Using flash effectively is often a challenge for many photographers, likely due to the lack of knowledge of how to use it, and for some the belief that anything can be fixed in software. I believe it’s a matter of learning a few techniques and modifying them as needed to fit different situations. Some will question why I didn’t rely on HDR techniques. HDR is difficult to do well; at least well enough so that it is difficult to tell it’s been done. The capabilities of today’s software products to brighten the shadows and darken the highlights may have been possible but for me, it is more work than correcting problems in the camera.
On occasion, I find a composition I like, but the brightness of the foreground and the background are so different that a single capture is difficult. I find it best to get the image captured with the least amount of processing anticipated. In this example, I have a starflower; a small white flower next to a moss-covered fallen tree. To complicate matters, a breeze is blowing the flower around, at times quite a bit. It is in the shade and the background is lit by the sun.
These images are captured with the Olympus E-M1 Mark II and a 12-40nn f/2.8 PRO lens set at 14mm (equivalent to a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera), exposure of f/11 and ISO 200. The shutter speed is 1/10th second or 1/60th second as noted later.
The first two images show the amount of image blur captured due to the occasional breeze. Even when it seems as if the wind has reduced enough to make an image, there is some slight motion. Some may question why I didn’t change the ISO to 3200 to get a shutter speed of 1/160th second. While that may be one way, it does not solve the problem of the bright background, and it may not be enough to stop the motion in the flower and leaves. With flash, I can do both.
For this reason, I had brought out my small Flashpoint Zoom Mini R2 Speedlight, a Westcott Micro Apollo softbox, and the Flashpoint R2 transmitter. The transmitter allows the flash to be controlled by the camera electronics without being physically attached to the camera. This permits enormous flexibility in placing the flash relative to the subject. The camera controls the amount of light the flash provides by measuring the light reflected from the subject into the camera sensor. The amount of light from the flash can be controlled using flash compensation control. While the camera makes the decision on what it thinks the correct amount of light should be used, the photographer can adjust that by adding more, or less, than the camera calculates. I typically set the flash compensation to -1 stop as a starting place as I find the image too “hot” at +/-0 compensation.
Darken the Background
First I wanted to darken the background so that it would not draw the eye to the top of the image. By reducing the shutter speed to 1/60th second, the background became darker by 2 ½ stops and it brought down the amount backlight on the moss by the same amount. However, it almost brought the foreground into complete darkness as seen in Image 3. This is a good thing because I wanted my flash to provide most of the light on the subject: the flower and the moss-covered log.
Leaving the camera setting as they were, I turned on the flash controller, held the flash to the right and above of the scene, and captured Image 4. The softbox on the flash results in a soft even light on the subject leaves no harsh shadows. I make a capture then check the focus on the key elements in the scene and fire away.
I usually make several additional captures with the same setup and settings but move the flash to different positions relative to the subject. With the breeze moving the flower around, I had the capability to stop the motion of the flower in different positions because the flash was providing virtually all the light required for the exposure.
Lighten the Background
Another example where flash was helpful in similar circumstances is shown in these images. These unedited images are captured with a Canon 5D Mark II and Sigma 150 f/2.8 macro lens, the best macro lens I ever owned (sadly no longer in production), ISO 400 and f/10 at 1/40 second. They were taken 15 seconds apart. The only difference is that I used a Canon 580EX II Speedlite to light the tree in the background. I thought that the dark tree disrupted the background and sought to even out the tonality of the tree to match the more distant sunlit forest.
As you can see, flash can be a handy tool to have in your camera bag. If you can’t find a similar lighting situation in your yard, you may want to try the technique on a scene you create to force the conditions similar to those shown in this post. The last image shows my in-situ setup to capture the starflower images showing the camera mounted on a ball head with Platpod base and the flash with softbox handheld. I used an RF remote control to trigger the camera.