Basic Blunders: Flash - Digital Photography School

Basic Blunders: Flash

We’ve all been guilty of the most basic blunders in capturing images with a digital camera. I’m not sure why … perhaps as the technology gets smarter, we get dumber, relying too much on the camera and forgetting the basics.

Let’s get back to the basics. The basic blunders.

For many people, flash is a real challenge. Too many photographers come away from a shooting session with catastrophic images when they should be able to walk away with a big smile and an even bigger bag of great flash shots.

Night

One of the problems with an on-board flash is that it sometimes does too much of the thinking for us.

Stadium.jpeg

Take exterior shots at night as an example: if you’re at a stadium and want to catch correctly exposed shots of the arena … turn off the flash! Hold the camera steady and you’ll get a decent shot. Help the camera even further by raising the ISO setting to 400 or even 800.

What’s happening here? If you aim your camera at an arena, flash on, the camera’s exposure system thinks it has to reduce the lens aperture and/or shutter speed to avoid overexposure. With flash turned on, sure the flash will fire at the moment of exposure, but its meagre output of light will be insufficient to illuminate the stadium.

So — turn it off!


CU flash

IMHO digital cameras should have a big red warning light that flashes when anyone attempts to shoot big close ups with the flash turned on. It just doesn’t work! There are enough challenges in shooting close up or macro subjects without throwing another rogue element into the mix.

For one thing, the flash will overexpose the close subject. For another, the flash is far too close to the lens so, even if it did not overexpose the shot, it would ‘blast’ any detail in the subject.

So, unless your camera has a method of reducing the flash’s output for working in close … turn it off.

Having lost your light source, set about creating another light source: use an aluminium foil or white card reflector. This way you can not only control the amount of light on your subject but its angel as well.

Then set your lens — if you can — at its smallest aperture to maximise depth of field.

Make sure your camera is steady.

And shoot — sans flash!

Mickey Mouse money box w flash.jpg

In these two examples you can see how the flash shot of the money box has almost washed out the detail while the ‘no flash’ shot shows attractive modelling and shape.

Outdoors Flash

On camera flash can be a major help when shooting people shots outdoors, especially so if you can vary its light output.

Set your flash to ‘forced on’. Then shoot. Experiment. Make a number of shots, varying subject distance, zoom setting and lens aperture.

The ideal approach is to stand back a bit, move the zoom lens into the telephoto range to produce a flattering ‘people shot’. By doing this you also reduce the flash’s output, as the lens aperture reduces.

The object is to create a situation where the flash ‘fills’ the portrait; doesn’t overexpose it — nor does it underexpose it.

Another trick, if you still find the flash causes overexposure is to place a slice or two of tissue over the flash. This will not only reduce the output but it will soften its light.

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Barrie Smith is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

  • Peter

    very good tips…thank you once more for a thoughtful article…good reminders…

  • http://www.urbandecay.dk Jesper Revald

    Good tip about the tissue, but unless you use it to enlarge the surface of the area that puts out any illumination, you will not get any softening effect. You will of course reduce the flash’ output which was also mentioned. Soft light vs. hard light is about relative size of the light source compared to the subject, if the tissues doesn’t enlarge the surface area of the flash, then the light will still be as hard as before seen from the subject, even though the beam is more scattered. (unless of course you also bounce it somewhere, then the scattering will help create a larger light source – much like those semi expensive tubber ware pieces you can put over your flash head :)

  • Tomblerone

    What really helps with close- ups, is the wide-angle converter some flashes have. If you use it, the flash is greatly diverted, and the pics a lot less overexposed. Just like : http://www.flickr.com/photos/adhe55/3610048441/

  • Tomblerone

    It also helps with aiming the flash, if you set your flash to automatic with a 100mm macro lens, it will miss your subject:). Since at 100mm , it has a very small flash area, which is way over the subject.

  • http://www.ericsbinaryworld.com Eric Mesa

    The first tip is very important. I can’t believe how many people “think” their flash will reach across the concert arena to reach their favorite star.

  • http://gelbachdesigns.com/ WIlliam Rackley

    One should note, that if you have a flash that doesn’t have to be on the camera, for gods sake, take it off. A hotshoe extension cord is a must for camera/flashes that dont have a remote option. If you do have the option, using a camera’s commander mode (nikon CLS, for his example) and an off camera flash with a couple reflectors can get studio quality lighting with one flash. I had bought one sb-800, and 3 sb-600s before I realized this.

    Great tips :) Can’t tell you how many times I frowned at the camera in years past trying to ‘will’ the flash to do what I wanted it to do outdoors. I forcefully reminded the camera that it had a flash that is supposed to light things up. The film shook its head and looked down.

  • http://www.tyleringram.com Tyler

    I always find it funny how people will use their flash at concerts, way up in the noise bleeds and complain that the photo didnt turn out and they dont know why.

    I also find it funny how people try to take nightscape type shots, with their flash and also don’t know why the background didnt show up.

    I try not to use the flash as much as possible. Then again I haven’t played with my flash enough to understand all of the different options it has (Sigma DG 530 Super) I’d love to get PocketWizards though and play around with remote flashes. :) Damn expensive hobby!

  • MikMik

    I think auto flash mode should be banned. Thus, people would be forced to learn when to use it.

  • http://maduraiveeran.wordpress.com Dinesh

    And oh! When you are at the Zoo with Animals behind the Glass partition (especially the aquarium) turn the flash off for God’s sake! I encountered a whole bunch of people do this during my last trip to the Zoo!

  • http://www.ninelivephotography.ca Alan Nielsen

    I must laugh when you see people using their flash at sporting events. Another good one is when they use flash at a restaurant. So the subject is incredibly white and the background is black, thus not telling the story of where the picture was taken.

  • http://www.timcollierphotography.com Tim Collier

    With digital there’s not much excuse for not getting to grips with flash. It’s simply a case of trial and error and knowing what you did when you get it right. In the days of film it meant lots of money and a good deal of organised cross referencing. You need to be prepared to spend time with your equipment as it’s only ever as good as whose bother to spend proper learning time with with it.

  • http://blogspot.travelog65.com Karunagaran

    Your article was spot on. In the beginning i didn’t get a good clean shot using flash. Nowadays i choose when to use a flash & when not to. Very often Flash can “spoil” the shoot, the trick is to balance within +/- exposure, with digital experimenting is the best way to learn.

  • http://www.littmannweddings.blogspot.com marc littmann

    For those of you looking to expand their knowledge of off-camera flash, check out “Strobist” blog at http://www.strobist.blogspot.com. David Hobby does a wonderful job explaining light via many well-written and humorous on-assignment posts. Worth a lot and has helped me greatly in my wedding photography business.

    marc
    marc littmann photography
    http://www.littmannphoto.com

  • tom

    Oh yes don’t forget to set your white balance to the correct lighting condtions. READ YOUR MANUAL

  • http://fastpitchpics.com Tom

    Try using the night portrait mode in the camera. I used it to take some picuters in a large church. I focused in on a statue and allowed the shutter to remain open a bit before the flash. I got a great picture of the statue and the rest of the church in the background.

  • MaryAnn Luedtke

    Great article. . . you might add one thing though – it’s not always easy to hold the camera steady – using a monopod (there are plenty of nice collapsible ones) when you turn off that flash helps you get those crisp sharp shots.

  • http://flickr.com/fredshome Fred

    I think auto flash mode should be banned.

    Seconded. Even when it doesn’t fire at the wrong time, the results are almost always suboptimal.

    Living in Paris, I regularly see tourists taking shots from atop the Eiffel tower with their flash.
    A facepalm moment if there ever was one.

    (why yes, my flash can light up an entire city ! Can’t yours ?)

  • rich

    A couple of tips I read in a flash tutorial that help are:
    1: wrap a white kleenex over your flash. you still get light, but less of it, and it reduces the amount that hits your subject.
    2: Make a litte diverter out of cardboard or paper to redirect your flash to a wall or ceiling. Again, your getting some of the light without blasting your subject. You can buy these, but they are fairly easy to make.

  • whos_beccles

    “When you are at the Zoo with Animals behind the Glass partition (especially the aquarium) turn the flash off”

    Dinesh – I agree mostly about turning your flash off at the zoo, but when you’re at the aquarium you can actually use your flash providing you have it pointed at an angle to the glass. I was able to get some excellent shots using this technique without any flare/reflection on the glass.

  • Donald

    If everybody knew how to use their flash correctly I would miss the twinkly effect of all the flashes going off in a stadium.

    A trick I have used to diffuse my popup flash is to take a small paper cup and stick the open end between the bottom of the flash and the camera. It works best with cups that have a white bottom. Never tried a styrofoam cup. It might be to thick but the paper ones work well.

  • Marc

    I was at a wedding when I realized I had forgotten my flash batteries (very dumb… I know).
    So I did a little quick thinking.
    A little tape and an emptied and cleaned plastic creamer on the pop-up flash…
    Wham !!!
    Mini-diffuser.
    Very acceptable shots whitout red eyes or over-exposure.

Some older comments

  • Marc

    August 27, 2009 10:28 am

    I was at a wedding when I realized I had forgotten my flash batteries (very dumb... I know).
    So I did a little quick thinking.
    A little tape and an emptied and cleaned plastic creamer on the pop-up flash...
    Wham !!!
    Mini-diffuser.
    Very acceptable shots whitout red eyes or over-exposure.

  • Donald

    June 28, 2009 10:56 am

    If everybody knew how to use their flash correctly I would miss the twinkly effect of all the flashes going off in a stadium.

    A trick I have used to diffuse my popup flash is to take a small paper cup and stick the open end between the bottom of the flash and the camera. It works best with cups that have a white bottom. Never tried a styrofoam cup. It might be to thick but the paper ones work well.

  • whos_beccles

    June 22, 2009 10:25 pm

    "When you are at the Zoo with Animals behind the Glass partition (especially the aquarium) turn the flash off"

    Dinesh - I agree mostly about turning your flash off at the zoo, but when you're at the aquarium you can actually use your flash providing you have it pointed at an angle to the glass. I was able to get some excellent shots using this technique without any flare/reflection on the glass.

  • rich

    June 22, 2009 01:34 am

    A couple of tips I read in a flash tutorial that help are:
    1: wrap a white kleenex over your flash. you still get light, but less of it, and it reduces the amount that hits your subject.
    2: Make a litte diverter out of cardboard or paper to redirect your flash to a wall or ceiling. Again, your getting some of the light without blasting your subject. You can buy these, but they are fairly easy to make.

  • Fred

    June 19, 2009 05:01 am

    I think auto flash mode should be banned.

    Seconded. Even when it doesn't fire at the wrong time, the results are almost always suboptimal.

    Living in Paris, I regularly see tourists taking shots from atop the Eiffel tower with their flash.
    A facepalm moment if there ever was one.

    (why yes, my flash can light up an entire city ! Can't yours ?)

  • MaryAnn Luedtke

    June 19, 2009 03:58 am

    Great article. . . you might add one thing though - it's not always easy to hold the camera steady - using a monopod (there are plenty of nice collapsible ones) when you turn off that flash helps you get those crisp sharp shots.

  • Tom

    June 19, 2009 02:37 am

    Try using the night portrait mode in the camera. I used it to take some picuters in a large church. I focused in on a statue and allowed the shutter to remain open a bit before the flash. I got a great picture of the statue and the rest of the church in the background.

  • tom

    June 19, 2009 01:44 am

    Oh yes don't forget to set your white balance to the correct lighting condtions. READ YOUR MANUAL

  • marc littmann

    June 19, 2009 01:24 am

    For those of you looking to expand their knowledge of off-camera flash, check out "Strobist" blog at www.strobist.blogspot.com. David Hobby does a wonderful job explaining light via many well-written and humorous on-assignment posts. Worth a lot and has helped me greatly in my wedding photography business.

    marc
    marc littmann photography
    www.littmannphoto.com

  • Karunagaran

    June 16, 2009 03:15 am

    Your article was spot on. In the beginning i didn't get a good clean shot using flash. Nowadays i choose when to use a flash & when not to. Very often Flash can "spoil" the shoot, the trick is to balance within +/- exposure, with digital experimenting is the best way to learn.

  • Tim Collier

    June 13, 2009 03:57 am

    With digital there's not much excuse for not getting to grips with flash. It's simply a case of trial and error and knowing what you did when you get it right. In the days of film it meant lots of money and a good deal of organised cross referencing. You need to be prepared to spend time with your equipment as it's only ever as good as whose bother to spend proper learning time with with it.

  • Alan Nielsen

    June 13, 2009 03:21 am

    I must laugh when you see people using their flash at sporting events. Another good one is when they use flash at a restaurant. So the subject is incredibly white and the background is black, thus not telling the story of where the picture was taken.

  • Dinesh

    June 13, 2009 01:03 am

    And oh! When you are at the Zoo with Animals behind the Glass partition (especially the aquarium) turn the flash off for God's sake! I encountered a whole bunch of people do this during my last trip to the Zoo!

  • MikMik

    June 12, 2009 11:34 pm

    I think auto flash mode should be banned. Thus, people would be forced to learn when to use it.

  • Tyler

    June 12, 2009 11:13 pm

    I always find it funny how people will use their flash at concerts, way up in the noise bleeds and complain that the photo didnt turn out and they dont know why.

    I also find it funny how people try to take nightscape type shots, with their flash and also don't know why the background didnt show up.

    I try not to use the flash as much as possible. Then again I haven't played with my flash enough to understand all of the different options it has (Sigma DG 530 Super) I'd love to get PocketWizards though and play around with remote flashes. :) Damn expensive hobby!

  • WIlliam Rackley

    June 12, 2009 10:40 pm

    One should note, that if you have a flash that doesn't have to be on the camera, for gods sake, take it off. A hotshoe extension cord is a must for camera/flashes that dont have a remote option. If you do have the option, using a camera's commander mode (nikon CLS, for his example) and an off camera flash with a couple reflectors can get studio quality lighting with one flash. I had bought one sb-800, and 3 sb-600s before I realized this.

    Great tips :) Can't tell you how many times I frowned at the camera in years past trying to 'will' the flash to do what I wanted it to do outdoors. I forcefully reminded the camera that it had a flash that is supposed to light things up. The film shook its head and looked down.

  • Eric Mesa

    June 12, 2009 10:10 pm

    The first tip is very important. I can't believe how many people "think" their flash will reach across the concert arena to reach their favorite star.

  • Tomblerone

    June 12, 2009 07:59 pm

    It also helps with aiming the flash, if you set your flash to automatic with a 100mm macro lens, it will miss your subject:). Since at 100mm , it has a very small flash area, which is way over the subject.

  • Tomblerone

    June 12, 2009 07:52 pm

    What really helps with close- ups, is the wide-angle converter some flashes have. If you use it, the flash is greatly diverted, and the pics a lot less overexposed. Just like : http://www.flickr.com/photos/adhe55/3610048441/

  • Jesper Revald

    June 12, 2009 03:55 pm

    Good tip about the tissue, but unless you use it to enlarge the surface of the area that puts out any illumination, you will not get any softening effect. You will of course reduce the flash' output which was also mentioned. Soft light vs. hard light is about relative size of the light source compared to the subject, if the tissues doesn't enlarge the surface area of the flash, then the light will still be as hard as before seen from the subject, even though the beam is more scattered. (unless of course you also bounce it somewhere, then the scattering will help create a larger light source - much like those semi expensive tubber ware pieces you can put over your flash head :)

  • Peter

    June 12, 2009 09:55 am

    very good tips...thank you once more for a thoughtful article...good reminders...

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