Of equal importance to both film or digital photographers is the benefit of fill lighting. It’s easy to just shoot a picture ‘as is’, but with careful thought before hand (and some extra gear), your images could be dramatically enhanced.
For images that are within the power reach of your hot shoe mounted flash gun, just adding a little fill flash to brighten the darkest shadows can make a difference. Especially with people, as the ‘twinkle’ created in their eyes (if nothing more) will give a little extra life to a shot.
It surprising the difference it makes if the flash is used ‘off’ camera, either in your hand or on a stand. See for yourself by taking a shot with the flash on the hot shoe, then use an extension cable an hold it up as high as you can, then off to the side by around 20-30 degrees. The closer you are to your subject, the more pronounced the fill lighting effect is. It really gives a 3-dimensional look.
When shooting fun group shots, especially if you get in close to give more impact, this flash off camera technique can give some really great impact images. Depending on the available ambient light, try to keep the fill flash 1 to 2 stops less, so it doesn’t overpower the natural light.
You may also try using a powered light panel to act as a fill flash, though these are more often used as the main light source. In a multi-panel light set up, the fill light is often placed to the rear of (and above) the camera and carefully adjusted to give the perfect ‘lift’ to the shadows. Again, experimentation is key for the perfect balance for fill lighting.
Auto or manual flash?
A good flash gun will give you the option to manually dial in the power that you desire. But then guessing the correct distance from your subject can be tricky, unless you measure it accurately. In practice this often isn’t practical. So as long as you (by skill or good guesswork) point your flash gun at the subject and not over their heads, the gun should work okay in auto mode. Just be sure to ‘trick’ the gun into thinking you are using a different ISO or exposure so that it doesn’t over-flash the subject. Lots of experimentation will give you great fill lighting results.
Folding Light Panels
Many photographers carry fold-out reflectors with them for fill lighting. They come in various sizes, so it’s always handy to have at least a small one with you in at all times. Keep larger ones in the car just in case.
The original Lastolite reflector has been the accessory of choice for professionals across the world for many years. Similar folding light panels are now readily available in different sizes and colours and materials by a variety of manufacturers. These Kenro 5-in-1 Reflector Kits are great value (available in 42 or 32 inch sizes).
The white ones can add a very soft diffused reflected light and the silver and gold ones give a more crisp fill light. Try a few different ones on each shot you take to get a feel for the effect they give. Window light portraiture in black and white can be really enhanced with reflectors. But don’t over-do it (just as with flash) otherwise the naturalness will diminish.
A nice ‘trick’ with the white reflector panels (and also white brollies) is to shine a light through them to give a VERY diffuse lighting. This can become your main OR fill light depending on how you wish to create your shot.
As a slight aside, a very effective lighting ‘source’ can be created by placing a large white reflector against a window (especially in bright sunshine) and the diffused light that comes through can make amazing ‘natural lighting’ portraits. It’s very impressive and so simple to do. I used that trick at most of my wedding shoots and the light just seems to wrap seamlessly around the subject and gives fantastic details in both shadows and highlights.
However you use fill lighting, be creative and have fun!