“My photographs are works of fiction. Any truth you see is my truth.” -Richard Avedon
For most of photography’s storied history, the popular assumption for the viewer has been that a picture is a documentation of something which existed in front of the camera; the camera’s role is to record the truth. Of course, this is seldom true, and the introduction of digital editing software and the proliferation of social media have each served to dispel the stubbornness of this conclusion. In fact, the photographer, from the very beginning, had a plethora of means for which to alter or offset the truth in his/her recording of the subject. As artificial lighting equipment advanced, another opportunity became available for the photographer to control his picture-taking. This opportunity was fill flash.
Fill flash, or fill-in flash, originated from the need of daylight photographers to illuminate shadows which fell upon the parts of their subjects that were turned away from the sun. Typically, the part being cast in shadow was a person’s face, and they were turned away from the sun to prevent squinting or to avoid an overly contrasty/unflattering light (of course, high contrast is not always unflattering, but you get the picture). The solution for the early pioneers of outdoor, portrait photography was to use white cards or other reflective materials to bounce the light coming from behind the sitter back up into their face, thus “filling in” the shadow areas. The photographer of today has a much more convenient alternative available in the form of the shoe-mount flash or speedlight (that said, white cards and reflectors still work, although they can be difficult to use with a wide angle or in windy conditions). These portable mini-strobes can, in many cases, be placed off camera, alone or in combination with one another, for an even greater degree of control over how the light illuminates the scene.
There are lots of techniques for effectively using fill flash, ranging from the relatively easy (meter for the scene normally using manual mode and then attach/turn on your hot-shoe flash in TTL or i-TTL mode; from here forward, the aperture value will control the amount of fill that reaches your subject, while the shutter value will control the ambient light in the background) to the relatively complex (this one’s from the archives– determine the guide number for your flash at your camera’s base ISO, and then divide that number by the aperture value you plan to use; the resulting quotient represents the number of feet that your flash, at full power, should be placed from your subject). For example (using the easy model), if you are photographing in sunlight and using the classic “sunny 16” rule, then your exposure should be f/16 at 1/200th of a second at ISO 200. After attaching your flash, you should see an instant result in terms of fill from taking a picture at this exposure. By adjusting your f-stop up or down, you will see a change in the amount of light illuminating the shadowed side of your subject. By adjusting your shutter speed, you can control the ambient exposure, ie. background, which can lead to more dramatic images.