Flash ? The Horror Story of Photography?


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Flash The Horror Story of Photography?

10 Aug 2021 8:59PM   Views : 698 Unique : 428

Using flash to take pictures fills some photographers with dread. What is it that they really fear?

I'm going to start with an analogy. Our ancestors were afraid of fire, and understandably so. Then they learnt to control it and use it to their advantage, for warding off predators, to heating, cooking and to drive the industrial revolution. The same can be said for flash. Flash has ben a part of photography since the early days. Once, little more than a mixture of explosives, it's now a finely controllable and sophisticated form of lighting.


Red eye and no modelling to the face

Flashbulbs and then electronic flash may have seemed like a godsend for many, enabling images to be taken in dark conditions. From family parties to press photography flash was (and still is to a large extent) king. Indeed many historical images wouldn't exist without it so flash has helped record those moments for posterity.

However, even the very thought of using flash makes some photographers want to crawl under a stone. Not because they may have some vampire ancestry but because the results from direct on-camera flash produce awful looking results. If you were to design the worst lighting system for photography you'd put the light right next to the camera lens facing straight at the subject. So where do camera designers put the light? You've guessed it. And I'll include mobile phones in that category. In practice though, if you want a built in source of light there aren't many options.


Off camera flash gives more modelling and mood this could be any light source but is in fact flash here

Direct flash causes red eye (the most common 'fault' that people notice), very contrasty images with harsh unflattering shadows, burnt out highlights especially with anything shiny, and a two dimensional appearance. As a photographer, those are all qualities that you don't want to see. Look at the portraits from the Grand Masters of painting and see how they use the light sympathetically and creatively. OK, they never knew about direct flash (that's not the point) but they did know a heck of a lot about light.


Off camera flash for close-up subjects

Over the years, there have been innovations. Bounce flash became popular for camera-mounted guns. Various light modifying attachments were devised. They all had different effects, some more successful than others, which I won't go into here. The one thing they all attempted to do was make the light softer, and by increasing the surface area of the light. That's another issue with small camera or phone based light sources they are small. Small light sources are harsh. Think of the sun on a cloudless day (a small point source) compared to an overcast day (the most massive light source you can get). Size matters.


Macro photography of insects often benefits from using carefully controlled flash

Once you get the idea that you need to control the position and size of the light you can make efforts to improve your images. Here's the thing flash is just a source of light like any other. As an example, a small LED panel or work light can be just as harsh and need as much careful control as flash. Done well, you can illuminate a portrait or location with flash and emulate any sort of light. That warm low angled glow from a camp fire? Could be flash. Light spilling onto a background from a window or car headlights? How would you know? Maybe all three.

So who's afraid of the big bad flash? Learn to control it and it's your friend.

Next time I'll look at a creative option for the humble camera flashgun.

All text and images Keith Rowley 2021

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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
10 Aug 2021 9:34PM
So many options, from weird and wonderful specially-designed add-ons to a humble sheet of white card... I await part 2 with interest.
mistere Avatar
mistere Plus
10 38 8 England
11 Aug 2021 2:16PM
Absolutely right Keith. Learning to control it, that's the trick. It's not as easy as we'd all like it to be.
pink Avatar
pink Plus
20 7.4k 11 England
11 Aug 2021 2:27PM
Totally agree and to prove my mistrust of the humble flashgun I have 2 in the cupboard that have not been used in years.
Being predominantly a landscape photographer I have less use for flash than in many other disciplines, however I do carry a small LED lightpanel with me in case I need to illuminate shadowy foregrounds, I like the 'always on' of a LED panel, its more predictable and you can see what you are going to get before firing the shutter, I always use them off camera on a small tripod so it can be directed anywhere I choose.
The panel I have can have the kelvin adjusted from very warm to freezing cold, it also has lots of daft functions (mainly for videographers) like police flashing lights, campfire, lightening to name but a few.
I also use a macro flash set up for macro work (mainly fungi) you can also use modelling lights on this, a great advantage in understanding the effect of moving the light source.
Maybe its time to sell the flashguns
Looking forward to part 2 Keith, keep up the good work
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
11 Aug 2021 3:10PM
I like the mundane 'LED panel' - the functions suggest a particular proprietary gadget of a circular nature...
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
11 Aug 2021 6:19PM
Flash in landscapes is rather niche, I think, but for foreground ojects it can be useful.

And I think you've highlighted a big issue with flashguns Ian tha you can't see the effect like a continuous source.
Robert51 Avatar
Robert51 14 12 147 United Kingdom
13 Aug 2021 8:15AM
It's all about controlling the light and making that as easy as we can. One rule I used to use was set up for the scene/background and then use the flash for the subject. This way you only have to think of the light on the subject.
I have to admit I now control most of this in PS.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
13 Aug 2021 11:12AM
It's always harder work in PS than putting the right light in the right place to begin with, though...
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
13 Aug 2021 11:56AM

Quote:It's always harder work in PS than putting the right light in the right place to begin with, though...

I agree. And while flash intensity is important for exposure and balancing the amount of light, the control I'm talking about is positioning and quality in terms of size and softness or hardness.

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