Three tips to improve flash photography

The use of flash is critical when shooting in limited ambient light and many photographers try to minize usage due to discomfort.  They set their camera in automatic mode (P in Canon parlance), pop-up the small embedded flash and just shoot away. The resulting images usually do not meet expectations and the photographer may wonder why.  The three tips in this post can dramatically improve the situation.

External flash

The flashes incorporated in today’s digital SLRs (dSLR) are limited. Their location above the lens often creates red eye and their small size limits power. The result is mediocre performance and I recommend limiting their use to emergencies only. A better option is to purchase an external flash. They mount on your camera’s hot shoe and move the flash further from the lens. Their larger size will offer greater flash power and shorter recycle times. Look for a model with a rotating head because bouncing the flash is critical.

Bounce it!

A straight blast from the flash will deliver less than desirable results. The problem is that the flash is generating a large amount of light from a relatively small source.  The best images are typically captured in diffuse and even lighing like on a cloudy day.

Bouncing a flash will improve the sitution. By bouncing, the flash is hitting a large surface like the ceiling which results in light diffusion. The resulting image will have more consistent lighting and look more natural. Remember that you can bounce the flash off of almost any reflective surface and so you could use the ceiling or any surrounding wall. The directionality of these sources will impact the image.

Keep in mind that flash bouncing is dependent on the proximity of the bouncing surface. If you are in a cathedral with 200 ft high ceilings, bouncing will be next to impossible. However, in a typical residential situation with reasonably low ceilings this is not an issue. The other point to consider is that the color of the bounce surface will impact the image. If you are bouncing off of a yellow ceiling then you will see a yellow tinge to your images. This can be easily fixed in Photoshop.

Manual settings

One frustration with Canon is that if you put the camera in “P” and shoot with a flash in a dark setting, the camera will automatically choose 1/60th of a second and a wide-open aperture. This can be a problem for many lenses that do not perform well wide open. I find that best performance can be obtained by manually choosing a shutter speed and aperture. I use a fixed setting of 1/100, F5.6 and ISO400 as my default flash configuration. It provides excellent image quality, and if I need extra flash power, I can increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed.

The manual setting above may appear daunting to many; however, it is not complex. Simply set your camera to “M” and dial-in the described settings. You can then turn your camera back to “P” and shoot normally. If you need the flash, attach it to your hot shoe, and set your camera to “M” and the previous settings will be used.

These simple tips will provide immediate improvements in your flash photography. There are many advanced techniques that are outside the scope of this post. If you are interested in more complex strategies for flash usage then I recommend this book.  I am currently reading it and so far am very impressed with the content.

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6 thoughts on “Three tips to improve flash photography”

  1. Thanks for putting this out here, Jay.

    As someone with the same DSLR as you have, I have found that I shoot crappy pics. To crown it all, I did the reverse: I had resorted to using the ‘crappy’ built-in flash on my Canon Rebel XTi rather than the external flash units, a Canon 270EX and an Opteka EF 600DG Super, that I own.

    I cannot wait to try out these new steps shortly, and I will report on my progress here.

    Thank you for doing this.

    1. John, thank you for the comment. These tips made a tremendous difference for me and I am confident that they will do the same for you. I look forward to hearing about your progress!

  2. Excellent post here Jay. Flash photography is one of those challenging things when first starting out. One could argue that mastering flash is mastering photography as a whole!
    John, your comment made me chuckle man, I’ve been there… Sometimes I’m STILL there 🙂

    1. Agreed that flash is challenging and is closely related to photography as a whole. Thank you for your comment.

  3. That’s a very sexy flash you have photoed in the post Jay. The article is spot on. Great tips here. It’s a keeper.

    Thanks for the tip on the book as well. On my list to purchase soon.

    1. Michael, Thank you for your comment. That flash is a Canon 430EX which I currently use. It is a nice unit.

      Regarding the book, it is great and one of the few that I found that covers on-camera flash. Most of the others assume that you have multiple flashes, diffusers and other complex and costly gear.

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