what is fill flash photography?
when to use fill-in flash

Example of fill flash-strong sunny back lightingFill flash needed from
strong backlighting

Fill flash photography is one of the simplest ways you can dramatically improve both indoor and outdoor photos when you have strong back lighting.

For many point and shoot cameras it's simply a matter of turning on the pop-up flash.

when to use fill flash with your photography

In situations when the light source is primarily behind your subject and in situations where the background is extremely bright, it is often advantageous to use the flash built into your camera or possibly an eternal flash as an add on.

Fill in flash is also good in some ways that aren't as obvious. When there is a strong overhead lighting situation, shadows can be cast under the eyes, nose and chin of your subject or even under the brim of a hat.

Fill flash photography also adds a catch light or a little sparkling highlight in the eyes that adds life to your subject. 

Your camera's automatic exposure system does what it can to give you a good overall exposure but it may do too good of a job exposing for the background or back lighting and leave your subject with dark shadows or not enough light on their face.

Comparison with and without fill in flash

(left photo had no fill flash. Right photo had "normal" fill flash.)

Look at the two photos of my dog watching me raise my camera to my eye. The light was streaming through a window into my office from behind her. In the photograph on the left,there are very few details in the shadow areas that are facing toward the camera.

I turned on my external flash on the photo on the right. Look at the huge difference in her eyes and her coat.  The lighting equipment can be as simple as the built-in flash or a more powerful, shoe-mounted flash attached to the top of your camera.

Another sometimes accidental benefit of using fill in flash is that of added sharpness. In lower light situations, you camera may be using a slow shutter speed and you may get blurry pictures from the movement of your subject or your camera.

Using a flash will "freeze" your subject and reduce or eliminate motion blur. These photos were taken with a Canon 5d Mark iii and the fill in flash was provided by a Canon 580-ex Flash.

Fill in flash is usually more effective when your subject is fairly close to your camera and its flash.

This is especially true with most built-in flashes because they have a very limited output. Professional flash units like the Canon 580-ex or my Quantum td5 have plenty of light output to provide fill even with bright sunshine.

Here's a good video on YouTube by Michael Andrews which does a good job of explaining and comparing without fill in and with fill flash photography:

My portrait photography background has caused me to have a reluctance to use fill flash with my portrait lighting.  I get too picky because I make a living shooting "natural-looking" portraits.

That's just my personal bias and it goes against what most photographers like, Using fill flash for outdoor portraits works well.

For the large majority of photographers, a shoe mounted flash on the top of the camera is the perfect accessory for handling almost every flash photography situations.

Best Selling Flash Units

Balanced fill-flash is just that, a balance of fill-flash light on the subject to match the subject’s exposure with the exposure of the other elements of the photograph, including the background.

If you have a decent LCD screen on your camera and you can adjust the flash to a higher or lower power setting, it's real easy to get the right amount of fill light. When I am shooting portraits I prefer to bounce light into the shadow areas by using a large reflector of some kind.

The biggest advantage of using the flash that's built into the camera is that it's always there and ready to go. it's just that it has such a limited range due to it's wimpy power.

There are a lot of Photography Lighting Systems available. Generally the larger they get, the more versatile and of course the more expensive they get. I once had to do a group photo of over 150 people outdoors similar to the family portrait below.

That was a situation where I need much more power than a battery operated flash could provide. I was able to set up my Novatron studio strobes and plugged into an electric outlet on the side of the house.

(Fill flash provided by Quantum TD5 Flash)

It was a definite siutation where I had to practice my fill flash photography technique. Yes, most people use it for outdoor photography, but fill flash photography is sometimes useful in indoor situations, but that's a topic for another day.

The type of photography you do always dictates the characteristics of any supplementary lighting you use.  Here is more on Photography Lighting Equipment.

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If you are a lighting geek like me you might enjoy this book.

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There is not very much on fill flash in it, but it is a very valuable tool to understand ALL aspects of lighting and lighting is the universal ingredient contained in all photographs.

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