Friday, July 15, 2011

Working with No light (flash tips)

It’s true:

I’ve had several people ask me recently about flash, so I thought I’d give a few tips for beginners. These tips are handy for your average reception, party, event, portrait type setting…where sequences are happening and its your job to capture them.

Rule  #1: Never ever, ever, ever, ever use the pop up flash on your DSLR (unless you’re using it to sync your external flash). It’s evil, it’s the wrong height, it can’t be directed, it gives instant red eye, it’s a pain to change the settings via menu. Take the plunge, by an external flash. 

Rule #2 DIFFUSE.      It's your job to direct and regulate the light. I find that it’s easier to set your flash to a standard brightness and compensate in camera. For instance, as you move around a crowded room, open and close your aperture as you get closer or farther away from a face to avoid overexposure and hot spots on faces. You can diffuse light in several ways:

  1. Bounce- “bounce” the light off of a surface onto your subject. The intensity of the light has been lowered since it comes from a secondary source.
  2. Use a diffuser- A diffuser is a anything that cuts down and spreads out the light from your flash. They can be bought or homemade. A ring diffuser is particularly helpful for portraits.

Tips on bouncing:

    • bouncing of a white ceiling is ideal (although not available in every situation)
    • think of it as a game of pool, angles matter. You want your bounced flash to mimic sunlight hitting the subject from above.
    • judge your ceiling height, if you have extremely tall ceilings,  you may need to increase the brightness of your flash.
    • the color of the object you are bouncing off of is important! yellow walls = warm light and so on and so forth.
    • use walls and even floors when you are in a room
    • judge your surrounding lights, are they florescent? neon? ambient? You want to blend  your artificial light into the surrounding light (so billy bob doesn’t have a green glare to one half his face and a yellow to his other). You can blend light by using gels OR by directing light off something of the same tone (warm or cool). Since most rooms are slightly warm toned, a cheat that I use a lot is to fire my flash upwards and cup my hand around the top of it. The light bounces' of my warm toned hand back at the subject.


Now, here’s my thought process- how to decide WHAT to do WHEN:

(it’s not foolproof and it might not necessarily be right, it’s just how I roll).

    1. I analyze the shot
    2. If its not a fast moving shot where I need to freeze action, I bump my ISO up and forgo flash altogether
    3. If I must use my flash, I look for my options to bounce first
    4. If there is no where to bounce, I use direct flash with a diffuser

TWO things that Help tremendously in Little to none light settings.


It may happens that you find yourself in a pitch black trying to capture action shots.  Suddenly you are caught trying to “freeze” the frame and all you are getting is nasty harsh pictures: bright foreground, black background. In desperation more shots than you need. A lot of time our lighting situation makes us feel like we have no control.  Slow down. Think about the moment you are trying to capture, and play it cool. Think about what the light needs to highlight and how you can get it there.

For instance, during this mild but fast paced soda can game, there was zippo light. All I am capturing in the first two pictures is, “yep, that happened, and we sweated a whole lot.”. Harsh Light.


Then I thought about the photo that I actually wanted to capture: intense dueling, straws in teeth, a match to the death. In short: my composition and the one that would tell the story of what was happening. So I asked a friendly and willing bystander to fire my flash on the opposite side of the action while I shot. Since it was pitch black, I switched to manual focus since autofocus will not work in the dark. Voila: a picture I actually wanted.



Flash freezes action, so go with the slower shutter speed. More light will enter the camera and fill your background so you don’t just have the subject lit. For example, without a flash, I am limited to about 1/60 of a second or faster (anything slower and you get blur). But with a flash, I can use a setting somewhere around 1/10 or 1/20. This shot was at f/4 at 1/8th of a second with a direct  flash.


See the difference in the good photo above with this photo below. You have little idea where this couple is standing since the light has hit them but not the background. f/5 at 1/70th of a second with direct flash.


And there are probably a few hundred other things to tell you, but for now, adios……

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