Skip to content
February 24, 2011 / arthill

More on flash photography

Most of us think of using the flash indoors when there just isn’t enough light to shoot without flash.  But flash can help you out even when there is enough light to shoot without it.  You can use your flash outdoors to eliminate harsh shadows on faces when the sun is bright.  Sometimes called fill-flash, this technique uses the flash to “fill” areas of the picture which are not going to receive enough light even though the overall picture will be well lit.  The key point here is to set your camera to aperture priority mode when you want to do fill-flash.  Here’s why – if the camera is in program mode or shutter priority mode it will expose the picture for flash only.  If you’re shooting a person in one of these modes, the subject will be properly exposed but the background may be very dark or very light.  When you change to aperture priority mode the camera will expose for the whole scene and the flash will just add some light.

IMG_6679In this aperture priority mode shot the whole scene is nicely exposed and the flash has just added some light to our faces (which otherwise were in shadow from an umbrella).

Even indoors you need to decide whether to shoot in aperture priority or program mode.  I used to shoot most everything in program mode when I was shooting people and the people always came out pretty well. Often though, the camera chose a wider aperture than I might have liked so depth of field could be pretty shallow.  Now I generally always shoot indoors with flash using aperture priority mode.  I choose f8 as a general rule.  Typically then, my indoor shots are at f8 and 1/60th of a second.

A quick note about shutter speeds.  When you choose aperture priority mode, if there isn’t much light the camera may choose a pretty slow shutter speed. Camera movement could be a problem.  There are a few ways to handle this:

  1. Your camera may have a setting to limit shutter speed in aperture priority mode.  Canon DSLR’s have such a setting – it confines the shutter speed in aperture priority mode to 60-200 (1/60th to 1/200th of a second).
  2. Put your camera on a tripod.
  3. Increase the ISO until the shutter speed comes out to something you are comfortable hand holding.


rose no flash IMG_6159rose flash IMG_6155

In this first rose shot no flash was used. The rose looks okay but the area outside the window is over exposed. In the second shot I used the flash in aperture priority mode.  The whole scene is nicely exposed and extra light is added to the flower.  I used the built-in flash for this one but I set flash exposure compensation to –1 so the rose wouldn’t be washed out by the flash.  For close-up work consider setting flash exposure compensation to –1/3 or more.


IMG_7793 IMG_7792
No flash f7.1 1/15 sec External flash with diffuser f7.1 1/60 sec

Here’s another example where you don’t need flash but can use it to “fill” areas of shadow. The first picture is no flash. Take a look at the cover of the Above Chicago book.  The second picture is with flash in aperture priority mode.  See the extra light on the cover of the Above Chicago book.  Also note the difference in appearance of the white seashell sculpture.

IMG_7794 IMG_7795 IMG_7796
Program Mode f4 1/60 sec Aperture priority mode f9 1/15 sec Aperture priority shutter speed restricted to 60-200 f9 1/60 sec

In this example I’m trying to show the difference between program mode and aperture priority mode.  All three of these were shot with external flash, with a diffuser, pointed at the ceiling. In the first the camera selects a relatively large aperture so depth of field is shallow.  In the second I chose an aperture of f9 and the camera chose a shutter speed of 1/15 sec.  Might or might not be okay for hand held.  Also notice, as is fairly for shooting toward a window, the outdoors is overexposed.  In the third shot I just changed the setting on the camera to restrict shutter speeds so the camera chose 1/60 th.  Note that the subject is still about right and, as a bonus, the outdoor portion of the shot is less overexposed.

So, just to recap:

  1. Use your flash indoors or outdoors.
  2. Program Mode = Conventional flash shot and Aperture Priority Mode = Fill flash
  3. Check that shutter speed in aperture priority mode and make adjustments as necessary.


Leave a Comment
  1. Maryann Goldman / Feb 24 2011 6:59 am

    This is a great write-up especially with the example pictures to back up what you’re saying. I shot in AV a lot even with the flash on in or out. I have found on the playground that using the flash on faces is important out in the bright sun myself. Thanks for reinforcing that.

    I have a request for a write-up on exposure compensation. I really don’t know how to use that at all.

  2. 2guysphoto / Feb 24 2011 7:56 am

    Thanks Art – this is a concise, handy reference on using flash – something that intimidates a lot of photogs. Ed Spadoni

  3. Hillary / Jun 3 2011 9:41 am

    Fabulous write up Art.. Perfect information for me to read at this point. I really appreciate your sending me the link. I will read the other one later, too! I will share this on Facebook, too! Thank you!

  4. Carole Murray / Jun 3 2011 5:09 pm

    Thank you so much, Art, for this. It was certainly a fountain of information, well written and easy to understand. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: