To Flash or not To Flash
Brighten Up and Improve Your Photographs
by Tom Benford
Originally published in March 2008 issue of Digital Photographer
Without a doubt, one of the handiest features of your digital camera is the built-in flash. And, also without a doubt, it’s also the most misused, too. Many people only think of using their flash when the ambient lighting is too dark to give them an acceptable exposure, which is one of the main reasons the flash was built into the camera in the first place. But there are lots of other times you can – and should – be using the flash to brighten up and improve your pictures. Using the flash can often make the difference between a keeper and a trasher, or make a simply good picture into a much better one. The thing is to know when and how to use the flash to best advantage.
The thing about built-in flashes is that they don’t offer the flexibility or adjustability that accessory flash units do. But that doesn’t diminish their usefulness as much as you might think — it just takes a little know-how and creativity to coax the right light out of them and direct it where you want.
Some cameras provide you with a choice of regular or “fill” settings for firing the flash when you trip the shutter, and this helps a bit. The “fill flash” setting, as the name implies, is useful for “filling” in the darker areas with light to improve the overall luminosity of the photograph. Generally speaking, the fill-flash output is usually not as strong as the straight flash output on a given camera, and this is done intentionally to prevent too much light from washing out the subject when used in fill mode.
If your camera doesn’t have a fill-flash mode, don’t despair: there are still ways to get the same effect. One of the easiest ways is to use a tissue in front of the flash lens to lessen the amount of light that hits your subject. This is something you’ll have to experiment with somewhat to gauge how many plies of tissue cut down the light enough for your purposes, so try folding it over once and shooting a picture with it in front of the flash, then review the results on your LCD to seehow it came out. If things are still looking a bit too bright, try doubling the tissue again, take another shot and review the results.
There’s an easier way to diffuse the harsh light emitted by the flash other than using tissue paper, and that is to use a device such as the LumiQuest Soft Screen diffuser (www.lumiquest.com), an inexpensive (under $20) accessory item that easily slips over most pop-up flashes. It’s great for reducing facial sheen, softening the shadows behind subjects and creating better close-up lighting in general.
Another technique is to use a white card or a piece of white paper folded a couple of times to bounce the flash output off the ceiling, wall or other object to redirect the illumination. This often helps to reduce any glare or shadows that may be produced by using full-frontal flash directly. You may also find it useful to review your previous shots for comparison purposes to decide how much of this diffusing and/or bouncing yields the best result.
Sometimes you may want to backlight your subject to get a dramatic silhouette, and that’s fine if that’s what your goal is. But then there are other times when you may still want the drama that backlighting can provide, but you want to shed some light to show some subject detail as well, and that’s when your flash will come into play. Whether to use the fill-flash or full forced-flash settings depends on the subject, your proximity to it, the backlight and other variables, so there are really no hard and fast rules as to what to do or what works best – experimentation to find the right combination is the ticket. In such situations you’ll find that spending a little time trying different settings will yield really great results and, more times than not, you’ll get the shot and effect you’re after.
The Red Eye Problem and How to Fix it
“Red eye” is a problem that plagues just about everyone who takes full-frontal facial shots of people. Red eye is caused by the light of the flash reflecting back from the retina of the eye, which is covered with tiny blood vessels. The less ambient light there is, the more the pupil of the eye dilates; the more it is dilated, the more the retina is exposed. Some cameras have a ‘red eye reduction’ mode which fires the flash once before the picture is taken, then again when the shutter is tripped. The purpose of this is so that the subject’s pupils have an opportunity to contract, which they naturally do when bright light enters them. And, of course, the more the pupil is contracted, the less the retina’s blood vessels can reflect the light back. The idea here is that the first flash causes the pupil contraction so that the pupil is small when the actual picture is snapped, thus negating the red eye effect.
A similar problem occurs when taking photos of animals. Animals have a reflective layer in their eyes behind the retina called the tapetum, which enhances their night vision. The color that reflects from the tapetum and shows up in your flash photos can be blue, green, yellow or white. The color of the animal’s eyes in the photo also depends on the angle from which the picture was taken.
If you don’t have a red eye reduction mode on your camera, you can still get the same effect by taking a couple of flash pictures in rapid succession so that the pupil will still be constricted from the flash of the first shot when you take the second one. You can also shine a bright LED flashlight into the subject’s eyes right before snapping the picture, too, but the first method works better.
Softening the light of the flash with a diffuser also works well for reducing or eliminating red eye, but you have to be very close to the subject, since the diffuser also reduces the amount of light produced by the flash.
Of course, you can also have the subject or pet look slightly away from the camera rather than directly at it, or you can alter your shooting angle to get the same result.
Lastly, the post-shoot cure for red eye is to use your favorite photo management/manipulation software application. There’s also a product called Red Eye Pilot (www.colorpilot.com) specifically designed for correcting red eye problems in your photos; you can download a free trial copy from the Web site.
Having said all this, it’s hoped that you’ll be more at ease when it comes to using your flash — whether it’s built-in to your digicam, or whether it’s an optional external model. Don’t be afraid to use it — you’ll be glad you did.