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How to Take Better Photos, Pt 4

October 21, 2009

Don’t use your camera’s flash. Except when you should.

The flash. Just about every camera has one. And for the most part, using it is a sucker’s game.

Why?

A few reasons.

1) Limited range – Your typical onboard flash has a range of about 10 feet. Decent enough for taking shots at a party, but completely useless for shooting anything further away. So the next time you whip your camera out at a sporting event, concert or whatever, turn the flash off. There’s no way it’ll reach to the stage or field. More likely, it’ll turn that person in front of you into a pale beacon of overexposure. Besides, fields, rinks, courts and stages are usually well-lit as is. Trust your camera to figure it out.

2) Direct light – Direct lighting is bad. It shines directly at your subject, robbing your shot of any sense of depth. And since an onboard flash is, well, onboard, it can’t get far enough away from the lens to provide anything in the way of offset lighting.

There’s also the whole red-eye thing, which most cameras can counter by pulsing the flash a few times before firing it, though that basically blows any hope of candid shots out of the water.

3) Harsh light – In addition to being direct, the light from an onboard flash is also harsh, creating very sharp, defined shadows (and more often than not blowing out highlights). You can soften the light with a diffuser (a paper coffee filter works in a pinch) if you absolutely MUST use your flash.

Here are a few examples of flash gone wrong (click each to see embiggened versions over at Flickr):

Here’s a textbook case of using the onboard flash to shoot people in low light. Note the blown-out whites, the hint of red-eye, and the non-existent background.

Red-eye? Check. Harsh shadow outline? Check. Flat, uninteresting photo? Check.

What’s the lesson here?

Don’t use your onboard flash in low-light situations. Chances are it’ll do more harm than good.

Now, suppose you find yourself shooting in low-light situations on a pretty regular basis. What can you do?

First, consider a camera that can tackle low-light effectively. Some point-and-shoots do a manageable job, but their sensors are so small that hiking the ISO above 800 opens them up to a blizzard of noise (or over-compensating digital noise reduction). Your best bet is to suck it up and invest in a DSLR. The larger sensor will handle higher ISOs and low-light situations a lot better, and paired with the right glass – such as an f/1.4 or f/1.8 prime lens – you’ll pretty much be able to shoot by candlelight and still manage reasonable ISO and shutter speed settings.

Second, buy an off-camera flash. Pretty much all DSLRs and a few point-and-shoots feature a hot shoe that will let you mount an external flash. In addition to providing some offset lighting, a lot of external flashes can also be aimed in a number of directions, allowing you to fire the flash upward to bounce of the ceiling and the like. This has the effect of softening the light, resulting in a smoother, more natural interplay between light and shadow. To wit:

Okay. We’ve covered why your onboard flash sucks, why you shouldn’t use it in low-light, and steps you can take if you’re serious about taking some seriously kick-butt low-light photos. Which leaves the obvious question:

If the onboard flash sucks so bad, why bother with it in the first place?

The obvious answer is that most people don’t really care how a picture looks. They just want to capture that time they went to that place and did that thing. Doesn’t matter if they and their friends end up looking like a bunch of Powder wannabes. Or it does matter, but not enough for them to do anything about it.

But…the onboard flash actually does have some uses.

The main use case for the onboard flash is actually a bit counterintuitive. Instead of using your flash in low-light conditions, you actually want to use it in bright conditions, particularly when your background is brighter than your subject. Firing the flash in this situation will help ensure that both your subject and the background are properly exposed, so you don’t end up with a backlit subject or a washed-out background.

Depending on the type of camera you’ve got, you can also use the onboard flash to trigger a remote flash. In this case, the flash doesn’t actually illuminate anything, and instead fires a weak burst that triggers the remote flash (or flashes) to fire. But that’s a whole other topic…

Okay. To wrap up:

Don’t use your camera’s onboard flash in low-light conditions

– If you want to shoot effectively in low-light, you’re going to have to gear up, or accept compromises

Do use your camera’s onboard flash in bright conditions, when your subject is darker than the background.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2009 9:02 pm

    Another good one – Thanks Matt

  2. October 21, 2009 10:51 pm

    Very helpful… and a seriously quick response on that one.

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