Love it, hate it flash photography is a required skill to take the best photos you can. It is something I'm almost never asked about but something most beginners need to explore. If you think the only reason there is a flash on your camera is for low light photos you need to completely rethink your understanding of your flash.
Flash is almost useless for taking great photos in the dark... There, I said it. If it is too dark for great photos without a flash it is probably too dark for great photos with your pop up flash or a single auxiliary speed light. Should you not take a photo of your family just because the light is too low? No, by all means pop up the flash and use it if need be but realize you are not getting all you need from your flash just using it like this.
Many new photographers have only the pop up flash to work with. This is limiting, but does not mean you must have the basic "deer in the headlights" or hideous "red eye monster" looks of most beginning flash photos. Can you take the pop up off your camera or point it to the side? No, but you can think about what you do with it, you can know what causes red eye and harsh light. Red eye is caused by the light being reflected from the back of the pupil into the lens and onto the sensor or film. There are several ways to minimize this with your pop up flash. The first thing you should do is have your subject look just off center, this will move the flash off the back of the pupil thus reducing red eye and temporary blindness of your subject. If you must take a photo straight on with the pop up flash just ask your subject to look slightly over your head. This will reduce red eye and also open the eyes more, these are both great starting points to improve your photos. But wait, don't most experienced photographers have those great big white boxes on their lights? Yes, they often use soft boxes or umbrellas but these are for studio lights or work best in the field if you have an assistant and let's face it light diffusers are not convenient, practical or always readily at hand. And they don't fit your pop up flash. So what are you to do short of spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on off camera flash gear? Easy, diffuse your pop up flash. As simple as this sounds you can just put a piece of notebook paper, tissue paper or translucent plastic in front of your pop up flash and make much softer and more pleasing light. You can also use a note card to bounce the pop up flashes light off a white ceiling or wall, this will have the added benefit of creating shadow to make your subject more interesting. Just be careful of the surface you bounce off, notice I said "a white ceiling or wall" in the last sentence? If you bounce off a green, red, blue, etc. wall you will then add that color cast to your subject.
|With and without pop up flash. Using the flash filled the shadows and added a great deal of warmth with the Auto White balance setting. The strong backlit framing made for a difficult exposure without the flash, but simply popping up the flash made all the difference. There has been zero Photoshop or similar processing performed so I can demonstrate the difference the simple pop up flash makes. The only negative of using the flash here is the slight shadow around her hand and the blood orange in it, but that would take about 1 minute to correct with Photoshop. A bonus benefit is that I was able to use a faster shutter speed to avoid over exposing the setting sun in the background.|
|No Flash||Pop Up Flash|
When asked what is the first accessory to buy for a new camera I recommend a fast prime lens or a telephoto lens, depending on the intended use of the camera, but the second thing is always an auxiliary flash. It does not matter if you have a basic point and shoot with a hotshoe or a full frame sports camera, an auxiliary flash will change the way you are able to make photos. When I had time to teach workshops almost every weekend the most common problem with photos clients would bring me were not focus or composition issues but exposure issues, usually caused by poor lighting conditions. When on vacation it is the normal reaction to have your wife/family/friend stand next to a famous landmark and snap a photo. The problem with this is that the subject (family member or landmark) is too dark and the background is too bright, or the subject is facing the sun causing them to squint (not attractive) or be over exposed.
|These photos of my niece in the famous Raleigh City Market and State Farmers Market below demonstrate the difference a good flash can make. I used the Nikon SB-600 mounted to the camera, turned both on and off, for the first set of photos and the same flash held off camera for the second set of photos, again once turned off and once turned on. I think there is a clear reason to purchase an auxiliary flash for any photography enthusiast who will be photographing people as these unretouched photos show.|
|No Flash||On Camera SB-600|
|No Flash||Off Camera SB-600|
Buying your first speed light/flash can be confusing. How much should you spend? Do you need all the features of the top models? How much power do you need? All valid questions. TTL, I-TTL, E-TTL, Manual Controls, guide numbers, optical triggers, wireless controls, etc. all sound confusing but don't put too much thought into it. If you are going use your flash casually the least expensive manufacturer brand will do everything you need. It will work automatically with your cameras metering system and will, at the least, point upward to bounce light off the ceiling. You will find yourself with much more power, lighting options and shorter recycle time than any pop up flash. This will be all most photo enthusiasts need.
If you think you may want to experiment a little you can move up to the next in line of flashes. These will have a lot more power, more control and, in some cases, optical triggers or wireless control capability. The first I-TTL flash I purchased was a Nikon SB-600, the next to the bottom of the line flash, but it has lots of power and can swivel up or to either side. This flash is still in my bag on every photo shoot. It allows me to bounce light from above, the side and in some cases behind me and I can also put many diffusion devices on it and it is far enough above the lens that redeye is rarely a problem. When used with the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) it became my first TTL off camera light. This gave me many options for controlling the light for photographing people, houses and many other items. It allowed me to backlight subjects or bring light from any angle. I like doing this so much that I now own 5 SB-600 flashes. They are small, light and I can fit all 5 into a small bag. The only drawbacks are for advanced use. The SB-600 has no optical trigger mode and will not wirelessly control other flashes. For this I use the SB-700 for basic wireless control and the SB-900 for advanced control. By advanced I mean stroboscopic shooting, there is nothing else that I've found I need that the lesser flashes will not do and they are much smaller and easier to carry. In all but a planned stroboscopic event I carry the SB-600, and unless you have no CLS on your camera the SB-600 is all you need. Unfortunately they are no longer made, but the excellent SB-700 does all that the 600 does plus adds limited wireless commander control and has a built in optical trigger. It gives up a small bit of power to the SB-600, but it is not enough to ever be noticed. Look for an article in the future on using the CLS for creative shooting.
|So, I've mentioned "stroboscopic" and "Creative Lighting System" several times on this page so I've included some examples of stroboscopic photography. These were taken at my daughters dance school with some very talented students volunteering to dance before the camera. These were all taken as single exposures with multiple flashes going off in front of a black felt background in a dark room. All were shot at 2.5 seconds, ISO 125 with 4 SB-600, 2 SB-800 and 1 SB-900 flashes firing 6 to 8 times during the exposure triggered and timed by the Nikon CLS. The SB-900 was mounted on camera and acted as both a strobe and the controller while the other lights were all mounted on light stands around the room.|
Look for follow up articles on flash photography exploring exposure compensation, metering, manual vs. TTL, radio triggers vs. CLS for off camera flash and more. Thanks, Steve.
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