Flash! AhhhHHHa!!!

Some photographers find using flash quite intimidating, and it’s true that there is a lot to take in; which can be quite difficult if you’re not naturally technologically-minded. But, once you master a few basic flash techniques countless new opportunities and possibilities unfold to take your photography on to a new level.

Since I don’t use flash often, I’ve decided to give myself – and you- a quick refresher course on the basics before I jump into the complications of the new flash test.

There are a few different basic methods of using flash, and the best way to determine which one to use is to consider your end result. How do you want the shot to look?

It’s important to understand that flash results will be quite different used outdoors to the results you’d get shooting indoors. This is primarily because the flash will only light up to a certain distance. This is also why compact cameras always struggle to create a good photograph when shooting landscapes at night or in low light situations.

Indoors, I’d always choose to bounce the flash wherever possible to avoid harsh shadows, although you should still watch out for unattractive shadowing under the eyes. When you are bouncing flash make sure to bounce the flash off a white or reflective surface, otherwise you may end up with a cast on your photos similar to the colour you have used to bounce from. If you can’t bounce the flash, you can try diffusing it, using a special cover. You can buy these to fit on your flash, or try making one yourself. It probably won’t be as smart looking but it could be much cheaper and just as effective. Experiment with different materials until you find something that works for you.

Shooting with flash outdoors you’ll usually find that unless you bring along something to bounce your flash from, and a tripod or ‘victim’ to hold it- you’ll probably not be able to bounce your flash. This is not such a problem really though, since you’re unlikely to get unsightly shadows, unless you’ve positioned your model right in front of a wall. Usually, flash is used in outdoors portraits as a fill-in, to light up the subject’s features. In this instance it’s best not to use auto flash as it tends to be too strong and causes loss of detail in the background, making it look like night.

But how can you tell if you need flash? If the sun is behind your subject, or particularly strong it will cause unattractive shadows on the face and/or body. This is not just a problem for the summer though, the sun can be just as strong in the winter too, especially in early morning.

Switch to manual and use a slower shutter speed to allow the background more time to expose correctly. Remember that when using fill-in flash you don’t want to obliterate the natural light, just add to it slightly. To do this you will need to set the flash exposure to one or two stops fewer than the camera exposure. For example; if your camera is set to a shutter speed 1/125th at f11 then you will want to set your flash to 1/125th at f8 or f5.6, to prevent overwhelming the available light. You may need to practice this a little and will almost certainly find the amount of flash power required varies between shots, but luckily if you’re shooting digital it’s easy to check the results on your camera screen. If you want to make doubly sure a shot is correctly exposed use the histograms and also the highlights screen to check none of the detail is blown out.

Once you’ve got the hang of these two basic techniques there are more advanced techniques to try but these should be a good start point for anyone wanting to get to grips with flash photography.

I’m hoping to get out and do a test shoot this Friday so look out for more on flash next week, including that review of the SB-600 I promised you, hopefully!

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