Whether you are using a compact camera or a DSLR, the on-camera flash has a bunch of tricks that are waiting to be explored. Raj Lalwani tells you how to make best use of it.
This article was originally published in February 2012.
Most beginners tend to use the Auto mode at all times, which means that the camera fires the flash the moment the light levels fall. Soon though, we start noticing the various problems associated with the typical ‘flash look’. The light is too harsh, it kills the feel of the ambience and often produces a flat picture. This is when we completely avoid using flash, no matter what situation we are in.
The best shooting approach is somewhere in the middle. The use of high ISO and slow shutterspeeds can help you shoot in low light without flash, but in some shooting situations, you should actually make use of that added spark of light. Also, most people believe that one needs to buy an expensive external flashgun to do any sort of serious flash photography. However, have you ever considered that the on-camera flash can be invaluable in certain shooting situations?
For Portraits at High Noon
We often assume that flash is useful only while shooting in low light, but let us tell you something that may seem odd… the reverse is also true. The flash must always be switched on when shooting in bright light. At high noon, the shadows that are formed under the subject’s nose and chin look rather ugly. The use of flash will help fill in these shadows and throw some light on to the person’s face.
When the Subject is Backlit
The light is not harsh towards sundown, but portraits against the sun are equally difficult. Since the sun is right behind the subject, we end up capturing a silhouette. If we use Spot metering instead, the subject is properly exposed, but the background gets blown out, thus killing the charm of the sunset.
If you wish to capture the beauty of the sunset and still have a portrait where the person’s face is lit, use flash. Reduce the power of the flash to around -1.5EV, so that it does not overpower the soft, ambient light falling on the subject’s face.
To Reduce Contrast in the Scene
We are often stuck in situations when the light is too contrasty, and it is very difficult to capture detail in both shadows and highlights. The ideal solution for something like this is to shoot at a different time of day when the light is softer, but this is not always practical.
To make best use of the prevalent lighting conditions, you can use the onboard flash to reduce the contrast in the scene. The light thrown from the flash will illuminate any shadow areas that fall within its range, and help you shoot a more balanced exposure. Interestingly, this may be applicable in some landscape photos too, if the foreground element is within the flash’s range.
To Use Harsh Light Effectively
There are a number of ways in which you can diffuse the light of the flash, but there may be times that you actually want to create a harsh look. For instance, you may want to portray the subject in a particular manner that may not necessarily compliment them because the concept may demand such a treatment. Some of the work of legendary Magnum photographer Martin Parr uses direct flash without disguising the characteristic look that it has.
Diffuse and Direct the Light
While shooting your family at a cafe, hold a tissue paper lying around in front of the flash to make its output less harsh. You can also buy an innovative accessory called Lightscoop. This helps bounce the onboard flash, which is otherwise possible only with a flashgun!
To Avoid Distracting Backgrounds
If you have come across a situation in which your subject is getting merged with the background, you can modify the light by using the on-camera flash. Fire the flash at a reduced power, so that it illuminates only the subject in the foreground. At the same time, underexpose the frame slightly, so that the background becomes darker. This will make the subject stand out and give it some definition.
While Maximising Depth
While shooting close-up and macro photographs, it is advisable to use a narrow aperture like f/16 or f/22 to maximise the depth-of-field. Due to this, the amount of light entering the camera reduces, for which you will need to use a slow shutterspeed and tripod. The on-camera flash fired at a reduced power can add some much needed illumination in the scene, and also help isolate the subject from the backdrop.
For Neutral Colours
The light that emanates from the flash is white in colour, and has a similar colour temperature to daylight. So, if you are shooting in an area that has tungsten and fluorescent lighting, but would rather eliminate the colour casts, just fire the flash.
Or To Add a Colour Cast
On the other hand, if the ambient light is flat, neutral and boring, you can use the flash to add some mood. Place a coloured gelatin paper in front of the flashgun, to add an orange, red or green tone to the photograph.
In the Midst of Nature
If you wish to capture water droplets or dew that has settled on leaves or spider webs, try using the on-camera flash. The flash will reflect off the water droplets, and will add a sparkle to them. You can use the same technique while shooting in the rain, as well.
To Add a Catchlight
Similarly, when you use flash to shoot portraits, the light of the flash is reflected in the eyes of the subject, thus creating a bright highlight or ‘catchlight’. In fact, have you ever thought of using flash to shoot far-off subjects like a person standing at a distance, or even an animal or bird, while shooting in the wild? The power of an on-camera flash is not good enough to reach a subject standing far away, and so, it will neither make any difference to the exposure, nor will it disturb the subject. But, the reflection of the flash will be visible in the animal’s eye as a beautiful catchlight!
When Shooting Heartstopping Action
We use a fast shutterspeed to freeze any sort of motion, but in certain situations, this is not possible because the ambient light levels are quite low.
The use of the on-camera flash serves two purposes. Not only does it illuminate the scene, but also fires really quickly. A flash actually fires at a speed of between 1/10,000sec–1/1,00,000sec! This is good enough to freeze any kind of fast-moving action, including high-speed phenomena like a drop of ink frozen in mid air, or a splash of water.
To Portray a Mix of Still and Motion
Instead of the default flash functionality, try experimenting with the Slow Sync mode. In this mode, the camera combines the use of a slow shutterspeed along with a quick burst of flash.
The quick burst helps freeze any moving subject, but since the shutter is open for long, even movement is recorded. This creates a unique mix of still and motion, which helps you capture a well defined subject, but still adds a sense of energy and action.
To Command an External Unit
To experiment with the direction of light, you may want to use an external flashgun. To command this to fire, though, you may need a specialist commander unit. Or, you can simply save some money and use the onboard flash! Some cameras have a dedicated Commander or Wireless Flash Trigger mode, that helps you do this!
In Extremely Low Light
Of course, the most obvious application is when the light levels are really low and the use of a high ISO is not possible. For this, too, it is advisable to switch to the Slow Sync mode, as this will retain the ambient feel and produce a more balanced, pleasing result.
With the correct mode, adjustment of power and some innovation, you can use the onboard flash to give just the right kind of effect. Subtlety is key… the best flash pictures are the ones that do not look as if they have been shot using a flash.
When Not to Use Flash
Do not use flash while shooting candids. Also, most compact cameras have a flash range of only a few feet. Unless you wish to add a catchlight, it is pointless to fire the flash for distant subjects. Finally, switch it off if the subject is too close, or if there is glass in the frame.
Gain Better Control of the Onboard Flash
Can you increase the power? Or change the colour temperature of the illumination? How well do you know your flash’s controls?
You know that flash would make a difference to the picture, but are not sure how to use it. Read this, if you are intimidated about the functionality on offer.
Balance the Light
Use the Flash Exposure Compensation function so that you strike the right balance between flash and ambient light.
Increase its Range
Besides increasing Flash Exposure Compensation, you can use a higher ISO or a wider aperture setting to increase the output and effective distance of the flash.
Use the Right Mode
To just add some fill light, use the Program mode and just switch on the flash. For low light portraits, use Red Eye Reduction. Slow Sync will help retain the ambient light.
Getting the Right Colours
Keep this in mind. White Balance affects the entire frame, while an attached gel will only change the colour of the flash output.