Delicate Balancing Act

Check out these two pictures of a saw-whet owl. Because our eyes can see a brightness range of about 11 f-stops, my eyes could clearly see the owl in the scene. However, because digital cameras can only see about 6 stops, a natural-light picture taken with the camera set on any of the automatic modes (with no exposure compensation) would look like the picture on the left.

In the picture on the right, we can clearly see the owl. For that shot, I used a technique called “daylight fill-in flash photography.” Here’s how to do it:

1) First, you’ll need either a flash with variable flash output control (+/- exposure control), or a camera that let’s you vary the flash output in-camera.
2) Turn off the flash.
3) In the Manual mode, set the exposure for the natural light scene.
4) Turn on your flash and make an exposure with the flash set at – 1 1/3. If your picture looks too much like a flash shot, reduce the flash output to – 1 1/2. If it’s still too “flashy,” continue to reduce the flash until you are pleased with the results.

This techniques works because even in the Manual mode, the flash operates in the TTL mode. I suggest that you master this technique. It is an essential tool used by most of my nature and travel photography friends.

Sure, you might get a similar shot with your camera and flash set on Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, but this technique gives you independent control over the subject and background brightness: you can darken and lighten the subject by adjust the flash output, and you can control the background illumination with your shutter speed.

Let me know if you'd like to see more Speedlite tips - for shooting indoors and outdoors.