Friday, November 6, 2009

Fill Flash Basics: Simple things you can do to make a better portrait.

What do you do when it's 45 degrees outside, starting to rain, and late in the afternoon in October? Well in my case you end up shooting a family portrait. I am based in Seattle you know so many of the days here fit this description. The family shown to the left had been planning this shoot for quite some time and until we actually started shooting it had been dry. Undaunted, and knowing I had to work quickly, I grabbed a single speed-light and we all went for a walk in the woods admits the autumn leaves. The lighting lacked direction and depth, but that was okay since the main focus of any family portrait is good illumination across the faces of all subjects, so in this case I went with it. The best part was that with no harsh light or shadows to be found we could shoot anywhere in the park uninhibited. It was a cold day, so I'm glad my clients thought a head and planned matching coats.  Another blessing from the low light was the shallow depth of field. This image was shot on a monopod at an exposure of 1/60 @ f 5.6. The lens was a 28-80mm zoom to 80mm. The combination of the wider aperture and ever so slight telephoto lens adds great separation from the background and turned the trees behind into a soft blur of color.
Now this shot could have easily been done without the fill flash but a few things would have happened. I would have lost about a whole stop of light, maybe even two. This would increase the possibility of blurry people from camera shake or just good old fashion movement on anyone's part. (People breathe and the simple act of doing so can make them blurry at low shutter speeds.) It also would have meant less detail and color in the background. A washed out background would have been detrimental to this image since the color of the leaves mirrors their warm skin tones and the Mom's hair.
Using fill flash did the following things:
  1. Added light to the faces of the subject to balance the exposure against the background.
  2. Removed shadows that often come when the subject has deep set eyes (the Dad) or the side of the nose (the Mom).
  3. Added catch lights to all of the subject's eyes.
  4. Acted as a warming filter in the cool cloudy light and enhanced the color in the skin tone/background.
  5. Increased the exposure and created a stop-action image that was sharp and pleasing.
  6. Added detail to the shadows (their coats) so the contrast level included both shadow and highlight detail and looks more natural.
Flash on camera has it's faults too; just like any technique it needs to be applied correctly. First off, it's important when using an accessory flash (speed-light) to choose the right power setting. On this photo I had my speed-light on a  flash bracket (see below for more info) just slightly above and to the left of the lens so the best choice was to set it to TTL  metering (Through The Lens). This system is designed to adjust the flash's power to match the exposure, not overwhelm it. If I had my speed-light set to full power on this image the people would have either been extremely over exposed, or my background would have been severely underexposed- to the point it would look like 10pm at night!
Second, when using a speed-light so close to your camera you will get shadows, harsh ones too if you don't find a way to diffuse them. My strategy was shooting though a small soft-box attached to the speed-light. This made the shadows that would have appeared under their chins and eyebrows soft. Additionally by shooting this image horizontally (landscape) any shadows that the speed-light created "fell off" behind them since they were several feet from the trees shown in the background. The same shot framed vertically (portrait) runs the risk of shadows along the entire length of the subjects when using on camera flash. That would have been detracting. To combat this there are wonderful device known as a flash bracket. It allows you keep the flash in relatively the same position above the camera but turn your camera and avoid the weird shadows that looks so unnatural.

Overall, it's a very simple shot-executed simply, and here's my point: better photography comes from knowing when to rely on the basics and when to apply a more advanced technique. There is no silver bullet for every image, that's why it's an art form. For this photo, the weather dictated the need for speed and accuracy. As much as I would have loved to use a more complicated lighting set up, keeping my clients in the rain for longer then necessary was not an option.

To review follow these simple steps:
  1. Add fill flash to images to balance an exposure and create greater interest.
  2. When using an accessory flash resist the urge to attach it to your camera's hot-shoe. Instead use a flash bracket or light-stand (I'll talk about this more tomorrow) to move the light up and away from your lens. This will reduce unnatural shadows.
  3. Use anything (and I mean that literally) that will modify and diffuse your light so harsh shadows bite the big one.
  4. Choose the setting for your flash that is appropriate for the situation. This means knowing ALL of the features of your equipment. So stop using the owner's manual as a coaster and read it.
  5. Try not to over complicate things and always consider your situation when choosing what equipment you plan to use.

Tomorrow we'll go to the next level and discuss how taking your flash off the camera changes everything. In the mean time please post your comments and links to images you've done with simple flash techniques. It's great to see what others are producing.

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