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Using fill light in high contrast scenes

This past weekend Mid-CT Photography Meetup Group held their second annual "Capture the Wind" event at Hammonasset Beach in Madison, CT. It was a wonderful event and posed a variety of challenges to our photographers. I did a short mini-workshop on using reflectors and flash to fill in the shadowed area caused by the strong sun light. Here are a few of the tips discussed at the workshop.

The first thought most beginners think of in this type of situation is that they don't need to use flash. After all, it is a bright day and there's plenty of light. Unfortunately this is the wrong type of thinking and nothing could be further from the truth.

The main problem with a bright sunny day at a beach is the high contrast light creating harsh shadows. When you have strong directional light coming in from one side you will get strong oppositional shadows on the other. Not a very flattering look for anyone. To balance out the contrast you need to add light to the shadowed side. Two simple techniques are the low budget reflector and the higher budget speedlight. There are pros and cons to each and I'll cover some of them here.

Reflectors: Simple to use, inexpensive and available in a variety of sizes and color combinations, reflectors are a versatile tool every photographer must have in their equipment bag. The most popular type of reflectors are the 5-in-1 spring loaded circular reflector. They consist of a translucent white material sewn onto a circular steel spring inserted into a removable and reversible reflective cloth bag. The bag typically has one silver and one gold reflective side and one black and white side. This allows the reflector to serve many purposes, from light reflector to a flag or sun blocker/diffuser.

Whichever you get they all serve the same purpose, to reflect light onto your subject, effectively becoming a light source in itself. The silver side cools the light while the gold side warms the light. White adds a subtle touch as it doesn't reflect back as much of the light and black absorbs light.

For this demonstration we have a group of four young people enjoying their day at the beach. The first thing I do is place them so that the sun is not shining directly into their eyes. Nothing like taking nice photos of squished up faces. The second decision was to use the gold side of the reflector. Silver would have just amplified the harsh light and washed out their skin tones. We placed the reflector to camera left, opposite from the sun's direction.

Because this is a continuous light source we can see the effect the light creates on the subject. We are also not limited to our exposure settings in order to get proper exposure. Meter, adjust and shoot.

As you can see in the before and after images there is a big difference in the two shots. Our model's faces come to life and an otherwise dull looking image now pops forward. However, if you look closely you can see one of the limitations of not having a big enough reflector; Mike, our model on the far right is not as well lit as the other three. His position behind his girlfriend, Kelly, puts him furthest away from the reflector. Poor Abe got the full blast of the light along with his girlfriend, Victoria.

Another major limitation with reflectors is that you need an assistant to use them effectively. While you can put them on an arm on a light stand, it is awkward and clumsy. It can be very frustrating aiming the reflector just right then having a breeze blow it out of whack before you can get the shot. Being able to relinquish that task to someone else is a major relief and makes the photo session go so much faster. One word of warning here. Sunlight reflected off one of these things can be blinding. Make sure you position the reflector carefully and instruct your subject not to look directly into the reflector.
Ambient light only With reflector fill
Off-camera fill flash: One of the biggest benefits of off-camera flash is the ability to work solo. You can place the flash on a light stand and aim it where you need. Unlike a reflector, a flash isn't a big wind sail catching every breeze that blows by (unless you're using an umbrella or large softbox). The second benefit is the ability to modify it any number of ways. You can shoot it through an umbrella, stick it in a softbox, shoot it bare, add colored gels, power it up or down accordingly and so much more.

The downside is that you don't see the effect of the light until after the shot has been taken. For beginners, this can be a tough concept to grasp, often spending too much time dialing in setting after setting trying to figure it out. You are also limited to working within your cameras sync speed for flash however the results speak for themselves.

The two images here is our model Irene, an avid photographer who volunteered to model for the day. The first thing I did was place her so the sun is not directly into her face. This allowed her to be a little more comfortable without having to squint into the sun.

Just like with our reflector, we position the flash opposite of the direction of the sun. In this case the flash is to camera left aimed towards Eileen. Because of the brightness of the day I chose to use the flash with nothing more than a plastic diffuser as a modifier. This gives me a light that resembles that coming from the other side but at a lesser strength. For this shot I had the flash set at half power. As you can see in the before and after images, the flash added just the right amount of fill to give Irene some nice balance from dark to light.

On a side note, Irene was sitting in a large white whicker high back chair. The height of the chair and the white lattice construction acted as a diffuser, softening some of the harsh sunlight. You can see how the light is much softer than the light on our young models in the previous example.
Ambient light only With flash fill
So next time the sun is out and glaring down on you, consider taking your flash or reflector with you to make those images pop against that harsh light.


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