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Chapter 4. How to Use Your Flash > Why Is His Head Lit Up but the Background Is...

Why Is His Head Lit Up but the Background Is Dark?

Camera strobes have another limitation—they are only powerful enough to light up a relatively small area in front of the camera. There's no way that a built-in strobe can light up a really large room or a whole outdoor scene. Light only travels so far in 1/250 of a second, so the output from that little flash unit has a lot of ground to cover. It's also hard for the flash to crank up enough power to get very far. To double the distance light will travel, you need to square the power. There's only so much that the little batteries inside a camera can manage before there's no juice left to take a picture.

Nearly all digital SLR cameras and some point-and-shoot digital cameras have a mounting bracket on the top that accepts an off-camera flash unit. Much more powerful, and more configurable than the built-in strobes in cameras, accessory flash units aren't so prone to the problems inherent in the little units inside your camera.

First of all, the off-camera flashes are considerably larger than the one built into your camera (remember the size of the strobe is related to the softness of its light) and sit much higher up from the lens (so they are less prone to producing red-eye). Second, since they are driven by their own set of batteries, these strobes are more powerful, meaning that they can send light a greater distance.

Finally, with more space to dedicate to the electronics of the flash itself, the units are more adjustable. Accessory flash units often have settings to control power output, can auto-sense the lenses attached to a digital SLR, and have processors that talk to the camera and help calculate perfect flash duration times—all of which means better pictures. Some units even work wirelessly so that they can be placed around a subject and triggered without a cable and without being connected to a camera.

Many strobes have attachments to modify the light coming from them—add-on systems that can host gels or reflective surfaces that help soften or modify light to make a perfect shot (Figure 4.7). Bouncers, well, bounce light to soften it, while soft boxes diffuse light. Both bouncers and soft boxes come in all shapes and sizes, but you can get small, lightweight ones that will easily fit in your camera bag. Even more portable are snap-on flash diffusers, which are often called diffuser domes.

Figure 4.7. You can get add-ons for your flash to modify how the light works. From top to bottom are a bouncer, a portable bouncer, a snap on diffuser dome, and a soft box.

No matter what strobe options are available for your camera, understanding how to control them can make you a better photographer in no time, and will help to really (sorry for this) brighten your photography.

Solving the Sun Puzzle: Using flash outdoors to eliminate shadow

The advice to turn off your flash indoors and turn it on outdoors seems strange, but outdoor fill flash served Nick Didlick well one day in 1988 in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. England's Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana had stopped there during an international tour. Didlick and a colleague were covering the couple for the Reuters news service.

“Prince Charles was playing in a polo match,” Didlick recalls, “and the rumor was that he would give her a kiss at the end of the match. This was supposed to be a major story because it was culturally inappropriate. Oman was a very conservative country.

“There were probably 30 photographers and five TV crews following Charles and Di around, and everybody lined up in the same place to get the kiss.” As is usual, the photographers were restricted to certain designated areas. “They thought they had the best angle,” Didlick continues, “but I looked at this and saw that my buddy [the other Reuters photographer] had a good position with all the others, so I took the opposite angle.”

“There were probably 30 photographers and five TV crews following Charles and Di around, and everybody lined up in the same place to get the kiss.”

The problem with Didlick's spot was that it put the bright sun behind the royal couple, leaving their faces in shadow when viewed from his angle. “I thought that if the kiss went my way, I'd have a better picture, but it would be a silhouette. So I had to pull out a flash unit and try to fill in. I stuck the flash on my camera, made one test flash, and waited. The match ended. Princess Di presented the trophy. There was an awkward pause, then he leaned forward and kissed her, and I had my picture. It fronted nearly every British newspaper the next day.”

Didlick smiles at one more recollection. “One common trick in Britain at the time: The photo editors ran my picture with their own staff photographers' bylines—all those guys who'd taken the wrong angle.” —EAMON HICKEY

The Twilight Zone: Lighting up faces at night

Rob Galbraith blended flash with twilight to make a standout picture during Eco-Challenge New Zealand in 2001. Galbraith was part of the Blue Pixel crew photographing the adventure race for Eco-Challenge Productions as well as for the TV broadcasters USA Network and Discovery Canada, among others. Galbraith had been assigned one day to shoot a section of the course where teams had to cross a river. He spent many hours there photographing racers as they passed through.

As night fell, he got an idea for a shot he thought would look interesting. “There was fog and low-hanging clouds in the mountains in the background, and it was that time of day beyond twilight but not quite dark,” he says. He wanted to photograph a racer with the rich blue sky of twilight in the background. Capturing the sky at dusk would require a long shutter speed—about 1 full second.

“There was fog and low-hanging clouds in the mountains in the background, and it was that time of day beyond twilight but not quite dark.”

The racers, conversely, would have to be lit by flash, and Galbraith had visualized how he wanted that to look. “I really liked the idea of the subject heading into the light,” he says, “where you have faces well lit but lots of deep shadows.”

To accomplish the shot, he attached a flash to a small tabletop tripod and placed it on the riverbank that contestants would be heading toward. He put a second flash on his camera's hot shoe to provide more even light, like that found in a studio. The flash on the river bank would be fired by a radio remote control attached to Galbraith's camera. He relied on his experience to set the remote flash's power output manually.

When he saw a racer from Team Subaru Canada approaching, he waded into the water and waited in the middle of the river. He had placed himself and his tripod-mounted flash according to his observation of where previous teams had tended to cross the river. But, he says, “partly it was serendipity that the guy crossed where he did. These things are always 50 percent planning and 50 percent dumb luck. As he picked his way across the river, I simply shot a series of about ten shots.” —EAMON HICKEY

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