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Flash Photography For Beginners

It seems that most people have this mistaken notion that if you are taking photographs indoors or in low light, the simple solution is to use flash.

The truth, as any beginner in photography finds out sooner instead of later, is that flash photography is anything but simple. It can be very confounding and confusing. It is unpredictable. You take one shot beautifully with flash but the next one shows over-illuminated subjects, too dim background, or unflattering light on the subject. Flash can also increase the likelihood that you would encounter the red eye problem.


1960 Spartus Co-Flash image by John Kratz

Let’s say that you have shot the subject perfectly with the flash turned on, but only his or her eyes look like that of a rabid wolf. What went wrong?

Using flash when taking pictures can often lead to harsh and unflattering shadows, which results from the high contrast you get from direct flash. Your subjects would have a flat color profile and they would tend to look like Edward and Bella, only more unnatural.

So should you stop using flash altogether? The answer is: it is included in your camera for a reason. Even the most expensive digital SLR cameras have built-in flash. Why? It is because if you use flash correctly, it can greatly improve the pictures you take and can correct low light conditions.

Taken further, you can even play and get creative with flash photography, and you can learn to take photographs that are worth a “wow!”. How do you work with flash to come up with more stunning photographs?

1. Know your sync speed, shutter speed and aperture

Sync speed is simply the length of time that your shutter would be open to capture any motion. It corresponds to the fastest shutter speed that would still enable your camera to use flash. Depending on your camera, the sync speed could be 1/60th or 1/250th of a second. It could be different for your camera, so check the manual.

Most people will tell you that in flash photography, shutter speeds do not matter. This is wrong. In fact, you could play with the shutter speed in order to get more natural looking photos. The general rule is to shoot using a shutter speed that is slower than your sync speed. This way, you can balance the light coming from the flash and the ambient light available to you.

Aperture basically controls the amount of light that reaches your digital sensor. You should use a larger f number to close the aperture to get less flash exposure, and open the aperture for more flash exposure. In short, aperture controls the degree that flash affects your photograph.

2. Use flash exposure compensation

Flash exposure compensation may not be available on all cameras, but if you have it, consider using it. Flash exposure compensation is used to correct when your flash is giving out too much light or not enough light. Increase flash exposure compensation if you want to decrease the range of the flash and vice versa.

3. Fill flash

Fill flash is simply using flash to light up dark areas in the photo. This is especially helpful if you are taking a photograph in the sun. For example, if you have a subject under the sun, some parts of his face might have shadows. Fill flash allows you to light up these shadows.

Using fill flash is simply a matter of turning the flash on. But getting an even exposure might be a problem, especially if you shoot indoors.

The trick to using fill flash right is to use it at the right distance. This could be anywhere from 2 feet away from the subject or 12 feet away. If you have a DSLR, you can set it to Program (P) or Aperture priority (A) mode in order to get the right exposure.

4. Soften the harshness

If you find the light coming from your flash unit too harsh, you can soften it. If you have an external flash, you can make a bounce card. This involves taping a white cardboard or an index card below your flash so that the light bounces off from it and gives your photograph a more even and natural look.

You can also use tissue, which you put over your flash. The light might be direct, but the effect is not so harsh.

These are also good ways to avoid red eye if you do not have a red eye reduction feature on your camera and are short of asking people to look away.

5. Rethink flash

Photography is all about light. So if you think that you could get good photographs in total darkness using flash, you will be greatly disappointed. Instead, think of flash as a way to add more light, not as the only light source you should use. So you should allow more available light in to make sure that your flash unit is not the only source of light you work with.

That said, if you need to use flash at night or indoors, then you might want to close your aperture. This will give you more depth of field. Of course, this would mean that you would let less light in, so make sure that you increase the power of your flash by increasing your flash exposure compensation.

6. No walls please

If you find yourself needing to use direct flash, then make sure that there are no objects behind your subjects to avoid the shadow that your flash would create. Simply put, if you are shooting indoors, tell your subject to move away from the walls!

7. Use flash gels

Flash gels allow you to change the color of your flash’s light. The rule of thumb is to match your flash’s color with the ambient light. This will help make your photographs more natural looking. If you do not like the color of the ambient light, you can always edit it using Photoshop. But even this becomes a problem when your flash light does not match the ambient light.

8. Practice

As with any photography technique, working with flash requires patience. You would need to experiment a lot and practice your shots to master flash photography. Do not be discouraged if you follow these tips and still get crappy flash photos. Just continue to tinker with your camera and shoot lots of pictures!

With these tips, you will see that flash can be a valuable tool for taking amazing pictures.And always remember that experimenting would give your great returns in the future.