Your camera flash is your friend

Something I hear alot is that people are literally afraid of using their flash. They are very used to the death white glow that the typical flash shot imparts to the unsuspecting victim. And to be honest, most of the shots I’ve seen with a flash used, look really bad. Blown out white face, red eyes like the hounds of Baskerville and black background provides the fodder for way too many scrapbooks.

Whats worse is when someone, say, gets married and is handed pictures from the “professional” that look just like this. Here is someone who took money to take “professional” pictures and did not give back anything different than the proverbial “Uncle Bob” can do. This is just not to be accepted by any paying customer. The pro should be comfortable using his/her equipment and they certainly should know how to use it properly. As you will see below, it really does not take alot of knowledge to get really nice results and it certainly does not take super expensive equipment to get good results.

It really does not have to be that way at all. A flash is just another source of light, just like the sun or a flashlight or a candle. You just need to learn a few things about flash and how to manage it.

The first thing to remember is that the “P for Professional” setting is really not your friend on this occasion. You are much better off setting the camera to (gasp) manual. And those with the point and shoots are already whining about “what about me?”.. never fear, many camera nowadays have a manual setting that will give some type of adjustment.

The setting we are most concerned with will be either on the camera under a flash menu or on the flash itself if you have an external flash like the Nikon 600/800/900. What you want to do is find where to turn down the exposure at least one stop, possibly two stops. The most direct result of this is that the blown white look will fade considerably.

On the camera, we want manual or at least partial manual control so you can do cool things like set the aperture and/or set the shutter. Most times the shutter will be selected for you at 1/160 of second. But nicer cameras like the D90/D300 have a bit of wiggle room on this. The topic of radio linked flashes, off camera flash etc will not be addressed here. David Hpbby at has done this in depth so go over there for off camera info. I may write something up later about my own adventures in off camera flash use.

Something to remember is that even in broad daylight, a flash, even the built in flash is a very useful item to have around. It will fill in the really harsh shadows from the sun and make for a much nice pictures. Of course, the automatic setting completely wigs out in this type of shoot so you will need to overide some of the setting manually. For example, on most of the newer Nikon DSLRs like the D50, D60, D90 etc, you can set the built in flash to manual and then dial in the power like 1 stop, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16 etc. I find that shooting in noon sun, a setting of F8, ISO200 and around 1/16-1/4 flash works very well for filling in a face from about 4-5 feet away.

Here is a case of using the built in flash to fill the shadows on the face while backlit from the noon sun
Kyle - Castmember on Big Thunder Mountain

This was taken using the built in “pop up” flash set to manual. The camera was also set to manual because it was very confused with the strong backlighting. So my first exposure was on automatic which I noted the settings then locked them in manual. The I set the flash to manual and took a SWAG at how much to use. It took a couple of tries to get the fill exactly to my liking. Then I was ready when the victim, errr.. subject was in the position I wanted to shoot.

In this next shot taken in the shade, I used my SB800 mounted to my camera with the camera set in APERTURE mode because I wanted to blur the background. The flash was set to TTL but dialed back a couple of stops because I wanted just a touch of light. This shot is not beyond most people’s skill level since it was all automatic except the aperture and even that did not need to be locked, really. The magic was telling the flash to knock down the power a couple of stops.

Chromed Megan

This last image was alot of fun. I bounced the flash straight up and off the eaves back down onto the player which then the white piano bounced a bit of light back into his face. In this case, I went the other way and pushed the flash power up knowing I would lose alot of it with the 10 foot high bounce. The camera was set to manual after shooting a test image to work out the exposure for the background lights. The flash made up the difference to light up the player.


None of these shots were “rocket science” and they all used common accessories like the SB800 or just the built in tools like the pop flash on the camera.

This last image was taken with a Canon SB500 point and shoot. Not even a new one, this camera is three or fours years old now and kinda of beat up 🙂 The subject was backlit and so I flicked it to manual and made the flash go off in spite of what the brain of the camera was saying. It did take a bit of work in post to clean it up and dial it in perfectly but that took less than 2 minutes. And I have a very nice shot of something I had not seen before at Disneyland using nothing better than what is kicking around in many purses or pockets.

I'll take a double-double

There are other tricks like putting a piece of white kleneex over the flash of the P/S camera to diffuse the hot spot, put a piece of gel over the flash to help color balance the flash but these are topics for a different entry.

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One Comment

  1. nbukrey November 28, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    I agree, I love using my flash creatively and bouncing it off walls and ceilings. One thing I always do too is use exposure compensation on the flash. I have a sigma flash (for my canon bodies) and it allows me 3 stops +/- to compensate with a higher or lower power.

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