Shooting with a Flash
Presented by Glenn Springer, TIF, RHCC

What's the UGLIEST thing you can do to a picture?
Light it with the pop-up flash. This article explores some of the options to
make the people you're shooting hate you less!

Ugly, ugly, ugly. And not just the Hallowe'en face Harry was wearing,
but the kind of lighting you get from the direct pop-up flash.

Sometimes you can get away with it. This is pretty harsh light, but it was softened a bit by using a diffuser on the shoe-mounted flash.

Steve Weimann is the lead guitarist for the group F.O.G. (Four Old Guys) who play occasionally up in the Highlands.This was shot at a practice session in Toronto.

  

My sister already hates me so posting the picture on the left can't make it much worse! That's what you get when you use the pop-up flash to light your picture. The shot on the right also uses the built-in flash, but to help the existing light coming from a window, not to be the main light!

 

Ever wonder why the people in your flash pictures look like they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar or like a deer caught in the headlights? How come they have red eyes like the devil incarnate? That’s probably because you’re using the flash that pops up or is built into your camera.

Don’t want to invest in an external flash, or your camera doesn’t support one? Fair enough, but understand there are limitations on the built-in ones and only a few ways to work around them.

 

Hint: when your camera is set to "Automatic", the flash will pop up whenever it thinks there's not enough light. To prevent that from happening, switch your DSLR to "P" mode instead, or disable the flash on your point-and-shoot.

Do these people seriously think their little flashes are doing anything?
(Is this a fake picture? Yup. Couldn't find one to use, so I edited a shot I did at a Raptors game a few years ago. But we've all seen this, right?)

This shot is NOT fake. But it's a composite of several images I shot in Port Stanley last year. No, I didn't use the flash...

Before we start, one thing that gives me a chuckle is watching a football stadium at half-time, and seeing the flashes popping all over the stands. That includes the people sitting in row NN up in the nosebleed seats. Do they honestly believe their little built-in flash has enough power to illuminate a scene 300 or 400 feet away? If it did, it would probably set fire to the hair of the lady sitting in the row in front of them! A flash is only good for subjects 10 or 15 feet away. Every time you double the distance, you need 4 times as much light power (that’s called the “inverse-square law”. Don’t get me started!).


Oh yeah – then there’s people trying to take flash pictures of fireworks! Think about it.

 

Am I trying to tell you NOT to use your pop-up flash? Well, yeah... but sometimes you do what you have to do. Just try to use it only to assist the existing (ambient) light.


A simple pop-up flash was used to enhance the light on Iris's face, but I set the camera to expose correctly for the existing light in the scene. That meant a really slow shutter speed, so the picture was blurred, except for where the flash was lighting it. Look at her necklace and her left shoulder.

Another portrait where I used a slow shutter speed for effect, but a flash to freeze brighter portions of the image and add light to the face. Rosanne swept her head back to make her hair fly. I used the hotshoe mounted flash with a diffuser on it and I added some blur to the picture in Photoshop.

When you take a picture using the flash on your camera, you’re throwing extra light at the subject, but it’s coming right from the camera. That means that the light is hitting it straight on: no interesting shadows. And it’s a little point-source of light, so it’s really harsh! The camera is usually measuring the average light, so close objects are often really overexposed. The background, of course, is often dark: go back up a paragraph and think about the inverse square law!

So what can we do about it? As I said, the options are limited. First of all, you want to use the flash to ADD light to the scene, not BE the light for the scene. Look in your camera manual for “Flash Fill” mode: the flash is assisting the natural light, not replacing it. If you’re using a digital SLR, you may be able to adjust the intensity of the flash, try setting it one- or two-stops less than the metered exposure.

The main light was natural sunlight coming from over my right shoulder. But I wanted to see the texture of the trillium petals, so I put an off-camera speedlight behind the flower to the left.

This was shot at the Minden Wildwater Preserve in early spring a couple of years ago..

Alex was lit entirely with the light from a small Speedlight (Nikon SB-600) about 10 feet away on camera right.

 


Second, try diffusing the light from the flash. Instead of it being a point-source of bright light, you might be able to redirect the light to bounce off a ceiling or wall (often a simple sheet of white paper or an index card held at an angle in front of the flash might work). If you have a hot-shoe flash, one that mounts on your camera, they almost always have a swivel head so you can do that. Another way to diffuse the light is to shoot it through something like a Kleenex or a T-shirt or a Tupperware™ bowl. But you’ll be cutting down the light available, so it may not work. A diffuser dome on a hot-shoe-mounted flash often works really well.

   

Use natural light as your main light and use your flash to help fill in some of those shadows. Look at the difference between these shots: the Newfoundland lobster fisherman is lit by natural sunlight but the shadows on the right are filled with the camera's pop-up flash. Liz was in a shaded forest (at the Hawk Lake Log Chute) and I used a soft diffuser over the shoe-mounted flash.

Moving the flash away from the camera is the best option, but you can’t do that without buying an external flash. If you have a DSLR, that should be high on your list of accessories to buy (right AFTER a tripod!). First of all, it eliminates red-eye (your flash illuminates the blood vessels in the eye and bounces the red light right back to the lens). Second, it introduces interesting shadows.

I use a "Gary Fong" diffuser dome on my Nikon SB-600 Speedlight. It fits all of the popular brands as well. You can buy it here:

 

  

 

Natural light from an open doorway was the main light, but the shadows on the left side of his face (camera right) needed a little help from a flash. I used a shoe-mounted flash with a diffuser on it to soften the light a bit. Tom was the blacksmith at the Haliburton Museum a few years ago.

You can't tell I used the flash, right? That was the idea... but the shoe needed some help to be the focus of the picture.

 

So to summarize:

• Only use the popup flash as the main light if you really hate the people you’re shooting.    (It will make them incredibly ugly and they’ll hate you for it.)
• Don’t try to shoot far away things with the flash. It doesn’t work.
• Use your flash for “fill lighting”. Read your camera manual.
• Put an external flash on your wish list if your camera will support one.

That said, some of the latest generation of cameras are really smart. The camera designers in Japan have read this article! It never hurts to experiment!

Using extra light from a flash to add to the existing light is a great idea, especially when you have a model like Lori who always looks great! Here I used a strong direct flash, off-camera to the right, to make her stand out from the background.

 

Quiz: I posted a "quick quiz" in the newspaper article: what do you think happens when you move a light source CLOSER to the subject? Does the light get "harder" or "softer"? The surprising answer (to most, even some professional photographers!) is "softer". Don't confuse "brighter" with "harder" — the source of light becomes much larger relative to the subject, so the shadows are softer! I cover that in my courses!

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