Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Photo Techniques #001

"Flash is good ..... honest!"

by Neil Turner


Photography needs light. Good photography needs the right quality of light. Once in a while the right amount of light strikes the subject of the picture from the right angle with right amount of diffusion and there is a real joy when that happens naturally. Unfortunately that doesn't happen too often, so you are left with three choices:- work with what you've got, wait for the light to become right or learn to add as much light as you need to get your picture. Photographers seem to fall into two camps...those who use flash as part of their every day technique and those who don't.

You could say that I am squarely in the former camp, but it seems to me that there aren't enough of us. To redress that balance a little bit I have written a lot about how I use flash in my every day work, and I hope that this short series of pieces brings a few more of you into the realm of "the curious".

I am often asked how to do various things - especially by those scared of using flash - and the detail people ask from me is frightening. Which aperture to shoot at and which brand of light modifier to use are two common ones, but the list is both long and wide. Everything in photography is part technical and part creative, so image a line that stretches between the two extremes and that every photograph that you will ever take falls in it's own place along that line. Sometimes flash nudges an image towards the creative, and sometimes towards the technical but used selectively it usually makes the picture better.

Some basics.

I hate rules, maybe that's why I became a photographer. Despite hating rules, I know which ones to obey and I sometimes make up new ones!

  • All automatic flash systems are easily fooled.
  • On camera flash is a last resort.
  • The best use of flash is often the one you don't notice.
  • If you are mixing flash and ambient be wary of colour balance.


Fooling the automatic

It doesn't matter whether your camera has TTL, E-TTL or Matrix Super Mega Metering the flash metering will make mistakes. With all of the technology available modern SLRs are getting it right more often but anyone who thinks that their camera will get any form of metering, let alone flash, right 100% is wrong.

We, as photographers, need to know when and where the auto will and will not work. We need to realize that the sensor is looking for one thing - an average tone across the metering area. This is glibly referred to as "18% grey". It's what a camera designer in a lab many years ago decided was an average tone and ever since that standard has applied to every camera, sensor and meter ever made. The simple test is that when you look through the viewfinder and concentrate on the metering area that you see (on average) that tone. Easier said than done, but with practice it becomes a subconscious action. If the tone is darker, you need to underexpose against the meter's decision and if the tone is lighter you will have to overexpose.

By how much you alter the exposure is another matter for practice and experience, but the LCD screen on modern digital cameras means that you can see the results instantly and practice shooting at little or no cost. Of course you can shoot with flash on a fixed output (my favourite method) as long as the flash to subject distance isn't changing!

Keep it out of the hot shoe

The hotshoe mounted flash has it's uses, but there are very few occasions when it gives you the most interesting and creative results. The biggest factor in good flash photography is the direction from which the light comes, and straight from the same direction as the camera is the least interesting. When you talk about the direction of flash it's easiest to discuss it in terms of variation from the axis of the lens - so direct from the direction of the lens is zero degrees and directly behind the subject is 180 degrees, with right angles to the subject either side being 90 degrees.

For general photography the best direction for the light to come from is between 20 and 45 degrees. The theory is that an element of cross light aids the "micro contrast" in an image, whereas light from the axis of the lens (zero degrees) reduces the micro contrast. Beyond that element of improving the technical quality of the photograph, light from off axis is just more interesting for the majority of the time. It's a win/win situation - if the light comes from the right direction it is better technically and creatively.

Just because you can't see it....

One of the secrets of great flash photography is fooling the viewer into not noticing it. I used to work with a picture editor who would look at an image and if she could see any evidence of direct flash she would spike the photograph, tough love and good judgement on her part. There are loads of ways to use flash without making it obvious - good light modifiers (umbrellas, softboxes, walls, ceilings), subtle fill flash and interesting flash angles are amongst the best but the really important thing is that each photographer establishes their own arsenal of techniques, refines and expands that arsenal and keeps their photography fresh. There is no way that someone can say "do it this way" and you are instantly a better photographer, but by providing examples with descriptions it is possible to learn from other peoples triumphs.

I'm not saying that obviously lit images are bad, the bad pictures are those that are badly flashed for no other reason than the laziness or lack of knowledge of the photographer. We can all see the difference between good and bad flash - the skill is working out why it's good or bad and coming up with a better way of doing it next time. Look for catchlights (in eyes or shiny areas of the image) and shadows and if you are going to include either in your photographs make sure that they are a positive asset to the picture and not an unwanted distraction.

Matching your colours

When you shoot black and white you don't have to worry about shifts in the colour of the light and when you shoot colour negative film the process averages out a lot of the problems that multiple light sources cause. When you shoot colour transparency film or digital then the problems cannot be hidden. This is where there is no substitute for a bit of technical knowledge.

Most flash units output light at about 5400K, which is similar to daylight. Most domestic bulbs and a lot of stadium lights are around 3200K which shows up as orange and every type of light has it's own colour. As a photographer you need to be able to control the balance, so sometimes you need to colour the flash and at other times to limit the amount of background in an image. Once again it's a decision to be taken on the spot with half an eye to creativity and the other half to technical matters.

And there's more to come.....

In the next few weeks I'm going to write more, in greater detail about some of the issues. If there is anything you want to know - that I can help with - let me know and I'll see if we can work it into the series. In the meantime my website is at, so come and have a look.

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