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Monday, September 21, 2009

Get the Maximum Blast from Built-in Flash

As much as I prefer not to use flash in any situation where I can possibly avoid it, there are certain times when it's the only option. This past weekend, for example, I was at an agricultural fair and while it was bright and sunny outdoors the minute you stepped into any of the animal-display barns it was like entering a cave--no light at all. The only solution was to pop on the built-in flash and try to find shots where the flash wouldn't be terribly intrusive or obvious.

There are numerous problems with built-in flash, the most obvious being that the flash is harsh, very directional and rarely flattering. Also, the power of the flash is modest at best and so you are limited in how large a subject you can light and how far you can be from that subject. But in watching several other people (most with point-and-shoots) shooting flash photos in the same barns I noticed several simple things people could have done to improve their flash photos. So here are some quick tips for improving your built-in flash photos:
  • Stay within the flash distance range. Most built-in units have a range of roughly 3-12' (your manual will provide the exact range). If you work closer than that (unless you're specifically working in a close-up mode that allows a reduced distance range) you will blast your subject with too much light and overexpose it. Conversely if you're too far away you won't have enough light on your main subject and your photos will be dark.
  • Use flash compensation if your subject is very light. Many DSLRS (like my Nikon D90) and zoom cameras have a flash exposure-compensation setting that lets you add or subtract light from the flash exposure (without affecting the main exposure of the camera). If you photograph a very light subject in the foreground (like the sheep shown here) without compensation, the flash will "read" the light reflecting back from the white subject and shut down the flash prematurely (thinking there's plenty of light in the entire scene) so that the overall scene is too dark. In this case I only used +2/3 stop of compensation because I really didn't care if the background went dark (in fact, I wanted it to be darker so the sheep would stand out) but I added that extra two-thirds stop because I thought it would lighten the sheep's wool coat a bit. Read your manual for more about flash compensation.
  • Consider buying a Soft Screen diffuser from Lumiquest. Lumiquest makes a great little gadget (under $15) that mounts quickly to your built-in flash and softens the light nicely without absorbing much light. You can watch a video about the product on the Lumiquest site.
  • Keep your batteries fresh. Flash is one of the biggest drains on your camera's batteries and so it's important if you're going to be using flash to keep your camera batteries freshly charged. Weakened batteries will delay flash recharging times significantly and will also reduce the maximum flash-to-subject range.
  • Allow your camera time to recharge the flash. You can't shoot flash photos as rapidly as you can shoot outdoors in sunlight because the batteries need time to charge the flash unit. Give the camera an extra few seconds between flash exposures and you'll be sure you're getting a maximum blast with each exposure.
  • Don't put your fingers in front of the flash. I see this all the time--people putting their fingers or their camera straps in front of the flash unit and blocking the light (or creating unwanted shadows on the subjects). Find a comfortable grip that avoids blocking the flash unit.
  • Take chances and hope for the best. There have been a lot of times when I didn't think the built-in flash was worth turning on but I shot the photos anyway. I'm sometimes amazed by the difference just a tiny bit of flash can make--often providing me enough light so that I can save the shot completely in editing. What the heck, if you're deciding between not shooting or taking a chance on the flash, take the chance, you might get a happy surprise.
  • Consider buying an accessory flash. If you've been frustrated by the limits of your built-in flash, perhaps it's time to consider buying an accessory flash unit (or dropping lots of hints around birthday time) if your camera has a hot shoe that accepts an accessory unit. A good accessory flash can provide you with a flash range several times longer than a built-in flash unit and offer tons of other flash options like bounce-flash for softer light, etc.
Built-in flash isn't the greatest lighting option in the world, but it sure beats not taking pictures--and it's a whole lot better than carrying flash bulbs in your pocket the way I did when I was starting out!

Metadata: Shot with a Nikon D90 camera with a Nikkor 18-70mm lens; exposure was 1/60 second at f/3.5 with +2/3 stop flash compensation. Shot in RAW format.

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