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Chapter 4. How to Use Your Flash > Seeing the Light (in a Different Light)

Seeing the Light (in a Different Light)

To better understand the limitations of flash photography, let's talk about astrophysics for a moment. Don't put the book down in fear—it's nothing complicated, but it will make it easier to understand camera lighting, and it might make you sound cool at a party some day. (It hasn't worked for the 'Coach, but I'm still trying.) It is so simple that we can sum up all the rules involved in a simple list.

  • The sun is very, very, very big. Relative to the size of the sun, the earth is very, very small.

  • The sun is very, very, very far away.

  • On its way through the atmosphere from the sun, light gets bounced around by water and other stuff that floats in the air.

  • The light that hits your camera has come from a very big object, very far away, and is very diffused. A diffuse light source is said by photographers to be soft, meaning that it evenly illuminates a subject without causing harsh shadows.

  • Light at certain times of the day is softer than at other times. During the early morning and just before twilight photographers find the softest lighting, whereas the light from overhead at noon is much more harsh.

A light's quality, its hardness or softness, is determined by some key factors, including the size of the light source and its distance from the subject. Distance from the camera's lens is also important to factor in, as that angle affects the overall look of the picture as well.

The sun is very wide, and very far away. A strobe by comparison is a very teeny object that's perched right next to the camera's lens. It's the small size of the flash and the closeness to the subject that makes flash lighting so harsh (Figure 4.2a). Professional photographers use all sorts of expensive gear that can be set up anywhere in a room and all types of nifty accessories to make that light more diffused (Figure 4.2b).

Figure 4.2A. A camera's built-in strobe can produce harsh lighting.

Figure 4.2B. Accessory strobes, however, can often provide softer, more natural lighting.

Anytime available light drops below a certain level, your camera's strobe fires. Unless you tell it otherwise, the strobe fires at a very powerful setting, often enough to overexpose your picture.

At speeds slower than 1/30 of a second, the camera usually begins flashing away. That's because the camera assumes that if you need to take such a long exposure, then the light must be low. But the long exposure that should compensate for that low light will cause the picture to be blurry because of either camera shake or subject movement. The camera has no way to tell that you're taking a picture of a still life using a tripod instead of trying to capture a baseball player while standing on your seat in a stadium. Flash. Flash. Flash.

The PhotoCoach has a few tricks up his sleeve to get around this problem, depending on your camera model.

Almost all cameras have a way for the user to turn the flash on and off, overriding the camera's decision that a strobe is needed. There's a magic button that controls the flash. Cleverly disguised as a lighting bolt, this button changes your camera's settings (rather than projecting an actual bolt of lighting). On cameras that are menu driven, flash control is often found in the menus with the same symbol (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3. Some cameras do not include button controls for the flash. With these, you'll need to access the menus to control the flash.


The flash button might be the most important one on your camera, aside from the shutter release. With it you can tell your camera to turn the flash on or off, at your will, drastically changing the look of your pictures.

Perhaps the thing the PhotoCoach does most often with his camera is turn off the flash in low-light situations. Often a dim room or sunset will have a nice yellow glow to it, something that really can add to the warmth of a photograph. The light of a camera's flash is balanced to look like daylight, so the end result is a picture without any of the subtle lighting or interesting warmth of the actual scene (Figures 4.4a and 4.4b). By telling the camera to turn off the flash, you can get your photograph to have the warm look you wanted in the first place. You'll need to hold the camera extra steadily or use a tripod in some scenes, but that's a small price to pay for a photograph that looks great.

Figure 4.4A. By keeping the camera's flash turned off, the photographer was able to capture the magic of the scene.

Figure 4.4B. With the flash turned on, the scene loses all of its meaning.

There are other advantages to turning off the flash as well. For example, a flash uses a lot of power, so whenever your camera needs to take a flash photo, it takes a few seconds to gather up the energy from the battery to provide sufficient light. Turning off the flash lets you take a picture on the spur of the moment without waiting around.


Kids and pets are really hard to photograph using a flash. The light is distracting and usually is startling enough to make them stop doing whatever cute thing you wanted to photograph in the first place. By shutting off the flash you can get multiple shots without their even realizing they are being photographed. This way you can let sleeping dogs lie, and still have a great photo of them.

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