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Flash Photography Tips For Beginners
These flash photography tips are intended to give people who are totally new to flash photography an introduction to the key principles, methods and terms of the subject. You might have been slightly intimidated by the idea of flash photography. It can seem a little daunting to begin with, but once you have a few key facts and principles under your belt, you'll suddenly realize that you've been missing out on an incredibly fun area of photography. So let's get started...
The basic principles of flash photography
Let's start with a few simple principles behind using flash. Once you grasp these everything will start to make a lot more sense.
- When you use flash for a photo you are basically creating 2 separate exposures: that of the ambient light and that of the flash. The ambient light is gathered for the duration of the time that the shutter is open. The flash contributes to exposure only for the tiny fraction of a second that it actually fires.
- The contribution of flash to the exposure of an image takes place well inside the time period that the shutter is open (it's really rapid!). So lengthening the exposure time does not in any way increase the amount of light that flash contributes to the exposure. Increasing aperture size or ISO speed (both of which enable the camera to gather all light faster) does increase the amount that flash impacts exposure.
- Slowing down the shutter speed when using flash does increase the amount of ambient light that can be gathered, for example background city lights in a night portrait.
- Your camera's exposure meter and the flash meter are entirely separate things. The exposure meter reads ambient light and helps you to choose appropriate settings. The exposure meter reads the light that is available, and since flash only fires once the shutter is pressed it can have no impact on the exposure meter's reading. The flash meter determines how powerful the flash output should be based on several factors.
- The smaller the surface area of a light source, the harsher it will be. There are several easy strategies for increasing the size of the light source provided by flash. Similarly, flash fired straight-on to the subject (the only option with in-built flash) is usually the least flattering angle.
- When using flash it's often worth thinking about how you can best disguise the fact that you are actually shooting with flash! The aim is to replicate a soft, natural light as far as possible with the equipment you have. Flash can be really subtle and effective, but it can also be obvious and harsh.
Some basic terms in flash photography
Hopefully the above basic flash photography tips have started to clear up a few points already. But now let's do some jargon-busting and find out what some common flash terminology means.
- The flash unit: External flash units that attach to DSLR cameras are self-contained battery powered units that pack a big punch. They can be used on or off the camera. Flash units are often termed speedlights.
- Hot shoe: The place on DSLR's, located above the viewfinder, where a flash unit can be attached.
- iTTL/eTTL: The former is a Nikon term and the latter is used by Canon, but both are the same thing - the automatic setting of a flash unit. With this setting the flash unit is able to judge the required flash output strength, by reading the light and the camera's settings. This is definitely the way to begin your journey with flash. It makes the whole thing much easier.
- Flash compensation: A control that enables you to use iTTL/eTTL mode, but also fine tune the level of flash output in terms of stops (more specifically, 1/3 stops). This works in a very similar way to exposure compensation, except it deals with flash strength.
- Sync speed: This is the maximum speed at which the shutter can be set for a flash exposure. It is usually something in the region of 1/250th.
- Flash diffuser: A flash diffuser is something that is placed over the unit to soften the light it produces. It achieves this by effectively increasing the surface area of the flash, so the light has a softer appearance.
Flash photography tips for compact camera users
We've been looking chiefly at the basic facts about flash units so far. But there's plenty of overlap with how built-in flash on compact camera systems work. Here are some tips for taking great flash shots with a compact:
- Have you ever tried photographing somebody in really strong daylight and found that their face ends up with lots of dark shadows, or worse that they are just one big silhouette!? This often happens when someone is backlit, or the light is at an angle but only illuminates part of the face.
A great solution is to use flash, which fills in the shadows whilst maintaining the correct exposure for the background. So you end up with the ambient light and a clear subject. Most compacts enable flash to be switched off, on or to automatically fire in dark conditions. You'll need to switch it on for this. This technique is called fill flash, for obvious reasons!
- This tip is for photographing people in very low ambient light. If you're comfortable with controlling shutter speed, try selecting shutter priority mode and slowing the speed down to about 1/50th. Turn on the flash and take the shot. The slower shutter speed will capture some ambient light, whilst your subject will be exposed by the flash.
Another way to do this is choose the 'night portrait' shooting mode, which automatically selects a slow shutter speed with the flash to produce the same effect.
Flash photography tips for DSLR users
Now time for some tips for those of you shooting with a DSLR. Remember, it's best to begin learning how to use a flash unit by selecting iTTL/eTTL mode.
A great example of fill flash in this fantastic shot by Carsten Linke.
- First up, a quick tip for using the inbuilt pop-up flash that comes with DSLR's. Whilst this is kind of an emergency option, when a flash unit is unavailable, you can do a couple of things to improve the results with it.
First, use a makeshift diffuser to soften the light it produces. Something as simple as a sheet of white paper or a (clean!) tissue does the trick. A pop-up flash is a really tiny light source, so the light is very hard indeed. Increasing its surface area by shooting through a white/cream translucent material is a great trick.
Secondly, simply dial in some flash compensation to fine tune the strength of the output. Combined with a makeshift diffuser this can drastically improve the appearance of straight on pop-up flash.
- When using a flash unit mounted to the hot shoe, you're at an advantage in several ways. Clearly, the light from an external unit is much more powerful and this increases the possible distances at which you can use flash effectively.
But the real pleasure of shooting with a flash unit is that you can bounce the light off surrounding surfaces, most commonly walls or ceiling. This enables you to select the direction of the light and also massively soften it, since the the wall/ceiling effectively becomes the light source!
Something to look out for when doing this is that the flash light will pick up the colour of any surface it is bounced off. So it's usually best to find a fairly neutral coloured wall that will look natural and disguise the fact that flash has been used.
- Get hold of a simple flash diffuser to attach to your flash unit. These are really cheap and are a great way of softening the flash right from its source. You can attach a diffuser to the flash unit right at the start of a shoot and leave it there without having to change anything.
- Experiment with fill flash and night portraits in exactly the same way as described above for compact cameras. Use the flash to fill in shadows on the face of a backlit subject and a sufficently slow shutter speed to capture some ambient light. With a flash unit the effect can be much more subtle because you don't have to fire the light straight ahead.
- Once you've got the hang of bouncing light and using a diffuser to create subtle, soft lighting, try removing the flash from the camera and getting a friend (or a stand) to hold it at a certain angle. This allows you to control the angle of light perfectly. It's worth firing the light through a diffuser in this situation because it will not be bounced off a wall.
Hopefully you're now less confused by the world of flash photography, and ready to start experimenting with it. You know some of the key principles behind flash exposures, some of the key terminology, how to use flash with compacts and how to use flash with DSLR's. Please feel free to leave any questions or feedback in the comments. Thanks.