While using flash photography seems like a very basic skill, a variety of people from all ability levels seem to have trouble with it. Photographs seem to come out overly bright, dark and shadowy, or an unattractive blend of the two, and there is no real way to learn how to adjust flash because it comes and goes literally in the blink of the eye. Learning to use flash effectively can help you get the natural well lit photographs that you seek.
Identify the Problem
As with most issues, the first step to solving a problem with flash is to figure out exactly what the problem is. Do your photos have deep and unattractive shadows? This is likely due to direct flash combined with not enough natural light. A stark, flat image can be caused by the same situation, just at a slightly different angle. Red eye can be caused by the subject looking directly into the camera, although this is a more easily corrected problem.
Flash is not a pain—or at least it isn’t supposed to be—but a tool for getting well lit photographs where other sources of light are lacking. Here are a few ways to make it work for you.
Remember the Rule
“The rule” when it comes to flash is easy: shutter speed adjusts daylight and aperture adjusts flash. Remembering this rule when you are setting up your photograph will allow you to get the right balance between ambient light and flash.
Use Flash as a Tool
Sometimes the quick, bright effect of flash can be desirable, such in sports. Flash light only occurs for a second, so it has a tendency to stop the action. This can make it easier to get unblurred shots of moving objects and people. Using flash to stop action can lead to even better photographs than a well lit, non-flash photograph of the same situation might yield.
Consider Ambient Light
Taking flash pictures tends to work better in situations when there is already a fair amount of light in the room. If there is no light, you should first look for a way to introduce light into the environment. This can be accomplished by adding an artificial light or even by opening a curtain. In some cases, this is impractical or impossible. If this is the case, consider indirect flash. In this technique, you simply aim your flash at a piece of white paper or other reflective surface so that it bounces onto your subject. This gives a more natural, glowing type of light rather than the harsh burst that direct flash can create.
Flash usually looks harshest in close-ups, where there is no space to filter and diffuse the light. This isn’t due to bad flash, but due to a poor use of distance. Flash works best from farther back, at least several meters. If you need to get closer and the ambient light isn’t enough, choose an area with better lighting or simply use your zoom. No one looks good with a flash bulb going off in their face—not only will this overexpose your subject and bring out every flaw, it will make them involuntarily wince or blink, ruining the shot completely.
Catch the Catchlights
Have you ever wondered how some photographers seem to capture a certain sparkle in their subjects? While talent is certainly a factor, there is also a flash effect in which lights are used to give eyes that well lit gleam. You can get these by positioning your subject directly in front of a direct light source or simply by using a strobe flash. A popup flash is particularly good for this purpose. You may want to dial down your flash a little so your subject isn’t blinded by their own ‘sparkle’.
Consider Fill Flash
This is one area where flash is your friend! It requires turning your camera settings to manual. It fills in shadows and other unpleasant effects that occur when the sun is high or when your subject is lit from behind. Your camera will register the brightness and automatically create settings that compensate for bright light. Anything that the light doesn’t hit will be overly dark—but fill flash corrects this. If you have a lot of photos where dark shadows and unpleasant silhouettes dominate, your problem probably isn’t flash as much as a lack of it.
Learn About Your Camera’s Sync Speed
In many cameras, the shutter and the flash both have limitations. This means that they can only synchronize up to a certain point—1/250 and 1/180 are two common ones. This can have an effect during daylight hours, when you may be tempted to use a shutter speed that is too high for your flash. Shutter speed should always be lower than your sync speed or your flash will do no good whatsoever.
Build Your Background
One common error that many people make with flash is having a background that allows for deep and unattractive shadows. This can come from having a light background that is immediately behind your subject. Avoid this by using either a dark background where a shadow won’t show or by having the background placed far behind the subject.
Don’t Be Afraid of Processing
Some problems with flash, such as mild shadowing and red eye, can be easily fixed in a photo editing program. Unlike many photography issues, using this type of software is usually easier than preventing the flash problem in the first place. Photo editing software won’t cure all of your flash problems, but it will certainly help with most of them. Experiment with your favorite program and see what you can easily fix.
As you can see, flash definitely has its drawbacks and its advantages. However, you should look at it as just another tool. Learn when to use flash and when to let it be, and how it should be used in the situations you encounter most. This will help you to be a better prepared photographer and to get the best possible shots no matter what the light.