Flash Basics

Light is basic to photography, obviously. When the light isn’t at its best, it’s a serious challenge. Poor light consistently makes potentially good photos go bad. One strategy for success is to use flash. Yet, using flash can be challenging, as well. It can be bold and beautiful, but also harsh and unappealing.

There are some things you can do to make your flash work more in your favor, so you get pictures more often on the bold and beautiful side than the other. This article will explore some tips that can point you in the right direction to do exactly that.

Turn On Your Built-In Flash During the Day

When the sun is out, and the shadows are harsh, turn on that flash! When the light is dull from heavy clouds (and even rain), turn on that flash!

Metz 58 af-1

While your camera’s flash isn’t very strong, it does work well as long as you’re not too far from your subject. Most cameras have a setting that will allow your camera to balance the flash with the existing light. On many cameras, this is in aperture priority (check your manual). You can tell when the camera is doing this if you notice the shutter speed changing as the light changes, even with the flash on—otherwise, your camera automatically will set a fast flash-sync speed only.

With harsh sunlight, this daylight fill-flash brightens shadows and makes dark shadows, such as those under hat brims, come to life. If the flash is too strong, try using the flash exposure compensation to reduce the flash output.

When the light is dull, use the flash to brighten colors and make your subject stand out from the background. The effect will vary depending on how strong the flash is compared to the light of the day. A quick way to get some drama is to go to manual exposure, set the camera to slightly underexpose based on your meter reading, then use the flash normally. This will give properly exposed flash light on your subject while the surroundings are darker.

Use the Ceiling for More Natural Flash

One of the challenges that flash has is that it can look harsh indoors. This is because the light is small in size (which makes for contrasty shadows) and is close to the camera lens when the flash is on the camera (which can make the light less than flattering).


With an accessory flash that allows the flash head to tilt to the ceiling, you can bounce light indirectly to your subject. That way the light that hits your subject comes from a big light “source”—the light bounced from the ceiling. This immediately softens the look of the flash. In addition, the light will come from a more natural direction above your subject.

You do need a white ceiling for this to work, and lower ceilings work better than high ceilings. If you’re very close to your subject, you may run into a problem of the light from above causing unwanted shadows under the subject (dark eye sockets can be a problem). One thing that helps is to place a white card at the back side of your upward-pointing flash (use a rubber band to secure the card) so that a little light is kicked forward toward your subject, even though most of the light heads to the ceiling.

Sunpak rd2000

Get Your Flash Off The Camera

An on-camera flash may be convenient, but for more control, get your flash off the camera. You’ll immediately see a change in the light—it will become more multidimensional and far more attractive.

You can buy a dedicated flash cable to tether your flash to the camera for complete automatic control (and control that works in all conditions). A lot of newer cameras now offer wireless flash capabilities. This allows you to have an off-camera flash without constricting cables.

An easy way to handle this flash is to hold your flash in your left hand with your “pointing finger” on top of the flash. Now just point that finger at your subject and you’re also pointing your flash. Experiment with flash coming from all sorts of angles just to see what the possibilities are.

Bounce the Light from a Reflector or Through a Diffuser

Two things consistently help you get better flash results: changing the angle of the light to your subject and increasing the size of the light.

You don’t increase the size of the light by buying a “bigger” flash. That gives you more power, but the size of the light is basically the same. You increase the size of the light by bouncing it onto a large surface (such as the ceiling mentioned earlier) or shooting through a large diffuser (a small diffuser has little effect). You need to have the light that’s hitting your subject come from a large surface area.

Photoflex Reflector Translucent

An easy way to get started is to get a piece of foam board about 2×3 feet in size. This is a readily found size, and it’s small enough to easily use. Have someone hold it, or clamp or tape it to something on one side of your subject. Then use your off-camera flash and point it at the foam board from a distance of a couple of feet. You need to have it far enough from the reflector that it spreads out the light, but not so far that it spills over the edges. Move the reflecting board up and down, as well as side to side for different effects.

If you get serious about this, you can then buy a folding reflector or diffuser. Use the reflector in the same way described for the foam board. The diffuser requires a little different technique. You must position it in between your flash and subject. Keep the flash far enough back to fill up the diffuser with light without spilling over. If you’re too close to the diffuser, the light won’t spread out much, so the effect will be greatly reduced.

Use Flash for Sharper Close-Ups

Close-up and macro photography always challenge our abilities to get a sharp photo. First, up-close depth of field is very narrow, often severely limiting sharpness. Second, at close distances, the effect of camera movement or shake during exposure is exaggerated, so sharp photos become more difficult. Third, if you use a small aperture or ƒ-stop for more depth of field, you’ll be saddled with a slower shutter speed, making camera movement worse. Finally, gear such as macro lenses and extension tubes will reduce light, so even slower shutter speeds are required.

Flash can help. Flash gives such a brief burst of light that it’s usually like using shutter speeds of 1?10,000 sec. and even faster. This effectively limits the effects of camera movement. In addition, when flash is used up close, there’s a lot of light to work with, allowing you to use small ƒ-stops such as ƒ/16 or ƒ/22, resulting in more depth of field.

A key to getting better flash photos up close is to get the flash off the camera as described above. When your subject is close to your camera, even a slight change in flash position can give you noticeably different results. You can even try putting the flash somewhat behind the subject for dramatic effects. You can ai
m the flash right at the subject; you can aim it so the flash hits both the subject and the background; or you can aim the flash so it just hits the subject and not the background.

The key to learning all of these techniques is to try them. Test them out with a willing subject, even if that’s just a statue that can’t complain. Check your results in your LCD and experiment. Don’t worry if every shot isn’t a winner. As you explore using flash, however, you’ll find flash becomes a potent tool for making more winners!

Leave a Comment