To Fill Or Not To Fill? Flash that is…

Fill flash, by definition, is not the main light source in an image. In this image of Rocky and Casper, the main light source is the window light coming from camera right.

When the main light is directional–not coming from the camera position–it creates a shadow on the side of the subject opposite the light source.

The question then becomes, “Is the shadow too dark?” Which translates into the question posed by this post, “To fill or not to fill?”

I determine if I am going to use fill flash based on two criteria.

1) How important is the detail in the shadow side of the image?

2) What is the intended mood of the image?

If shadow detail is important in the image, then fill flash is a must. The level of fill you use will determine how much detail you bring out in the shadows.

This brings me to the second criteria; the mood of the image.

Using this image as an example, the more fill I use, the more detail we will see in the fur on the shadow side of both cats. As the fill approaches the strength of the window light, the lighting will become non-directional, shadowless, flat light. Flat light will not convey the peaceful mood of two cats taking a nap in the afternoon sunlight. I need to choose a level of fill that shows the detail I want while maintaining the mood of the image.

As photographers our job is to control light. We exert this control to create an image that fills its intended purpose.

Maybe its a fun photo of two cats napping in the sunshine. Here I can add fill light to create exactly the look I want. (Provided I don’t wake the cats while I adjust my flash output.)

As another example, for a window lit portrait of a sleeping baby I would use enough fill light to open up the shadows to create a soft, peaceful mood. Contrast this to a window lit character study of great grandpa where minimal fill light leaves deep shadows creating an entirely different mood.

To fill or not to fill?, and how mush to fill? These are questions you must answer for every image you create when the main light source is directional.

By answering these questions you take control of light. By answering these questions you become more than a picture taker, you become a photographer–an image maker.

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