Saturday, September 4, 2010

Photography Fridays - To Flash, or Not to Flash

It's Friday! It is! The calendar that I just set back one day says so. You can't tell me otherwise. I won't believe you.

Lies, lies, lies!

I did the assignment and uploaded the photos on Friday. I even started to write this post on Friday. I just fell asleep before I finished. Consequently, Saturday must now pretend to be Friday. Deal.

To catch up, you can check out the previous 12 Weeks to Better Photos lessons here:
Lesson 1: Aperture Basic Training
Lesson 2 (Part 1): ISO & Shutter Speed
Lesson 2 (Part 2): Balancing ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed in Manual
Lesson 3: White Balance

Lesson 4: To Flash, or Not To Flash

That is the question, isn't it? When should you and shouldn't you use flash?

Cameras typically come with an internal flash. It's already built in and it will usually fire automatically under low light settings. Built-in flashes typically have a range of 10-12 feet. If your subject is further away than that, then it will probably remain fairly dark.

External flashes (bought separately) can also be useful because they can be directed in whatever direction you choose. This allows you to bounce flash off of ceilings and other reflective surface to diffuse the light. I don't have an external flash, so I can't speak to their awesomeness. Other flash accessories include an actual diffuser (used to lesson the harshness of the flash). You can either buy a diffuser or you can make one using something as simple as wax paper. Just google "homemade flash diffuser."

People most commonly use flash when they are indoors and at night, though there are reasons to use them out of doors during the day as well.

Personally, I like to refrain from using the flash whenever possible. I'd rather bump up the lighting in my image by fiddling with the ISO, shutter speed, or aperture. But sometimes, when you are dealing with low light situations or harsh shadows, flash becomes necessary.

Even so, using flash can cause a lot of problems in your photos. Let's take a look.

A while back, if you recall, I experimented with silhouettes on a dark and gloomy day.

Well, since it was a dark and gloomy day, my camera wanted to use the flash. I forgot to tell it no, and so I ended up with some pictures that are very non-silhouettey. Bad camera operator!

See how the flash left a glare on the window? That is one of the first problems you will encounter when using flash. Flash can be an issue when you are photographing around reflective surfaces. Mirrors, windows, glasses, sweaty faces, giant metallic bumblebees - all of them reflect the flash back at your camera and cause glare.

Another problem you may have encountered as a result of using flash is the shadow effect. If your subject is standing in front of a wall or you are standing too close when you use the flash, then you will probably end up with something like this:

A husband who likes to make faces at the camera. Yes. The flash and face-making husband are a linked phenomena. It's a scientifically proven fact. Just ask Wikipedia.

Ok, maybe not, but you do end up with some undesired shadows. How do you avoid shadows?

In the above photo, the links are casting a little shadow on Joseph's tummy. I corrected the problem by turning off the flash and using the natural light that was available to me. But that's not always an option. You can eliminate subject shadows in low light situations by moving your subject as far away from walls or shadowed surface as possible. If you have an external flash, you can also bounce the flash off of the ceiling or a reflector to help eliminate the flash. If there is an object in between you and your subject which is causing shadows, either move it or your subject.

Sometimes, if you are too close to your subject when you take a picture, the flash can cause your subject to be blown or washed out.

You can correct this by either diffusing your flash or by simply backing up.

So, how is flash helpful?

During the day, flash can be very useful in many situations.

Depending on the time of day, sunlight can cast harsh shadows across a person's face. See my crazy husband below:

By using flash in this situation, I can eliminate or lessen most of the harsh shadows from my husband's silly face. This is called "fill flash."

Another use for fill flash is to light up a subject that is silhouetted as a result of back lighting.

See? Problem solved.

You can also use flash to brighten up the colors of your photo on gray, overcast days.

See how the blue in my deranged husbands shirt is much brighter in this second picture?

They are watching cars and trucks go by.

And, of course, you'll typically want to use flash when you are taking night pictures of Aunt Sarah the Rockstar.

While I love this picture, it has a lot of technical problems. The flash has created shadows behind Sarah's head and chair. I was too close when I took this picture, so it is somewhat washed out. You can barely make out anything in the background. If I had wanted to take a better night photo, I should have used a tripod, backed up, and set the shutter speed lower (night portrait mode on point and shoots). This would have given a better exposed foreground and background of the picture. Of course, if I were to slow down the shutter speed to better expose the picture, then my sleeping subject and sweet rockstar sister-in-law would have had to have stayed very, very, very still. Otherwise, they would turn out very blurry.

I hope this lesson has shed some light (ha) on how best to utilize your camera's flash. Turn it off if you can. Use it only as needed.

Read lesson 4 on flash here. (Lessons 1-6 are all in the same PDF document, so you'll have to scroll down!)

See you next week for Lesson 5: Composition.

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