Your first encounter with your camera flash might have been when it popped up while shooting on auto mode in low-light conditions. It lights up the whole picture and prevents your photos from turning out underexposed or blurry. But far from merely adding light to a scene, the flash is an element in photography that opens up a whole new dimension of creative possibilities. From built-in flashes to external flashes, here are some tips to help you get more comfortable with it all.
First of all, there are some situations where using a flash is pointless and unnecessary — knowing when not to use it will allow you to save time on trying out each setting one by one. Flash seldom works well in big events because it will only have an effective range of about 3-5 metres. Additionally, us flash for concerts, as it may cast shadows and distract the performers on stage. A simple alternative to this is to open the aperture and raise the ISO, enabling you to take well-exposed photos in low-light conditions, while still preserving each organic moment. You could also consider putting your camera in a priority mode and adjust each setting properly.
The most popular usage of the flash is in dim lighting. Be it indoors or at night time, the flash will illuminate your subject when there is insufficient natural or ambient light, allowing you to define all the important details clearly. Doing this will prevent motion blur resulting from slow shutter speeds and excessive noise in your photos due to an ISO level that is set too high, leaving little room for post-processing.
While shooting, you can also get creative even with the flash turned on. In night photography, it can be used for long exposures, light trails or even freezing the light in certain parts of the frame. These effects dramatise your overall composition and elevate your art.
Contrary to popular belief, the flash can sometimes be used in daylight too. Using the flash can bring your photos to life and enhance their overall tone. Picture the scene: your subject is standing right in front of a breath-taking sunset. You snap a photo to capture the moment, but your subject is reduced to a dark silhouette. Directing your flash towards your subject in this situation will act as a second light source, filling in the underexposed areas and producing a more balanced portrayal of the scene.
The hack to flash photography is knowing your starting point on manual mode: aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/200, ISO 200 and flash power to 1/16. Remember that shutter speed takes care of ambient light, aperture controls flash exposure and ISO enables you to use a faster or slower shutter speed. Then, adjust the mood of your pictures by using a faster shutter speed with flash for a darker background and slow shutter speed with flash for a more normally exposed background. Et voila! You’re good to go.
An important factor to note is the flash sync speed of your camera. This is the fastest shutter speed at which there is an instant where the shutter is 100% open. Using a faster shutter speed than the flash sync speed will result in a black band across the image. Most cameras will have a x-sync speed of 1/200s, therefore any shutter speed faster than this sync speed limit will capture the shutter curtain. Staying below it allows you to make sure that your shutter is all the way open when the flash fires.
The direct beam of light from your flash can create harsh shadows that makes your photos look artificial. To diffuse your light before it reaches your subject, consider investing in a softbox. The shadows will be less harsh, creating a softer and more natural look. These are designed to be used off camera and triggered remotely, which gives you a lot more room to be creative with your approach.
With an external flash, try out the technique of bounce flash. You can modify the flash output to diffuse the light by bouncing it off the ceiling, a portable reflector or even a wall and avoid firing straight at the subject. Overall, this will reduce the harshness of your flash.
It is easier to get more creative with an off-camera flash and to create an unlimited range of moods. Take your flash off the hot shoe and mount it either on a tripod or place it on the floor. The added flexibility of different lighting directions can open up your photography to more creative lighting options.
Give flash a shot in your photography, slowly adjust and familiarise yourself with each setting, and discover that both you and your camera are capable of so much more.