Every photographer would like to take great flash photos, but all too often they come out poorly lit, too bright, too dark, or just plain unattractive.
In his video tutorial at SteeleTraining.com, photographer Phil Steele offers a series of solutions for the whole spectrum of camera types. Whether you have a little point-and-shoot camera or a fancy digital SLR with hot-shoe flash, this article, based on Steele's video, will have something for you.
Starting at the simple end, if you have a small point-and-shoot camera, with built-in flash, the first tip is to remember to use Fill Flash. Fill flash is forcing your flash to fire, even in daylight, to fill in dark shadows in your scene.
The classic case where you need fill flash is when your subject is backlit by the sun. The camera may think the whole scene is properly exposed, but your subject appears as a black silhouette. Unless you are intentionally going for the silhouette look, you'll need to force your camera to fire the flash to see the detail in your subject.
On nearly all small cameras there is a setting to force the flash to fire. You can usually cycle through several flash settings ranging from Automatic (the camera decides whether to flash), to Always On, and Always Off. Setting this to Always On will force the flash to fire and your previously dark subject will now be lit. If the flash is too bright you can take a step backward or partially cover the flash with you finger to reduce its power.
The second tip for small point-and-shoot cameras is to use Slow-Sync flash, also known as "Night Portrait," "Night Snapshot," "Party Mode" and other terms. In slow-sync mode the flash fires to expose your subject, then the shutter remains open for a while to get a normal exposure on the light in the background.
Now, instead of your subject floating in a black void, you have a subject in a scene. You can also get interesting effects if the camera or the lights in the background move during the exposure. Of course, if there is no light in the background behind your subject, don't bother with slow-sync. You'll just get a very long exposure and a blurry shot.
Moving up to digital SLR's the first thing to remember is that they have the same capabilities as pocket-cameras, plus more. So you should still use fill flash and slow-sync flash.
On a digital SLR you have much more control over your fill flash, because the power of the flash is adjustable. Typically called "Flash Exposure Compensation" you can adjust the power of the flash in small increments, such as 1/3 of a stop, to get exactly the power you want.
You can also improve the flash photos on your digital SLR by using a diffuser over the built-in flash, such as the LumiQuest Soft Screen, to make the light source larger and soften the light. In an emergency you can even hold a sheet of white paper in front of the flash to diffuse it. Anything to spread the light and soften it helps.
Stepping up in the world of serious flash photography, the next level is to purchase a hot-shoe flash to mount on your digital SLR. These flashes, such as the Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580EX are much more powerful than the built-in flash in your camera. They allow you to take photos at greater distances and to fill larger spaces with light.
Most importantly, however, the heads of these flash units can be tilted to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. By bouncing the light off a surface, you transform the tiny light source into a large apparent light source many square feet in size, resulting in much more flattering light. Be careful not to bounce off a colored surface, though, or you will create a color cast in your photo.
Finally, the ultimate step in flash photography is to get the flash off your camera entirely, bringing the light to your subject from a different angle instead of straight along the lens axis. This creates much more attractive light that sculpts your subject instead of bouncing back straight into the lens and creating the harsh look typical of flash photography.
When you use this kind of "off-camera-flash" you typically diffuse the light through a softbox or umbrella. To trigger the flash you can use a cable such as a PC cord or shoe cord, or a wireless trigger, such as a radio trigger. Some flashes, such as those from Canon and Nikon, also have a built-in wireless triggering system.
For those interested in off-camera-flash photography, Steele offers a video course at SteeleTraining.com called "How to Shoot Professional Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes" which covers all aspects of off-camera flash and illustrates the principles with live models.
For a video version of this article, visit this YouTube link: