The flash, found on the front of a compact camera or as a pop-up unit on top of SLRs is used to supply illumination when the ambient lighting conditions drop below a certain level. This level is determined by the camera's exposure meter and most cameras will automatically activate the flash when they think it is necessary.
You can, however, be more creative and select from a range of flash modes to override the automated settings. These override modes include flash on, flash off, red-eye reduction and slow sync or night scene modes. Here are short descriptions on what each mode does and a few tips on how you can take better photos with your camera's built-in flash.
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Auto lets the camera decide when it thinks is the right time to fire the flash and is the option we discussed above.
On is indicated as just the flash symbol. You would use this mode when you want to make the flash fire on every occasion. When you take pictures of subjects with bright light behind them, such as a backlit portrait or a duck swimming in water reflecting the sun, the camera will be fooled by the bright surroundings so the subject appears dark. By firing the flash you will fill-in the shadow areas making the picture much more pleasing.
It can also be used to add a sparkle to eyes, known as a catch lights, and to reduce shadows under the nose and eye sockets when pictures are taken in midday when the sun is bright and high in the sky. Nature photographers even use it to fire some light into the nooks and crannies of flower petals to lift shadows or to add fluorescence to moss or lichen in woodland shots.
If you want to shoot sunset and other low light images, including shots of buildings illuminated at night you'll need to make sure the flash won't fire. Normally, the camera detects that the light level is too low and switches to auto flash. This would be fine if your subject was two or three meters away, but it won't be able to illuminate distant buildings or the glow of a sunset. The same goes with concert photography. When the flash fires it will only light up what's directly in front of you which means you'll end up with images that show the back of the heads of the people in front of you but the stage will be in darkness. You should try switching the flash off, turning your ISO up and rely on the stage lighting. Providing you hold the camera rigid and the person on stage doesn't move until the shutter closes you could end up with a decent photograph.
When you switch the camera to off, indicated by a flash symbol inside a typical no go traffic symbol (circle with diagonal line through it), the shutter will stay open longer to ensure the sensor receives enough light to make a good exposure. Ideally you should use a tripod support to prevent camera shake, but a wall, table or tree can also be used to provide a rigid support. If you can't use a tripod try using a higher ISO, keep your arms tucked in close to your body and try not to move.
Dark subjects may fool the camera into firing flash however, turning the flash off will improve the result dramatically.
The next symbol on the menu is an eye. This is a mode that helps reduce red eye, which, in non-technical terms, is a caused by the flash illuminating blood vessels in the eye and bouncing directly back. A similar thing happens to dogs and cats, but they end up with large green pupils. If the flash is moved further away from the camera this effect reduces.
Unfortunately, you can't move the flash when it's built into the camera, so solutions are to hand. Although the effect cant be eliminated when direct flash pictures are taken you can reduce it by reducing the size of the dilated pupils so the red becomes less obvious. This is done by making the pupils accustomed to bright light so they contract.
Use It As A Fill-In Light
If you have a strong back light, a little burst of flash can stop your subject appearing as a silhouette. You can also use to fill in shadow areas on faces, particularly when they're shaded by hats etc.
Slow Sync Flash
Slow sync fires flash with a slow shutter speed. It's the mode to use when you want to create those action images of bikes or cars moving with blurred backgrounds. The flash fires to freeze the subject in its tracks but the daylight exposure continues to record the subject as it passes through the frame creating a superb streaking effect. Rear curtain sync records the ambient blur exposure first and the flash fires just before the exposure is finished.
Get In Close
The distance built-in flash can cover isn't huge so make sure you're working close to your subject. However, your camera will have a minimum distance you can work at so try to not get too close as your subject can end up with a bleached out appearance if you do.
Soften The Light
The light that's created by the built-in flash can be a little harsh so try diffusing it with tissue paper or position a piece of white card to the side or above the flash. You may have to play around with exposure compensation but the final shot should be more evenly lit.
Look Around Your Frame
If you have foreground and background detail two things can happen: one, the camera will take an exposure reading from what's in the foreground and as a result the background is dark or two, what's in the foreground ends up looking overexposed. To stop this, put more distance between what's in the foreground and the camera so you can fool it into thinking the foreground and background objects are positioned on a similar level.
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You can also move the subjects you're photographing. For example, if you have a group of people sat around a table, ask the people nearer the camera to stand in line with those towards the back of the table so they're further away from the flash and all in line.