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Flash photography (12/14/2003)
By Tom Hirsch
This information is useful for 35mm, APS and digital camera users.

One of the most convenient devices on a compact camera and some SLRs is the built-in flash. With it, we can easily shoot indoors or out, day or night, and be reasonably assured of getting good exposures. Following are some suggestions, and a few warnings, that can help you get the best utilization out of your camera's built-in flash.

Suppose you're photographing a bride and groom standing in front of a wall. Three problems here. First, shadows falling on the wall will be quite sharp around the faces of the couple. These shadows can be somewhat distracting.

The second problem: It will be obvious that flash was used. Not a critical factor, but we usually want our shots to look like they were taken with natural lighting.

Thirdly, the reflection from flash fired directly at a wall or other shiny surface can create a hotspot, or "white out," on the background. This, too, can direct the viewer's attention away from the intended subject.

These problems can be solved quite easily by not using a wall as a background. If for some reason a wall makes the best background or is unavoidable, shoot at about a forty-five degree angle to the wall. This will greatly reduce the possibility of shadows and reflections.

People who wear glasses can also create a problem. Actually, it's the glasses, not the people, that cause the problem. Glasses can cause reflections that obscure the person's eyes. Ask those wearing glasses to turn their heads slightly to one side or remove their glasses.

Light from electronic flash diminishes rapidly as flash-to-subject distance increases, so check your manual for the maximum flash distance range. In some manuals, the maximum distance is listed for ISO 100 film, or the ISO 100 setting on a digital camera. When using ISO 200, multiply the given distance by 1.4. With ISO 400, double the given distance.

As noted above, the faster the ISO setting, the greater the flash-distance range, but there's another way of adding distance to the flash range. Fudge on the recommended distance. With print film, you can add about twenty-five percent to the calculated distance. For example, if the maximum calculated distance is twenty feet, you could safely shoot up to twenty-five feet. The latitude of the film will pick up the difference. This will also work with digital cameras. Don't try this with slide film because it would be too underexposed.

We know that bright sunlight is not the best lighting for people snapshots and informal portraits. Under this lighting condition, we can use side or backlighting, but even then the shadows might obscure the facial features we want to emphasize. Try fill-flash.

Fill-flash is a way of adding detail in the shadows produced by bright sunlight. Because sunlight is so much more intense than flash, the sun will provide the primary source of light, and the flash will act as a secondary light source. When using fill-flash under bright sunlight, it's a good idea to position the subject or subjects at about a forty-five degree angle to the sun. This will provide a nice modeling effect, and the subjects won't be forced to squint.

Most compact and digital cameras automatically adjust for proper fill-flash, or have this feature as one of the options that can be selected. If your camera does not specifically provide this as an option, you will need to turn the flash on manually. To activate the flash in bright sunlight, cover the meter eye and push the shutter release half way down. With some cameras, you'll have to activate the flash manually for each shot.

Flash is great in low-light situations, but there are ways of getting good results - and sometimes superior results - with other methods, as we will show next time. 


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