Tutorial: Flash Photography Tips

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Flash Photography Tips

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Video Transcript

Well, people ask me all the time "How can I take better flash photos?" so I'm going to try to give you a series of tips right now, ranging from the low end-if you just have a little point and shoot camera-up through digital SLRs, all the way up to if you're trying to get professional looking lighting with off-camera flash with your digital SLR. I'm going to try to cover the whole spectrum so there is something in here for everyone, no matter what level you're at. So let's start at the simple end-if you have a little point and shooter camera, like this little Canon here. Even with a simple camera there are things you can do to improve your flash photography.

Now the first tip that I'd like to give you is to use fill flash. Now what is fill flash? Fill flash is forcing the flash to fire in the daytime and it's called "fill flash" because what you're doing is you're filling in the shadows on parts of your subject so that it comes out better exposed and the classic case where you need fill flash is a situation where your subject is backlit. This often happens when the sun is behind your subject in the daytime or here's a photo, for example. I took my friend Julie out and Julie is an excellent photographer in her own right, who teaches me things about photography every day. She was kind enough to go out and be the subject this time and here is Julie backlit by the sun. We have a wonderful sunset scene going on here but virtually no Julie. She's a black hole.

So the way you solve this is you force your camera to flash. Some cameras try to detect backlit situations and fire the flash. Some do, some don't. Some don't reliably. Don't trust your camera to know what it's doing. Tell it what you want it to do. And the way you do that-if you want to fire the flash, even when the camera doesn't think it needs to be fired, like this-here's how it looks on my little Canon. Yours may be slightly different but it will have some equivalent kind of control. On here there is a little lightning bolt symbol that indicates the flash and if I push that it lets me cycle through the different flash options. Right now it's set to "automatic" and if I cycle through, that is forcing it on, that is forcing it off-which is also sometimes a useful setting-and so I can go through those and I'm going to tell it "always fire"-stay on. And when I do that then no matter what the camera think about the exposure, it's going to fire that flash.

Now you may be a little close to your subject and the light may be a little strong. You may need to back up a couple steps and maybe zoom in slightly. If you have a simple camera the only way to adjust the strength of the flash may be to take a few steps forward or backward. If you have a little fancier one it may give you some control over the strength of it but not every camera has that. At any rate, by forcing the flash to fire, now you get your subject exposed and your background is exposed as before. Now a second condition where you may want to use fill flash is where your subject is not necessarily backlit but maybe side lit or lit from above by the sun, leaving part of their face in very bright light and part of them in darker shadow. So once again, you tell the flash "fire no matter what," you fill in with some flash and as you can see in this photo, you get a more even exposure. You get light and detail in those shadow areas. So that's tip number one. Use fill flash.

All right. Now here's tip number two, if you're shooting with a little point and shoot camera. And that is if you're shooting flash photos at night, as often as possible you want to use the mode that is called "slow sync flash." Now it's not always called that on little cameras. If you have a digital SLR it's called "slow sync." But on small cameras it has a name like "night portrait mode" or "night snapshot mode" usually. What does "slow sync" mean? It means slow synchronization of the flash with the shutter. In other words, the flash is going to fire and expose your subject and then there's going to be a slow shutter. It's going to wait awhile before closing the shutter and what it does is that lets the light in the background of the scene come up and make a nice exposure in the background. So your person or your subject in the foreground gets a burst of flash. Then the shutter stays open until the light comes up in the background exposing the rest of the scene.

Now the cameras don't do this automatically. You usually have to choose a special mode and here's how it looks on my little Canon. Now on here I go into the function settings and there's all these different ready-made modes and I go and pick this one. On here it's called "night snapshot." Sometimes it's called "night portrait" or something like that. If I choose that, that tells the camera "Go into slow sync mode, keep the shutter open until the background light comes up." Now this obviously doesn't work if there is no light in the background. If you've just got a person and there's no manmade or natural light of any kind behind them don't bother with this because then you'll just end up with a really, really, really slow shutter while the camera is trying to get exposure on that and you'll get something blurry. But if there is some kind of light back there, use this mode and bring it up.

All right. Now we're ready to move up to the next level-to the digital SLR. Now the first thing to note is a digital SLR has the same functions as the little point and shoots plus more, so the same rules apply. You want to use fill flash when you can. You want to use the night portrait mode, although on these cameras it's usually called "slow sync flash" because that sounds a little more techy and more expensive. For example, using fill flash, one of the great things about most digital SLRs is you have control over the strength of the flash. Even if you're just using the little built in flash or if you're using an attached hot shoe flash, you have a setting on here called "flash exposure compensation," which will allow you to control how strong it is and that's great for fill flash because sometimes the camera might fire the fill flash too strong and it will overexpose your subject or too weak and on a digital SLR you can control that. I'll show you how it looks on a Canon, like this. There is a little button here with a little lightning bolt symbol and if you push that, then turn the wheel on the back, that's allowing you to change the flash exposure compensatio and if it's at the midpoint it's normal and you can brighten it up or dim it down in one-third stop increments.

Now here is an example of a photo of me taken with this digital SLR, using some fill flash and the fill flash had dialed down a little bit here so it's kind of subtle. And you can see-if I zoom in here a bit-you can see one of the benefits-another benefit of using fill flash is the flash can pop a little catch light in the eye of your subject, which helps bring the eyes out of the face a little bit on your subject. So it's one more benefit of using fill flash and you can do it with this extra control on your digital SLR.

Now here is the next tip for improving flash with your digital SLR. You can put something on the pop-up flash if you don't have a detachable hot shoe flash or anything fancy. You can cover your pop-up flash with something to diffuse the light a little bit and make it just a little bit softer because the pop-up flash on there is just a little tiny strip about a square centimeter in size and that's a pretty hard little source of light. And usually the bigger your source of light, the nicer the light. So you can buy little devices. This is a little thing made by Lumiquest and it's called the Lumiquest Soft Screen and it's just a little piece of plastic that just fits on here and just rests on there. It's nothing fancy and it's not expensive, but it covers the flash so that the flash is now made into something about a 4x5 inch square of softer light instead of this little pinpoint source of hard light.

You can see here are two photos comparing. Here is just the straight-up undiffused pop-up flash on the camera. And now here is a shot with the diffuser on and you can see it not only softened it but it warmed the light up slightly. Even though it looks like it's perfectly white, it has a slight warming effect it seems. So it may not be so obvivous in the video because the resolution is limited here but this definitely makes a little bit of a softer, nicer kind of light on your subject. And if you don't have anything handy, like a little piece of plastic like this, you can even just take a piece of paper and hold it in front of your pop-up flash or have somebody hold it in front of your pop-up flash when you're doing a shot; especially if you're shooting a portrait of somebody kind of close because now suddenly you've got kind of like a little soft box of light that's like a foot square instead of a little pinpoint souorce. So anything you can do to diffuse your built-in flash like that helps a little bit.

Now this is where we start to get serious about flash photography. The next step up on your digital SLR from using the little built in pop-up flash is to get one of these hot shoe flashes, like this Canon 580EXII here. Now obviously this is a lot more powerful than the little built-in flash in the camera so you can take pictures of things at much greater distsances; you can fill much bigger spaces with light. You can take pictures of larger groups of people, but the actual quality of the light-if you have the flash aimed straight ahead like this and if you're shooting it straight at your subject-the actual quality of the light is not all that much different or better from the little pop-up flash in your camera. There is more of it but it's still a hard point source of light. But where this kind of flash really gets you a lot of mileage in improving your photos is not when you're pointing it straight at your subject like this, but if you're shooting indoors where you have a ceiling or a wall or something to bounce the flash off of and you tilt it like this and now if your subject is over there and you're bouncing off a ceiling, suddenly you've turned this few square inches of light into several square feet perhaps of light on a white ceiling. So it's like they're being lit from a big panel from above instead of a little point source over here.

So look at this comparison. Here is a shot with the flash straight on, of Julie-looks not all that different from the shot taken with the built-in pop-up flash. Although it's a little brighter and more evenly lit. But when we bounce it off the ceiling, look at the difference. Suddenly now it's almost like natural lighting because it's coming from above, it's much more spread out, it wraps around, it's softer. It's definitely better light when you can bounce off something and any time you're in a room with a white ceiling or something that's close to white or under some kind of object or even if you can position yourself under something that can act as a temporary bounce surface, that's where this kind of flash really shines.

And now finally, the ultimate step in flash photography is when you can get this flash and take it off the camera and position it somewhere else so you've got your light coming from a different angle instead of straight along the lens axis, which is usually rather unflattering light. Positioning it off to the side and shooting it through some kind of diffuser like a soft box or an umbrella to soften the light and spread it out, bring it in from a different angle and then you can get this kind of photo. And this is where you're approaching the professional level lighting like studio lighting and you can do that with these simple, detachable flashes from your camera. Now the way you do that is by using either a cord from your camera to the flash called a "PC cord" or a shoe cord or you can use radio triggers to do this.

And this is a big subject and it's more complicated than I can go into in this simple, little, short video but if you're interested in going to the next level and doing off camera flash, I have an entire course consisting of nine videos on my site at steeletraining.com where I show how to do this and I shoot with live models and I show you all the different permutations and ways of doing off camera flash. So that's the ultimate and if you're into that I invite you to go check that out. So anyway, I hope there has been something for you in this escalating series of tips and I look forward to talking to you soon.