and decides for you how much power you need. In my experience the amount of flash power that you get with ETTL is often too much (or even worse too little) and not very appealing looking at all. And it is not like you can shout at your flash when it is in ETTL mode to quickly give you more or less power to match what is needed. So I always shoot my speedlight flashes in fully manual as I rather be the one to tell the flash from the start how much power I want in each lighting situation and I don’t want it to change from frame to frame based on the camera’s light meter.
So give this technique a try the next time you are shooting outdoors in a dark area, midday sun, or even on an overcast day. I hope this is helpful information which gives you some new ideas and techniques to try out. Questions and comments are always welcome as usual.
*UPDATE #1 / 20-October-14* – I only shoot with Yongnuo YN-560 III speedlight flashes now. They sell for only around $75 with free shipping here on Amazon and I recently wrote another article which explains why I got rid of all my Canon Speedlites and switched to these Yongnuo flashes. This other article is titled “Why I Got Rid Of All My Canon Speedlite Flashes” and you can read it here.
*UPDATE #2 / 14-November-14* – If you are interested in learning more about shooting with speedlights, I just posted another article here titled “Using Speedlites Wirelessly On Location Shoots”.
*UPDATE #3 / 6-March-17* – I just posted a new article about speedlight flashes entitled “The Pros & Cons Of Speedlight Flash Photography” which you can read here.