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Why should you use your flash outdoor?

The most common myth in the world of photography is that when outdoor, there is abundance of light and there is no need for flash.

In a previous post I wrote about high-speed sync and its advantages in outdoor photography. In this article we are going back to the basics of fill flash and the need to use it in many outdoor scenarios.

At the end of this reading I urge you to go out and practice. Only then you will be able to appreciate what you can achieve with the flash whether be it a catchlight in the eyes, filling of shadows and even mixing flash with the ambient light for better outcome of the background.

First, break the myths 

  • Place your subject facing the sun... WRONG. They will squirt and heavy shadows will spill under their eyes and nose. 
  • Use a flash diffuser... WRONG. diffusers won't do you any good outdoor and they reduce power needed to overcome the sun.
  • Bounce the light... Generally you cannot as you are outdoor and there are no ceilings or walls to bounce flash onto. A direct bare flash is the only option.
  • Place your subject close to a wall or backdrop... WRONG. This will produce hard shadows against the background. For softer shadows and better light drop-off, move your subject away from the backdrop at least 3 to 5 meters.

Examples for using your flash outdoors

A flash can be used to improve an outdoor image.

  • On a sunny day your flash will reduce the high contrast from lit to shadowed parts of a subject. By using flash light to overcome the harsh shadows, this will improve portraits dramatically and fills shadows for a softer look. 
  • For backlit subjects where the sun behind your subject can act as a hair and rim light and your flash as the main fill light. The sun makes a nice hair contour. Without flash in this scenario, your subject will appear in total darkness. Unless silhouettes is what you are aiming for... 
  • Shaded subject and sunny backgrounds. The most trickiest situation and in most cases if you meter from the background, your subject will be underexposed and if you meter from your subject, your background will be blown out with un-recovered highlights. With flash, you can meter from the background and your subject will be properly it with the correct flash power. 
  • Pop your subject. In any situation where you want to balance the ambient and flash lights and separate your subject from the background by adding a bit of flash and lowered your shutter speed. You will also benefit from catchlights in your subject's eyes.

In whatever situation you are in, ask yourself the following questions to determine if you should use fill flash on any image. 

  • Is your subject's face in shadows?

  • Is your subject nuke-backlit?

  • Are you close enough to use flash (10 meters or less I would say?)

What camera settings should you use?

Whenever I am using flash, I instinctively turn the dial to Manual mode. Take control of your camera and make your own mistakes and / or artistic decisions. If you are not using high-speed sync on your flash, you need to know your camera sync speed so the first thing to do is to set your shutter speed to your flash sync speed (1/200 or 1/250 of a second on most recent DSLRs)

Any stop slower than your flash sync speed will bring more ambient light to the equation therefore it is your own decision if you want to shut all ambient light by setting your camera at sync speed or you want to darken the sky for more details for example by setting the shutter speed to 1/100 sec. 

What flash settings should you use?

I like "Manual" and I always try to avoid ETTL unless you, your light, and your subject are not moving. On the other hand, if your subject is a kid playing in the outdoor fields, using ETTL is a God sent functionality as it is extremely difficult to lock a "right" exposure of a child playing outside. For Manual flash mode, I usually start at 1/8 of the power and increase or decrease as needed.

Now if you are ETTL all the way, well you need to know that ETTL lacks consistency. If you change from portrait to landscape camera modes, your camera metering system may come back with a totally different exposure every time trying to achieve that 18 percent grey. This is when Flash Exposure Compensation (or FEC) comes to play. Now if your composition is dominated by back cloths or skin, your camera may think that this is too dark and will try to increase flash power thus resulting in black cloths turning grey in the final image. For that scenario, dial in a FEC of -1 and try again. On the contrary, when shooting a scenes with lots of whites (example: a bride's dress) your camera thinks this is too bright and tries to darkens the scene. The result is a grey dress and an underexposed image. Easy solved, just use FEC +1 and above to adjust accordingly. There is no rule to ETTL and FEC, only experience can teach you the right amount needed to nail the correct exposure. Like food, start with just a pinch of salt and add as needed.

Experiment

No one will teach you flash better than yourself. Take a spare pack of batteries with your flash and practice all scenarios. Take your flash on and off your camera hotshoe. See the shadows falling in every composition. Try both ETTL and Manual. Try Flash Exposure Compensation in ETTL and when in Manual mode, start with lower flash power and increase while reviewing your histogram.

Always remember that you have two light sources to manage: the ambient light and the flash light. Remember that your camera flash sync at 1/200 sec will kill all ambient while lowering that speed to 1/100 sec and less will introduce nice texture and details to your background. Getting both ambient and flash lights right is the most rewarding part.

Without fill flash, dark and hard shadows are all over your subject's face. 

Use fill flash outdoors to soften those shadows when your subject is wearing a hat. 

Backlit subject without fill flash: faces are underexposed. No catchlight in the eyes.

Shaded subject and sunny backgrounds. With flash, you can meter from the background and your subject will be properly it with the correct flash power. Notice the catchlight in the eyes.