2.3 – Lighting – Flash Dance: Flash

Again, let me make a plug to visit strobist.com and take the Lighting 101 and 102 courses, which will be of tremendous help to you as you begin to wrap your arms around the complex world of flash photography.  And let me give you some important advice real quick…treat flash photography like you do a big Thanksgiving meal: eat some, come back a couple hours later and eat some more, take a nap, come back and eat some more.  Today was Thanksgiving and I didn’t heed my own advice.  I ate too much at once and got sick.  Gorging on lighting learning can leave you feeling the same way.  It’s the most technical part of photography, because there are thousand of variables and different ways to get to the same conclusion by altering settings ever so slightly.

Don’t be a person who says, “I only use natural lighting” and then refuse to learn flash photography, because you’re intimidated by all the buttons.  I promise you that if you can get a good grip on this area your versatility and photo quality will shoot through the roof.  I have learned through trial and error how to get acceptable/moderately good pictures in horrific lighting conditions.  This is immensely valuable to me because it means that I’m not limited to only shooting outdoor or during certain times of day.  Do you want to be able to shoot pictures any time of day and be at least somewhat pleased with your images?  Good, me too.

This is why I tell people that the most important thing you should purchase, right after your digital SLR, is a flash.  On the top of every SLR (SLR’s are fancy cameras with detachable lenses), you will see a metal “hot shoe”.  This gives you a dock to put your external flash.  As I’ve said in a previous post, don’t even bother using your rinky dink on-board pop-up flash.  Here’s what the hot shoe and flash look like…

The hot shoe on two different SLR

The hot shoe on two different SLR's

An external flash

An external flash

Flash docked in the hot shoe: Business Time!

Flash docked in the hot shoe: Business Time!

You can have a great lens that is as worthless as a rock if you don’t have enough light.  Remember that you’re always trying to “Buy Light”.  Your camera sensor is a thirsty sucker that never seems to have enough light (unless you’re in the sun).  Having too much light is almost never a problem, but having a deficiency of light will jack you up.  So a flash buys you light and allows you to specifically dial in the amount of light you need to compose a great image with the appropriate ratios of light to shadow.  Today’s flashes are so good they can even coordinate with other flashes and send secret messages of how they want to take over the world…or balance the appropriate ratio.

Okay, I have one point that I want you take away from this lesson.  If you walk away from this lesson and forget this, I’m going to come hit you in the head with a tack hammer (any Tommy Boy fans out there?). USE BOUNCE FLASH!!!!!!!!

What is bounce flash, you ask?  Here you go.  These fancy flashes have the ability to swivel and angle the light away from the person you’re shooting.  “Kevin, why would I want the light to go away from the person I’m trying to shoot?”  Because, light rays are highly reflective.  When you fire a flash, the light acts like invisible lasers and goes straight ahead towards their target until they’re bounced off of something else.  Let’s say you’re in a room and you’re going to shoot a picture of someone, a great way to ensure that you’ll get a nice evenly lit image of the person is to angle the flash away from the person in a way that the light will reflect off a wall behind you or at the ceiling so it will reflect light back at the person.

Direct flash = harsh shadows (courtesy of thewonderoflight.com)

Direct flash = harsh shadows (courtesy of thewonderoflight.com)

In the illustration above, the light is firing right at the subject.  Therefore, it creates a massive shadow which looks awful.  Also, the light on the subject will be unflattering.

Bounced flash - courtesy of thewonderoflight.com

Bounced flash = no shadows (courtesy of thewonderoflight.com)

In this illustration, the light is fired at a 45 degree angle off the ceiling.  This angle moves the shadow behind and down and diffuses (softens) the light and makes everything look much, much better.  You can’t do this with your camera’s pop-up flash.  In fact, the higher end cameras don’t even have on-board flashes.  My Canon 5DmkII doesn’t have one.  I always carry an external flash.

So, if you’re stuck without an external flash…until Christmas, and all you have is your pop-up flash, what can you do?  Nothing, you’re hosed.  Haha.  That’s actually true, but I saw MacGyver make an airplane out of a lawnmower and rusted sheet metal, so we’ll figure something out.  Get light somehow. If you’re indoors, try to set your camera to no flash and hold really still or get an envelope (or something white) and put it at a 45 degree angle to the subject so the light fires into it and up towards the ceiling. In other words, redirect the flash light up and towards the ceiling.  This is a ghetto method, but it actually works.

Important disclaimer: Bounce flash is not what you will end up using when you get really good.  But it’s like the flat head screwdriver of your bag of tricks…good for so many situations.  Learn it, use it, and enjoy it.

Here’s the second major point of this post, but not as important as the thing I’m going hit you with a tack hammer about.  Have you already forgotten what it was? BOUNCE FLASH!

This one is called “Fill Flash”.  I carry a flash with me almost all the time, even on a bright, sunny day (especially on a bright, sunny day), because too much contrast is bad.  Remember what I was saying in a prior post about blown highlights?  Your sensor gets freaked out by too much of a difference between the the darkest dark and lightest white in your image so it tries to cut off detail in things that are outside of a reasonable range, which means that your images look weird and unnatural because they’re lacking detail.  When you’re outside, you’re thinking, “I don’t need a flash, because there’s so much sunlight.”  But your camera is choking on light so it tries to cut off the excess light or even worse, it exposes for it and then makes your subject incredible dark.  This is what this looks like…

Needs fill flash

Needs fill flash

Oh, what might have been.  This is a picture of a client’s child that really needed fill flash.  My camera exposed properly for the background and caught the detail of the water and rock perfectly, but suppressed the detail of the child’s face.  Well, that’s too bad, because I wasn’t wanting a picture of a stupid rock.  If I’d had a flash firing, it would have lit her AND properly exposed for the background.  That’s the trick to getting professional photos.  A professional photographer plans the lighting of the shot in a way to emphasize the subject and use the background/foreground to enhance the image.

If you have an external flash you’ll be able to fire some light at your subject and get all the rest of the shot in a nice balance.  Consider your flash a weapon you can use to combat over-exposure or under-exposure.  It allows you to bring things into a range that your sensor will be able to represent without loss of detail.  This point eludes more people than you can imagine.  People are absolutely baffled when they see me using a flash in the harsh sun.  Don’t be that girl that comes up to me and says, “why do you need that when it’s so bright out here?”  When you’re using fill flash outside you usually don’t have to worry about the flash overpowering your subject like you do when it’s an inside shot.  You won’t have to deal with shadows, for instance.  So, the good news is that you can point the flash right at your subject and won’t have to worry about bouncing it.  Really good news, if you only have a pop-up flash.

Control the image. Your camera is very limited in it’s brainpower, so it’s your job to tell it what to do.  Don’t expect the Auto setting to get you images that truly impress your friends and family.

ASSIGNMENT: Remember our two new buddies, Bounce Flash and Fill Flash?  I want you to take and upload at least one image to our community on Flickr.com of each type of shot.  If you only have a pop-up flash, use the white envelope method I talked about.  For your fill flash shot, go outside when the sun is out and force your camera to flash.  You’ll have to to turn it to all the time ON, rather than auto flash.  Get someone in a scene where the sun is behind them, and then blast them with light.  Try that out and see what you think.  These are two powerful weapons you can use that will greatly expand your ability to nail an awesome shot!

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