Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Having your fill

The next Readers Photo Challenge assignment entails a technique that may seem complicated but actually can be accessible to even the novice photographer. Fill-flash (or flash fill as it is sometimes called) is method used by using the flash during the day, usually on portraits. It may sound a bit strange to use a flash during the day, after all you’d think that there’s plenty of light at that time, but the sun can create some harsh, unwanted shadows, especially during mid-day. As the name implies, fill-flash provides illumination to help fill in those shadows.

Certainly there are times when you might want those shadows to create a moody picture, but fill flash can give your outdoor portrait more detail. It’s something Polaroid knew with its 600-series cameras. They designed them to fire their flashes with every shot because they knew that their customers wanted to see the faces of their subjects well lit rather than to have them cast in shadow.

In the old days of photography fill-flash was usually left to the pros because of the then-complicated nature of the beast. You had to know guide numbers of the flash (how powerful it was). Then calculate distances between the flash and subject and then adjust your exposure accordingly. By that time your subject had lost interest and moved away. While you still can do that if you had some masochistic urge, today flash operations are pretty much automatic. Through-The-Lens (TTL) technology, in which the camera measures the amount of flash that comes through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor, allows cameras and flashes to communicate to each other effectively and adjust the flash’s output at the speed of light.

Also back in the pre-digital days fill-flash users had take educated guesses at their shots because they couldn’t always see what the flash was doing. Some photographers would use special Polaroid backs on their cameras so that they could use the “instant” film to check out who their efforts were going. Still, it was cumbersome and relatively slow going. Today, it’s an easy task just to press a button and view the picture on the camera’s monitor just seconds after it was shot.

There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to fill-flash. I once read an article about famed National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard in which he said that he used flash a very low setting to add just barely enough light to give some detail to the shadows of his subjects’ faces. This method will give your portraits a more natural look. The other approach is to set the flash at a higher output to make it the main light source and to make the sun secondary. This gives a more polished, if maybe a little more artificial, look to the picture. Fine-tuning your flash’s output can be managed through the unit’s controls or if you’re using a camera’s built-in flash, through the camera’s menu. Every flash and camera are different, so consult your owners manual.

Smart phone/tablet users might think that they’re excluded from this challenge since their devices don’t have true flashes, but don’t worry. The idea is to fill-in the shadows, but you don’t always need to have a flash for that. A handy and inexpensive tool that photographers use is called a bounce card. It is a reflector that bounces light from the sun into the shadows of your subject’s face. You can buy ones that are made of pliable fabric much like those windshield sunshades made for cars. But anything that’s white or a light colored will do. I’ve used white pieces of cardboard, plastic, even sheets of paper. The only downside is that, unless you have really long arms, you’ll have to have someone hold the reflector or buy (or make) some sort of stand to hold it up.

This will work for DLSR cameras too, but I’d like you to try using the flash. I know it may seem daunting at first, especially if you’ve never tried it before, but it’ll be easier than you think and it’s an important skill to know when you’re shooting an outdoor portrait.

How to enter:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Fill” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between Oct. 8 and Oct. 15. Photos must be a portrait employing fill flash or some other fill technique.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (eg: “John Doe, Stockton. Weber Avenue in downtown Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 18-55mm lens”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and where they are and what they are doing. (Eg: Jane Smith, 25, Tracy, poses for a picture next to Lodi Lake on Lodi). If they are related to you, please mention that as well.

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Thursday, Oc 15. The top examples will be published on Thursday, Oct. 22 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.

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