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When there isn't enough available light to take a good picture, the camera needs help, in the form of a flash. The flash adds enough light to give the proper exposure.

Most cameras will automatically use the flash when they detect that more light is required. Most cameras have an indicator light that lets you know that the flash is ready. After you use the flash on a shot, there will usually be a few seconds' delay while the flash recharges (Figure 4.15).

Figure 4.15. The upper LED flashes when the flash is not ready to fire or if there isn't enough light (if the flash is turned off).

When using the flash, keep in mind that most flashes don't throw their light more than 10 or 15 feet. Anything beyond that range will not get enough light for a proper exposure.

Some cameras have an external flash option. This is a jack where you can plug in a separate, more powerful flash unit.

Reducing Red Eye

One of the problems that arise when you're shooting a portrait shot with flash is the dreaded “red-eye” effect. When the flash goes off, the human eye's iris reflects the flash as a bright red. Since you generally don't want a subject to look like a movie monster, this is not good. Most cameras offer a red-eye reduction flash setting. This setting will fire the flash twice, once to let the subject's eye adjust to the light (which eliminates the red eye) and then again a second later when the picture is actually taken. Make sure when using the red-eye setting that your subject knows that the flash will fire twice, so they don't move between flashes.

Red eye can be corrected on your computer with image-editing software, but it's preferable to eliminate it at the source.

Using the Flash to Fill In Light

When shooting a subject in shadows, you might sometimes want just a bit of flash to bring out the darker areas without making everything too bright. Fill flash is the answer. When set to fill flash, the camera uses a reduced amount of flash, which is usually just enough to bring out the details in the darker areas (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.16. With no flash, the darker areas like the hair lack detail. By adding some fill flash, there's enough light to see the shadow details without washing out the brighter areas.

Shooting without the Flash

Most cameras give you the option to suppress the flash. If there isn't sufficient light to get a good exposure but you don't want to use a flash, you can turn it off entirely. The camera will adjust the exposure setting accordingly. This setting can come in handy in, say, a museum that doesn't allow flash photography. It will also be useful if the subject is behind or near a shiny surface that will reflect too much light in the shot (Figure 4.17).

Figure 4.17. The glare of the flash on the glass from washes out this shot of a poster.

But there's a catch. (Isn't there always?) In low light and with no flash, the shutter speed may be so slow that the shot will come out blurred. As a rule, any shutter speed slower than 1/30th of a second will be blurred if you're holding the camera. As long as your subject doesn't move, you can overcome this problem by using a tripod or monopod. This will generally keep the camera steady enough get a clear shot even at low shutter speed (Figure 4.18).

Figure 4.18. Turning the flash off and using a monopod to hold the camera steady results in a good, sharp shot.

Shooting at Night

When you're shooting outdoors at night, the flash will illuminate the subject, but the shutter speed may be too fast to capture anything not in the flash's range. If you want to capture a portion of the background, some cameras offer a night flash, or slow shutter, setting. With this setting, the flash will fire, but the shutter will stay open longer to capture the darker areas of the shot (Figure 4.19).

Figure 4.19. With the standard flash setting, the tree and house are illuminated by the flash (left). The night flash setting still illuminates the house and tree, but you can also see the light through the window (right).

Flash Correction

If you want to use the flash but find that it's too light or dark or just too glaring, some cameras offer a flash correction option. As with exposure compensation, you can set the flash to be brighter or darker. This can be helpful if you find that the flash is washing out highlight details (Figure 4.20).

Figure 4.20. Two different flash correction settings show the same banjo with more and less glare.

If you need the flash to get a shot but find that the flash is creating too much reflection when you're pointing the camera directly at the subject, try shooting at an angle to eliminate the glare (Figure 4.21).

Figure 4.21. The glossy surface of the poster reflects too much flash and creates a glare. By shooting at an angle, you eliminate the reflection, but the poster is still readable.

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