Using Flash for Your Photography

Oh you…

A flash unit for or on your camera can be a very useful thing.  It can also be a very annoying, deceptive tool, particularly for those starting out.

Traditionally (and boringly), we are taught that using a flash is a must.  In older model throw-away cameras, using the flash was just part of the game.  Now that we’ve moved on to bigger and better things- well, that old flash just isn’t the same anymore.

Some of the problems we find when we use a flash while shooting include blowing out our images, unsightly shadows, and harsh lighting that does not flatter our subject.  Now don’t get me wrong- sometimes these elements have their place in photography.  I personally love blowing out some images because of the effect it creates.  Creatively, it’s useful.  When we find ourselves shooting for graduations, weddings, or events, however, these elements aren’t always as useful when trying a more traditional approach.

Here are some tips to avoid unwanted effects from using on-camera flash.

1.) If you don’t need it, then don’t use it. 
Just because you have the equipment does not mean you need to use it 100% of the time to get more mileage for your dollar!  In my experience, I’ve found that using available light can create a much more natural image when photographing a scene than using my camera’s flash.  Yes, I even avoid using the more expensive one that I bought so that I would not have to use the horrible built-in flash if there came a time I needed to use it.

Here are some ideas:
-If you are shooting indoors, open all the windows and let all available light in.  Situate your subject in such a fashion to help maximize natural lighting.
-Mind your surroundings.  If you are outside, can you help soften harsh sunlight by placing your subject in a shaded area?
-Bounce available light.  Sometimes having a nice reflector can make all the difference in the world!  If you don’t want to spend money on a reflector (they aren’t too terribly expensive, but I know many of us are on a budget), using a white board or metallic reflective material will work just fine.  Using something reflective- even just a white wall- is a great way to add ambient light that could help make your portrait.  I’ve known some professional portrait photographers to use actual mirrors.  This made it seem like there were double the lights in the studio.  See more about bouncing light – #6.

Continuous lighting, reliable and predictable.

2.) Use continuous lighting.
This is a sort of spin-off of #1, but sometimes having continuous lighting is easier to gauge than having one quick burst of light on your subject.  With continuous lighting, you can set up the shot and see how you would like to capture it, all the while taking your time.  I am a fan of continuous lighting, myself, but realize that this may not always be the best method for every situation.  If you have a studio- great!  If you do on-location shoots, this may be a bit trickier if you are in a public place or have to move around a lot.  It’s my preferred method if I can find a place to set up camp without getting robbed.

You don’t have to buy the expensive photographer lighting kits that you may see at Cord Camera and similar photography stores.  As long as you have some way to reduce harsh light, I’ve used and have known others to use construction lighting.  Which brings me to the next point:

3.) Reduce the harshness by diffusing.
Diffusing light simply makes the light appear softer on your subject.  For my flash, I have what’s called an omni-bounce There are a variety of models and versions on Amazon.  Even so, that doesn’t always do the trick.  There are now also soft-box style diffusers that go right onto the flash unit to help soften the light. I would like to purchase one of these to give it a go.

If you are using continuous lighting, or an off camera flash, sometimes having a white umbrella or soft material over the flash can help diffuse the light.

4.) Bounce the light.
This is not easy to do if you are using an on-camera flash, and this tip is more useful for flash units that can be twisted and moved around.  Unless I’m going for a flash-blow out, I rarely, if ever, direct the flash straight at my subject.
Bouncing the light refers to using other surfaces, such as other white/light walls, ceilings, backdrops, or canvases to help spread out the light from the flash and make it seem like the light is coming from other directions.  This, in effect, can also help diffuse the light coming from your flash.  Instead of having the light come full force on to your subjects face or front surface, pointing your flash to a wall to your left, for example, will bounce the light from the wall onto your subject.  This creates the effect that you have some light source to the left that is helping light the scene- like using the reflectors.  It’s the same concept.

5.) Mind your surroundings
In many cases, we want to avoid shadows that might distract from our subject.  Sometimes this is difficult to achieve due to environmental conditions.  When at all possible, you may want to look at the following options.
-Use multiple lighting sources.  Doing so can help reduce shadows.  When doing portrait work, many times photographers will use back lighting to also light up the background to reduce and avoid shadows from being present.
Avoid being too close to your background.  The shadow may look darker, and it is harder to reduce the shadows.
Try to get some distance between your subject and background objects.  This way, more available light can come in between the model and the background to, again, reduce the shadows, and it also gives you more space to add background lighting if you have it available.

The following image was taken at a public event, and due to the location of other people, the space we had available was limited.  See how the shadow is distracting, and takes away from the over all image?

The next image was taken several minutes later at the same public event, but there was more space and opportunities to bounce the light.  Notice the distance from the background in comparison to the previous image.  The available overhead lighting neutralized shadows created by my flash unit, and the only shadows that can be seen are just the reflection from the floor:

6.) Use your God-given gift.
Or at least the gifts that are programmed in your camera…  Learn to use aperture, shutter speed, ISO- all those goodies.  Learn how to shoot in manual mode.  Experiment and play around with the settings.  Always do a few test shots.  Get a feel for how your camera takes images in different types of lighting.  In essence, get out and shoot!  Nothing can substitute for knowing your camera and getting familiar with how to maximize different scenes.  Try to shoot every day- or any available time.  Even if it’s not for a particular planned shoot, use your camera as often as possible to get in practice.  

Remember- just do your best.  Conditions are not always going to be perfect, and it will be up to you to make the best out of what you have and the conditions you are in.  Have fun with it, and it will come through in your images!


Have lighting tips? I’m always looking to expand my knowledge about how to use light to my advantage. Any feedback on how to improve photos = appreciated!


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