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Flash photography tips for amateurs

2006.10.23 — Culture | Postcards | Technology | by Derek Jensen

sleepy dog

Using full flash results in harsh and unnatural lighting that lights places that are supposed to be in shadow.

Like most people, I've always been a bit frustrated by the built-in flash on my camera. It always seems to be too strong for close-up shots and too weak for long shots. It's best to avoid using a flash if you can, so you can capture the natural light of the scene, but there are a few techniques you can use to make the flash work more to your advantage.

I have a Canon Digital Rebel XT, a "prosumer" camera just right for avid amateurs like me, but this article applies to ordinary point-and-shoot consumer cameras also. To be sure, I left my camera in "program" mode and the ISO setting on 400. This automates the aperture and shutter speed while maintaining a consistent "film" speed for all my example shots. Your point-and-shoot camera will probably be set to "auto" mode, making even ISO automatic, so experiment to get the best results. Every camera is different anyway.

Avoid using the flash

sleepy dog

Not using the flash at all in low-light conditions generally results in photos that are blurry from camera shake.

As I said to begin with, it's best to avoid using the flash at all. You'll better capture the natural light of the scene as you and others see it, and it won't produce weird effects like red-eye, flash reflections, and overlit areas that are supposed to be dark like the areas underneath furniture.

However, digital cameras today are only about as good at collecting and recording light as good film is, so ordinary indoor lighting, even with sunlight streaming in the windows, is often not enough to capture the scene at a fast shutter speed (short exposure time). A slow shutter speed means that any camera shake on your part or movement of your subject will cause blur, which normally ruins the picture.

sleepy dog

Redirecting the flash upward with a magazine can reduce the light too much overall, especially with a high ceiling.

To help, turn on extra lights, especially some aimed at your subject, and open the curtains to let in as much light as possible. Change your camera to the "indoor" setting (or whatever your camera offers), or even consider using the timer with a small tripod. Gorillapod is a flexible tripod; the Pod camera platform is a simple stiffened bean bag; and Pillow Pod is an even simpler bean bag. I've often used a leather glove as a support, especially for outdoor nighttime shots, where the flash would be useless anyway.

Redirect the flash upward

Some cameras allow you to physically pivot the flash so it points more upward. This may be ideal because it redirects the light up to the ceiling, where it will bounce down (especially if it is a light-colored, flat ceiling a few feet overhead), thereby mimicking regular lighting and keeping dark areas under tables and desks as dark as they are supposed to be.

sleepy dog

Filtering and bouncing with a single sheet of white paper may produce good photos or at least ones that can be tweaked in Paint Shop Pro.

Most professional add-on flashes can pivot like this. Unfortunately, a lot of cameras with built-in flashes (including my Canon) don't have this capability—the flash is fixed pointing straight forward. For these, it may be possible to use a flat, shiny reflector held in front of the flash at an angle to redirect the flash. A small mirror, glass picture frame, silver piece of plastic, or similar item may work. That helps your subject, since no one likes a camera flash in their face.

Solid, objects that aren't very shiny, like a magazine, are likely to block more light than they reflect it up. The result is too little light overall and a dark image.

Filter the flash and redirect it upward

sleepy dog

Holding an ordinary tissue in front of the flash can produce natural-looking lighting at a high shutter speed and eliminate camera shake.

The last possibility is to use a filter to reduce the amount of light going from the flash directly to your subject. You can use something as simple as a plain white piece of paper to filter the light. I find that it works pretty well as part-reflector, part-filter, and it's easy to find one in any location.

Probably better still is a plain white tissue. It's thin enough to let plenty of light thru but reflective enough to direct some of it upwards to the ceiling. Experiment yourself with your camera to see how strong your flash is and how effective a tissue or piece of paper is at redirecting and filtering the light. I've used a piece of tissue taped into a sock shape and slipped over the flash and been happy with the results.

Of course, letting the flash filter thru can still cause some red-eye and "hot" reflections off glossy surfaces. It will generally be much less than direct full flash, but it is something to consider.

Prefab and store-bought filters


Holding a tissue over the flash can still produce "hot" reflections off glossy surfaces, but not as strong as full flash.

There are companies that offer custom filters for pro cameras and flashes, and a few online sites can tell you how to build your own. The chances that you'd be able to prefabricate one for a point-and-shoot camera and that you'd remember to bring it with you to a party are pretty slim, but it's possible that a simple snap-on reflector that angles the light upward is available.

It might be possible to make one out of the reflective wrapper of a stick of gum, for example, taped in place temporarily or even fitted to a piece of wire that allows it to clip on. For a really simple filter, just a piece of see-thru tape over the flash may do the trick for your dorm room pictures.

Try your hand at experimenting with your own camera and see what works best. Just the experience is likely to help you take better pictures.


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