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Flash made easy

Flash made easy - Make the most of your camera's built-in flash to get the best results from your photos.

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Studio Lighting and Flash

Make the most of your camera's built-in flash
Words and Pictures Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine

Most new cameras are provided with a built-in flash. In a compact or digital camera its usually to one side of the viewfinder that you look through and on an SLR its housed in the pentaprism and needs to be lifted when used.

A flash is useful for taking photographs indoors or in low light. Most cameras have automatic systems that detect when flash is necessary and then, depending on the level of sophistication, they either automatically activate the flash or indicate that you should switch it on. The point when flash is needed is usually when the shutter speed falls below 1/30sec and if you tried to take a handheld picture you may introduce camera shake and get a blurred photo.

Flash can also be used in bright conditions as a fill-in to reduce harsh shadows or to add catchlights to eyes on a dull overcast day. Some of the more sophisticated cameras detect when a subject is surrounded by light - a person backlit, for example, and fire flash when you thought it wasnt necessary.

While automated systems are useful there are times when it may be better to override. Fortunately most cameras have a number of flash modes to choose from. These include flash on, flash off, red-eye reduction and slow sync or night scene modes. Heres a brief explanation.

Modes explained

Flash modes explainedAuto:
The camera fires the flash automatically when necessary. Keep the camera on this setting most of the time as it makes your photography quick and simple.
Flash modes explainedOn:
Use this when you want to make the flash fire on every occasion.
Flash modes explainedOff:
This is essential if you want to take night scenes, interiors and sunsets using available light. When you switch the flash to off, the shutter stays open longer to ensure the film or CCD receives enough light to make a good exposure.
Flash modes explainedRedeye reduction:
Mode used to reduce red eye, which, in non-technical terms, is a caused by the flash illuminating blood vessels in the eye and bouncing directly back creating the vampire-like effect. A similar thing happens to dogs and cats, but they end up with large green pupils.
Flash modes explainedNight Scene:
Uses a slow shutter speed to record the ambient light and fires flash to expose the foreground subject. Its the same as slow sync flash, but fully automated so its easier to use, but you have less control.
Flash modes explainedSlow sync:
Mode for creative photographers that fires flash with a manually selected slow shutter speed. This is used to balance ambient light with flash and is often used in sports and action photography.

So now you know about the modes lets look at what you can do with your flash

Indoor flash techniques
If you want to take photos at a concert or stage event, consider your options carefully. The light is going to be dark apart from the spot lit subjects. This will mean the flash activates. If you are too far away from the stage your flash wont reach and your photos will be dark. So you have two options: Move close to the stage so that you are within the flash range or switch it off and rely on the stage lighting. If you decide on the latter you may get a decent photo, providing you hold the camera rigid and the person youre photographing doesnt move until the shutter closes. Some digital cameras allow you to increase the ISO setting to help in low light. If you use a film camera buy a fast film, such as ISO1600. Pictures will be grainy, but youll get some results.

Flash modes explainedIf you take a picture with flash of a person standing close to a background its likely that a shadow will appear behind the person on the wall. This will make it look like the person has an enlarged head or a big hairdo. Its caused because the flash is to one side of the lens. If the flash is on the left a shadow will appear on the right. The way experienced photographers get round this is by using a detachable flash or one with a bounce head, unfortunately these options are usually not possible on point and shoot cameras.
To help ask the person you are photographing to move away from the background or try diffusing the flash by placing white tissue over the tube. Another thing that can help, although cumbersome, is to place a sheet of white card at the side where the shadow appears to help reflect some light from the flash back into the shadow area. Make sure you cant see this in the shot though. (Next month we will show you how to remove the shadows using an image-editing program).

Flash modes explainedIf you are shooting through glass, have a mirror in the background or are copying a reflective subject avoid shooting head on, as the reflective surface will bounce flash back and create a harsh highlight over the subject. If you take the photograph at an angle of around 30-45 degrees the flash should not be seen.

Similarly when photographing someone who's wearing glasses ask them to tilt down slightly to reduce the flash reflecting in the glass.

Flash modes explainedA stall holder at a fairground. The light was bright enough to make the camera leave flash alone, but in this case it would be better forced on to ensure the man is lifted from the shadows.


Flash modes explained

A typical holiday shot with your partner against a scenic view. Point and shoot and the camera will fail to realise that the subject, who's in shade, will come out dark. Switch the flash on and the light illuminates the foreground making an overall better balanced exposure.

Outdoor flash techniques
Flash modes explainedIf the subject youre photographing has a bright light behind it you may end up with the subject as a silhouette. This is because the camera will be fooled by the bright surroundings and reduce the amount of exposure, so the subject becomes too dark. By forcing the flash to fire you will fill-in the shadow areas making the picture more pleasing.

You can also use flash 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 mid day, especially when the sun is bright and high in the sky.

Flash modes explainedNature photographers use flash to fire light into the nooks and crannies of flower petals to lift shadows or to add fluorescence to moss or lichen in woodland shots.

When using flash outdoors you may have a flash exposure compensation control. If you have you can reduce the amount of flash to make the shot even better balanced. As a rough guide set the compensation to -one stop in very bright conditions and with the sun casting harsh shadows and -two stops when the conditions are overcast to add a subtle amount of flash.

Flash modes explainedIf youre out at night and see a lovely illuminated scene its often better to switch the flash off so you can record it in the natural light. If you do use flash your subject needs to be within the range of the flash which is usually two or three meters, otherwise youll end up with a dismally dark photo which would probably appear from the lab with a fault sticker on it.

When photographing sunrises and sunsets the flash may fire and underexpose the photograph, again switch it off to record the natural colour.

Creative flash techniques
Flash modes explainedTry using flash with a slow shutter speed to record action. 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. This is ideal to create those action images of bikes or cars moving with blurred backgrounds. The only disadvantage is that the flash illuminates the subject first and the camera continues to expose as the subject moves through the shot creating a blur appearance in front of the subject. Use the second or rear curtain sync option if available so that the ambient blur exposure is recorded first and the flash fires just before the exposure is finished. This results in a more natural blur, looking as though its following the subject.

Potential problems
Flash sync wrong

Flash modes explained Flash modes explainedTake care using older cameras that have a flash sync speed. If you set the shutter speed higher than the sync speed youll get a picture with a black band across it.
Alternatively, if you set a slow shutter speed by accident you create an unwanted slow sync shot which will have a sharp main subject with streaks.

Flash modes explained

Red eye
Direct flash thats close to the camera lens will cause red eye. If you can move the flash further away from the camera this effect reduces, but you cant move it when its built into the camera. The cameras red eye reduction mode can help by reducing the size of the dilated pupils so the red becomes less obvious. This is done be making the pupils accustomed to bright light so they contract. How much by depends on the method you use. Some cameras use a lamp that shines for about one second before the picture is taken. Others fire a short burst of low output flashes, which has a similar effect, but can be annoying for the person being photographed and the third option fires a full power pre-flash which can be harsh and cause the person to blink, or turn away thinking the photo has been taken. In each case the pupils contract and the red becomes minimal. An alternative is to ask the person to look at a bright room light or daylight through a window for a few seconds before you take the flash photo.

Too dark
Check the specifications of your cameras flash. Often they are only low power and offer a maximum shooting distance of two or three metres. Pictures at the extreme of this range or beyond will look dark, especially will taken outside where there are no walls around to bounce light back. Some flash manufacturers provide slave units that trigger automatically when the built-in flash fires. This allows you to buy a much more powerful unit and shoot at greater ranges. Alternatively if indoor and portrait photography is your thing consider buying a studio flash kit which will give you access to highly creative lighting.

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