Fill Flash Techniques

photo that needs fill flashtoo much fill flashHere’s a difficult shot to light. The bride and groom are standing in the archway, with sunlight outside. If I expose for the background (as I did on the left) their faces are too dark and her dress looks dull. If I were to expose for the faces (by spot-metering off the bride’s cheek) then the background would flare out. There’d be no detail in the sky and the trees would be a nasty, bleached out yellowy-green. So what do you do? My father, John Dixon, (a far better photographer than me), taught me the answer. “Expose, he always said, for what you can’t control and then fill in with the flash.”

So I took this first shot just to establish the exposure for the background (metering off the whole image). Then I locked the camera to that exposure and took the shot on the right with the flash on, but set to under-expose by a stop. I pointed the flash at them (the porch roof was dark so it wouldn’t bounce) and asked the couple to look at each other. Then, while still chatting to them (most important), I looked at the result: slightly too much flash. Can you see that they look almost…stuck onto the background, as though they’re not part of it. That’s because they’re not: they’re lit by a separate light source now.

correct fill flashSo, for the next shot, I backed the flash off another two-thirds of a stop and asked them both to look at me without moving. Actually what I said was “Now, without moving your feet, can you cuddle up together and look at me, QUICK, before the light changes.” 

And that’s the one: the twist in his body loses the slight awkwardness in his arm and their smiles are natural because they don’t have time to think about it. The detail is back in her dress, with shadows from the natural light behind but their faces are nicely lit.

Finally, and most important: I reset the camera to standard settings. It’s too easy, especially at a wedding, to rush off to the next shot and forget that you’ve left it on manual (so the exposure meter won’t work) and the flash is nearly two stops under (so any shot lit entirely by flash will come out dark). You’ll only do it once though…

Remember, also, that your flash will only sync at shutter speeds below about 1/200 second (and less in some cases). So, if there’s too much light, stop down instead to keep below this limit. This will, of course, increase your depth of field (which you may not want), in which case you can reduce the film speed instead (or put a filter on, which will then confuse your flash ratio…).

And, of course, wherever you can, bounce the flash off a light surface rather than aiming it directly at people. This has two advantages: people blink less and it’s a much more flattering light. Orange and pink walls or ceilings will also give a warm tinge to the photograph. But stay away from blue and green unless you want a bilious bride!

wedding guests umbrellasAnd finally: the hazards of a British summer wedding. It was coming down in stair-rods, there was no light to speak of and everytime I looked up I got poked in the eye by someone’s umbrella. Time to ignore the rules: I asked everyone to lift their brollies and angle them to the flash. It’s possibly the only time ever that I’ve used MORE flash than the camera suggested and I double checked every shot to make sure that no-one had blinked. But it worked. (And if you read “Counting the Clouds” you’ll see that it provided the inspiration for one of the scenes. It’s always easier to write convincingly about something that did actually happen!)