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Don't Fear Your Camera's Flash

Updated on September 17, 2008
image by Julien Tromeur. Used by purchased rights. ?id=3200972
image by Julien Tromeur. Used by purchased rights. ?id=3200972

The Flash - A Misunderstood Feature

The electronic flash is one of the most misunderstood features on a camera. Most consumer cameras on the market today have a built in flash that fires when the camera's automatic mode commands its use. The average user does not often consciously choose when to use their electronic flash (or to refrain from using it) in any given lighting situation. However, I believe that with a few simple concepts in mind, you can understand what a flash can and can't do for you. Hopefully this short article will take some of the mystery out of the flash on your camera.

Misconception #1 When do you need a flash?

Ask most people when you should use a flash and the answer will be: "at night or indoors". While is is true that those situations are often low light conditions where your camera will need a boost to properly expose and capture your image, a flash still may not be needed or may not give you the image you expect. Have you ever seen a stadium event like a football game or the Olympic opening ceremonies on TV? Thousands of flashes from cameras in the grandstands are going off. Do you think the light from those flashes is really getting all the way to the field to light up their shot? No. They have no effect on the exposure because their effective range is probably less than 15 feet. The camera is firing the flash, but it has to expose using the existing light of the scene anyway. This is true of many night time outdoor photographs. If you subject is large and far away, your flash might fire, but it will have no effect.

Indoor lighting and night time situations are obviously a lot darker than outdoor broad daylight, therefore your camera's automatic light meter will tell the flash that it will need more light to properly expose the image. In some indoor conditions this is fine when you want brightly lit people and objects in the foreground with an almost black or very dark background. Snapshots of people like this are fine and can be fun candid images to look at, but they also do not capture the mood or overall look of the scene. However, if you want to be able to see the background and environment that the people are in, you will actually want to turn the flash off and see if you can expose the image at a slower speed. You might set your ISO setting (if you are shooting a digital camera) up to 800 or 1600 or higher to make your "digital film" more light sensitive in order to do this. You will loose a little tiny bit of quality in moving your ISO setting this high up, but most people will not notice the difference. Shooting in natural light without the flash will mean the background to not get so dark and your photograph will show the room and the people in it in a more "natural" light. Of course it is not always possible to shoot without the help of a flash indoors. If for instance if you are trying to capture images of people dancing indoors, they might just be all a blur of motion without the flash to quickly expose the scene. However, if you are not shooting a high motion subject and can keep your shutter speed to at least 60th of a second (ask people to stand still, smile and pose for the shot), you will get a more natural looking environment and lighting around them.

When shooting using existing light indoors also make sure you are aware of the kind of lighting in the room. It will not be the same "color" as light outdoors. You will want to change your white balance setting on your digital camera to ether Tungsten light (typical room light) or Florescent lighting. If you don't, and shoot it in the normal daylight setting you will see it looks very orange or very green. See the examples of color balance for daylight vs for tungsten light in the example.

Another indoor flash option, if you have a detachable flash (or one that can swivel the flash head in a direction other than straight forward) might be to "bounce" the flash off of the ceiling (also depends if the ceiling is not a high ceiling and is white). This technique allows you to shoot the flash's burst of light up to the white ceiling and then let it reflect down naturally as overhead lights might. Having a small reflector card behind the flash also helps toss in some light straight at your subject to fill in shadows.

Misconception #2 When do you NOT need a flash?

Well, of course... you don't need a flash to sufficiently expose your image in bright overhead noonday sun, right? Well, actually, if you are getting harsh shadows and bright bright sunlight at times like noontime, a little added fill flash could help you out. When the light overhead is bright and harsh -- casting dark shadows (like under people's eyebrows or if they are wearing a hat that castes a shadow on their faces) or if they are in a grove of trees for instance, where the light on peoples faces has spots of light and areas or dark -- this is a time to use a flash in the daylight hours! The idea is that if you expose the picture for the natural outdoor light, but let the flash fire too. It is not going to be as bright as the daylight, but it will "fill in" enough of the shadowy dark areas with the flash, to make detail show, this will make the light not seem so harsh. In some cases, like the "without flash" and "with flash" examples shown below, you might have a background that is brightly lit by the sun, but the foreground subject is in the shadow of a building. I used the flash to light the shadowed batter, and let the camera expose the background with the light reading from the sunlit area.

Go ahead and experiment!

If you have a digital camera and can control the flash manually (force it to fire in spite of the automatic settings of the camera, or tell it to NOT fire even if it is dark) then experiment with it! It won't cost you film to try it with your digital camera! if you come upon one of the situations I have described above, try it both ways -- with and without flash. See which works better. There is no longer any reason to wonder or fear your electronic flash. You are the photographer. Take control of it and you will start to see the lighting before you take the shot, and get an eye for when to use the flash and when not to.

Here is a good overview about using a fill-flash:

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    • profile image

      Amy_Roberts 9 years ago

      This is a great hub! Thanks for the tips - I'm definitely going to try these out! :)

    • Glenn Frank profile image

      Glenn Frank 9 years ago from Southern California

      Thanks Donna and Marlene. I hope that took a little mystery out of your camera's flash and lets you use it (or not use it) to get better photos, and enjoy doing it!

    • Marlene_OnTheWall profile image

      Marlene_OnTheWall 9 years ago from Singapore

      I've been wondering about fill-in flash. The camera manual explains how to set the fill-in flash but doesn't explain when to use it. Thanks for this useful article.

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 9 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Thanks for those tips. I like your style of writing, easy to understand.