Photo Tip of the Month – Fill Light To Reduce Contrast in the Mid-Day Sun

You’d be surprised how many people will ask, “Why are you using a flash? There’s plenty of light!”  Here’s how flash can help your mid-day photos.

Wagon of the Old West

A photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun. Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

You can’t always shoot photos during the “golden hours” (early morning, just before sunset).  And you may not always want this. Sometimes, you want to capture the look of something at mid-day.  But as anyone who has shot knows, this can create harsh light and harsh contrasts, particularly with subjects that are in the shade, as shown below:

Wagon with no fill light as an example

Our Wild West wagon with no fill light as an example of how mid-day sun can create harsh light and harsh contrasts in photos, particularly with subjects that are partially in the shade. Compare this with the other photo which uses the fill light.

So, what to do?  Use a flash as a fill light.

For this photo, I used a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash in wireless mode.  I placed it down on the ground, just out of frame on the right side, facing up at the wagon, with a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce OM-600 Flash Diffuser Unit to diffuse the light.  I like to use off-camera flash because I have more control over what area of the subject my flash lights (and if shooting portraits, it’s a great way to avoid getting demonic red eyes!).  Here’s another look at the photo using fill flash:

Wagon of the Old West

Have another look at the photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun.  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.



6 thoughts on “Photo Tip of the Month – Fill Light To Reduce Contrast in the Mid-Day Sun

  1. Thanks for posting this tip! Most of us, myself included, do not use that expensive accessory (flash) as much as we should. I agree, controlling light is always our challenge in producing a great image.
    I fell that the shadows of the wagon wheels caused by the flash fill created a contradictory visual. Even though a diffuser was used to minimize the harshness of the flash, it still produced a conflict in light. The main light source is from the left, yet the fill flash from the right caused a shadow and a visual conflict.
    From my perception, this is an excellent situation for using HDR to open the shadowed side of the wagon without creating the conflicting shadow in the image. Normally, if there was not something to cast a shadow (like the wheels), the defused flash or a reflector would have produced the desired effect. It is important to control the light, but also making sure that the control does not create another problem in the image.

    1. John, first of all, I want to thank you for responding with your very insightful post!! This sort of post greatly enriches the discussion. I completely agree that this would be a great situation to use HDR. This is something that I have not yet explored. Personally, although I was definitely aware of the difference in source light when I was shooting, I didn’t have an issue with it artistically and felt that a multiple light source still looked good, so I went with it. I do acknowledge that it does not look “natural” but like the way it looks.

      Also, I think a lot of fill light or use of reflectors might have, by their very nature, a “conflict of light”, as you put it, if it’s coming from a direction other than the primary light source (the sun, overhead lighting indoors, light from a window, etc.) unless I’m misinterpreting what you’re saying. What’s your opinion in this matter? -Ken

  2. No, I fully agree. It is a matter of this specific situation. If there was not the wagon wheel casting a shadow, I would have agreed to your method and have not made a comment. My goal is to make the fill light as natural as possible. Our eyes have much more greater latitude to compensate for contrast and light levels. By using fill light we are trying to overcome the lack of lattitude of the camera in capturing an image.

    Now, let me make a statement about my nature photography, in many cases when I shoot, animal behavior and timing do not let me add fill light. However, when I work with stationary objects, I try to consider the effects of light, whether it is natural or additive. Am I successful? Not all the time, but that is how I learn. In many cases, I hit the Delete button if I am not happy with the results, but not until I have analyzed the camera setting and making a mental note not to do this again.

    I hope everyone gets as much enjoyment and self-improvement as I have from shared information and view points!

    1. Definitely! I totally see your point, too, with respect to the wagon wheel casting the shadow! Thanks for your super great contributions to this discussion, which are very very welcome!!! Thanks!!!

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