Fill Flash Photography: What, When, How

by Kerry Drager

Overcast Portrait<br> w/fill flash to brighten subject
Overcast Portrait
w/fill flash to brighten subject

© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
(Editor's Note: This article is adapted from the new book co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager: The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light).

Supplemental light can be accomplished with either built-in flash (which usually offers a fill flash mode) or external flash unit (a separate flash unit designed to work with a specific camera model and its exposure system). Consider these scenarios:

Outdoor portraits:
Unflattering facial shadows, for example, can mar a portrait captured under a bright overhead sun. Or a portrait subject under a shade tree often appears dark (from the shadows) in contrast to a bright-sunlight background. In each case, fill flash could save the shot by brightening the subject.

In addition, under a white or gray sky, you can add a touch of fill light to create little sparkles or twinkles - also called catchlights - in a portrait subjectís eyes. Also, while overcast or shade delivers pleasingly soft and even light, sometimes the colors appear muted - thatís where a shot of extra light (via fill flash or a reflector to bounce light) can help make the colors pop. See accompanying Overcast Portrait photo.

Sunset Seascape w/fill flash to brighten foreground
Sunset Seascape w/fill flash to brighten foreground
© Doug Steakley
All Rights Reserved

Landscapes and seascapes:
In mixed lighting, an awesome foreground can be lost in shadow while the bright sunlit background grabs the attention. But with everything properly exposed - both the background and the flash-illuminated foreground - the whole photo is balanced, with nothing in the picture looking too dark or too light. Thatís the point of fill flash - to make things appear natural-looking, so it isnít obvious you have blasted your close subject with artificial light. See accompanying Sunset Seascape photo by pro photographer and book contributor Doug Steakley.

Fill-flash details:
- Accessory flash units and most built-in flashes offer ways to control the desired amount of flash. These are especially important when you are trying to balance the light in a pleasing way. You might want enough light to fill in a deep shadow, or you might want only a dash of illumination, or something in between.

- The flash exposure compensation feature allows you to adjust the flash output in one-third or half-stop increments usually up to plus/minus two or three stops. Whatís best? It depends on the circumstances, but with digital, itís easy to figure out! Just take the picture and then study it in playback. Adjust the flash compensation if necessary, then take another photo. Repeat the process until everything looks great.

- Your flash only affects subjects within its reach, not the sceneís ambient or existing light. For instance, if the background looks too dark or light, you can adjust it via your cameraís exposure compensation (the same feature you use to adjust the exposure for non-flash images). Thatís different than flash exposure compensation, which only affects the flash output.

Have fun adding fill light - when necessary - to your outdoor images!

Notes from the Editor

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
Kerry Drager is a professional photographer, teacher and writer who is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light. He has taught many photography courses (online and in person), seminars and field workshops.

Be sure to check out Kerry's website -

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also follow Kerry on Facebook, where he posts photos several times a week that include shooting tips and thoughts.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.