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The Curious Case of the Washed Out Photos

January 25, 2010

Something I had picked up from Joe McNally‘s excellent book, “The Hot Shoe Diaries“, was a small primer on fill flash. Fill flash helps to fill in the deep shadows in photos. For example, on a bright sunny day a fill flash can be used to bring out details in shaded areas like under a cap or umbrella. It’s a way to bring out all the details in camera without having to fix it in post with HDR or overexposing shadow areas.

For a while I’ve been a proponent for natural light. Why would I need extra light if I’m in direct sunlight? Well, sometimes natural light is just not enough. You need it for things like caps, or areas half in shadow. Trying to bring out details later is like trying to work with a picture shot at ISO 3200. The details just were not captured on your sensor.

So, a few weeks ago I was in Florida with the family at Disney and I’m trying to capture one of my kids petting a goat. It was just after midday and the sun was coming in strong. The first picture I take is fine, with the exception that the harsh shadow practically blacks out my son’s face. So, trying to practice some new techniques I pop up my on-camera flash, set the flash compensation to -1 1/2 and snap away. Suddenly my picture is almost pure white! I slip out of Aperture priority mode and into Manual mode. Again, almost pure white! What’s going on?

Something I had totally forgotten about recently was sync speed. I have a D90 and the maximum sync speed is 200. When that on-camera flash pops up it automatically set my maximum speed to 200. I was originally shooting at f/2.8 and a shutter speed of around 3200, a 4 stop difference. No wonder I was seeing white. I hadn’t run into this much before because I had actually been using an SB-600 with my camera and it has a setting for FP leaving no shutter speed limitation.

So, the lesson I learned was that the rules change significantly with fill-in when you use the pop-up flash. You have to take into consideration that your maximum shutter speed with be somewhere around 160 to 200 depending on your camera. This will require changing your ISO or aperture to compensate.

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