Brighter Days Ahead


On dark winter days a photographer’s thoughts naturally turn to light.  So far we’ve forgone using flash in order to discover the many advantages of natural light.  I also had a sneaky motivation for starting you out with natural light – it’s a great way to train your eye.

Most photos look best when light looks natural.  So one goal with artificial light is to make it look like that of Mother Nature.  To do that you need a good sense of what natural light looks like in many different situations.  Having experimented with window light for example, you can now recreate that same look while using flash, and viewers will be none the wiser.  In fact, that’s a great goal — that your viewers can’t tell how much light was natural and how much was you.

One of the easiest ways to start using flash is ‘fill flash’ mode, which preserves existing light as the primary light source.  The flash just adds a little extra punch.  The camera sets the exposure as if the flash was turned off, thus shutter speed and aperture remain the same; the flash then kicks in light similar in brightness to the existing light.

One place this helps is when you have a well-lit background but your subject is shaded.  Fill flash puts a catch-light in your subject’s eyes, and brings closer the lighting of back- and foreground.  Imagine photographing friends with their dogs, all in the shade at the base of a big sunlit waterfall.  Starting without flash you might find that on-screen the waterfall looks great but your friends are all “in the dark.”

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Next you might try normal flash mode.  This time the even light leaves your friends looking flat and the waterfall too dark.  At this point you can give your friends a knowing smile and go to fill flash mode.  The camera will then expose for the nicely-lit waterfall, keeping it looking great, while brightening up your friends (who look great too!).   It’ll also put that nice catch-light into their eyes.   Everyone will be asking for copies of that photo and how you pulled it off.

Fill flash also helps with photos on snow, where balancing the bright reflective snow with other subjects can be tough.  It can also help when the sun is backlighting your subject.  Like most things in photography, the key to using fill flash well is to practice and develop your instincts for when to use it.  Since fill flash uses existing light as the primary light source it can be easier to create photos that feel natural while giving some of the benefits of a flash.  But keep in mind that because it’s not changing shutter speed, it won’t help with issues like motion blur in dark environments.  We’ll talk more about that next month.

One of the nice things about fill flash is that many modern cameras do the hard work of figuring the settings for exposure and flash.  But each camera is different, so check your manual under fill flash to learn about yours.

This Month’s Assignment

Try using fill flash.  I hope you’ll try using it in a bunch of different situations so you can get a feel for the nuances of using it.  Then please send in your favorite photo from your experiments.  If you’re up for it, the other students and I would love to hear about your experiences and discoveries while experimenting with fill flash.  What would you recommend other students try?  Any tips you discovered or issues you ran into?

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in March for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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