If you're just starting out in photography, chances are you've taken some disappointing shots in situations where backlighting caused your main subject to be underexposed. You know, that awesome day at the beach when you took that portrait with the ocean and sun in the background? Not everyone has an assistant and a set of reflectors to solve this problem. There is something that almost everyone with a modern camera has, though, and that's the ability to use fill flash.
Newbies can mix ambient light and flash, too!
You don't have to be an expert with lighting or have a flash meter to use fill flash, nor do you have to have an external flash. Yes, any and all of those things will probably give you the best results. For the purposes of this tip, though, let's assume that you're not yet rich and famous and you need to work with your DSLR and its built-in flash.
When You'll Need It
There are many situations that will call for a little extra front lighting. Obviously, backlit portaits fall into the category. Night shots, scenes with large bright areas, snowy landscapes and several other situations can call for extra light on the main subject, too. You'll learn to recognize them with a little experience.
(Success Tip #1: Learn photography in your spare time with this simple deck of cards)
How to Use It
If you're shooting in one of your camera's preset modes, such as Portrait, Night Portrait, or (Say it ain't so!) Intelligent Auto, your flash is probably going to pop up when you prefocus and fire when you shoot when the camera's metering system decides it's needed. There are also "Backlit" settings on many modern DSLR cameras that you can activate manually. If you want to take more control of your shot, you have a few options:
Program Mode: With your camera in "P" mode, your flash will only be active if you turn it on manually. When you do activate it, your camera will automatically set your shutter speed to the appropriate setting for flash sync and adjust your aperture to correct the exposure. This is probably the best option for any reader who didn't understand the term "flash sync" in the previous sentence, so I'm going to expand on it a bit.
There are a couple of steps you can take that will give you better results in this mode. First, use your autoexposure lock to meter the scene somewhere other than the area you want to light with your flash. Then, if you're using AF, point the camera at your subject and press the shutter button halfway to prefocus before you shoot. You'll probably see your focus point(s) flash both times, as well as a short burst of focus lighting from your flash. Keep in mind that your camera's autofocus system can be fooled in low light, too, so it's often a good idea to focus mamually if possible.
Semi-automatic modes: Shooting in shutter priority (S or Tv) and aperture priority (A or Av) mode will allow you to turn your flash on and off, too. You're probably going to get some unexpected results this way if you don't know about your camera's sync speed and other aspects of flash photography. I highly recommend reading your camera manual before choosing this option.
Full manual: You knew I was going to suggest this one. Give it a try. Switch your camera to the "M" setting and turn on the flash. Start with a shutter speed of 1/200 second and adjust your exposure with the aperture setting. Keep your ISO speed as low as practical for the current lighting conditions. Unless you've turned TTL metering off for yoru flash, the camera will control the flash intensity based on your aperture setting.
Even if you're not yet up to speed on all the techincal aspects of using your flash, you may be able to get surprisingly good results shooting in manual mode, and if you're saving your photos in RAW format, you'll have the opportunity to adjust them later.
(Success Tip #2: Even hobbyists can earn money with their photos with this simple system.)
Learning to do it Right
Although I've outlined a few "quick and dirty" ways to get started using fill flash, there's no substitute for learning how to do it correctly. It's not as complicated as you might think and with all of the resources available to you these days, there's really no excuse for the serious student of photography not to know how it's done. Here's a great resource I highly recommend.