Flash photography: when and where to use flash outdoors

Using flash is a hotly debated subject. Some photographers refuse to use flash, claiming that it does not suit their style. Others use it frequently to ensure their subjects ‘pop’ out of the background. But if used incorrectly, flash can kill the atmosphere and mood of the photograph, which is why many photographers prefer soft, natural light. However, others use flash to its full potential in order to create different effects and overcome bad lighting conditions during the day.

In this article we look at three different areas of photography in which flash, if used correctly, can greatly enhance and improve your images.

Low-light conditions- Fill flash

Fill flash can be effective in most outdoor situations. It is particularly useful when shooting living subjects.

Wildlife photographers often use flash in areas of low-light, such as in dense forests. In dense forests, the dappled sunlight can affect the subject by throwing shadows across the animal. Flash works by reducing contrast, filling in the shadows, which make the eye sockets look dark and also hide other facial features.

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Flash can also be used to overcome weather conditions. On an overcast day flash can be used to make portraits more colourful and also create separation by popping them out from the background. Flash can also be a fantastic tool in order to pop out the eyes of the animal. 

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Using flash in this way is useful for portraits. However, there is a restriction – this technique only works if you are close to your subject, the range is generally 2ft-12ft.

Make sure you underexpose the photo slightly and combine with a full flash exposure, which can isolate the subject creating separation from the background.

Tip: When using flash remember to take the lens hood off. When you are close to your subject and using flash, the lens hood can create shadows.

Macro photography 

Flash photography is great for illuminating your subject and picking up detail lost to the naked eye, especially when it comes to macro photography. Using flash for macro photography not only makes your subject sharper, it lightens up all shadowed areas and helps to focus strictly on your subject.

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However, one thing to pay attention to is where the flash falls on your subject—especially the eyes. One downside with flash photography and macro is the unwanted flash glare.

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Tip: Take note of shadows created by the flash and consider other possible areas to place your flash. Use an off camera flash which will allow you to play around with how shadows affect your photograph.

3. Underwater photography

Underwater, light is generally affected by depth, the distance of your subject, as well as weather and surface conditions.

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Using flash, or strobes, with underwater photography is almost always a must with depth in diving – since colour gets lost the deeper the dive (the colour red being the first to fade). Usually it is unnecessary to use flash at the surface if one is focused on shooting using natural or ambient light (in about 6 m/20ft of water or less). Whether or not you use flash, depends on the subject and composition of the photo—such as, if the desired outcome is creating a silhouette effect, or if you want to specifically focus on the details of your subject.

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Generally, strobes (also known as off-camera flashes) can be positioned exactly where you want them on your underwater housing. This helps reduce backscatter and gives the photographer the option between illuminating your subject with side-lighting, top-lighting, and backlighting. Side-lighting emphasizes certain features of the subject, whilst top-lighting creates the effect of lighting from one direction.

Backlighting is generally created using the sun (aka silhouette effect) and shooting upwards towards your subject while it moves in between you and the sun.

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Tip: The best method to use for strobe placement is one on each side of the camera or a single placed overhead.

Remember, in order to get that captivating creative shots, in all photographic fields it is essential to get out there and practice, practice, practice.

Article co-authored by Africa Media Field Specialists, Kyra Kalageorgi and Clare James


Blogger Profile – Clare James

Clare James

Following a passion for adventure sports and wildlife conservation, Clare took up photography to document her travels and soon became addicted to the power of images. She specializes in underwater, adventure and wildlife photography and her work has been exhibited in Cornwall, UK. Clare worked with Africa Media as an instructor in the Wildlife and Adventure Photography program.


Blogger Profile – Kyra Kalageorgi

Underwater Photography

Kyra participated in the Oceans Campus Underwater Photography Program during 2013. This year she joined Oceans again as a field specialist on the program. Kyra is also a Divemaster and  Freelance Studio Artist, focusing her art on raising awareness and appreciation for all animals, specifically marine life.

Connect with Kyra by visiting her website at: www.kyrakalageorgi.com