“I find the light so harsh, I lose all mood and everything is overexposed when I use flash upclose. I don’t understand nothing of the thing, I just don’t like flashlight..” And the list goes on. All regular remarks I hear when it’s about working with your flash. I want to discuss this in two parts; one for evening photography and one for daylight photography. So we’re starting with night.

Moving along with the movement… iso 800 1/6s bij f11

To start with a small explanation on the logic that your camera will use when it comes to your flash. With the camera on full automatic your flash will pop up automatically as soon as the shutterspeed gets below a certain criteria. Usually this is around 1/40s or 1/60s but it is depending on your camera. the moment the flash pops-up a few things will happen if you have your camera on automatic

  • Often the iso value will be brought back to the lowest value on your camera (usually iso 100)
  • The shutterspeed will be set to the flash synchronization time. Usually 1/60s
  • The camera uses the flash as the main light on your camera

Now the funny part is that you really do not want any of those three things to happen. I will explain why that is in a minute… First I well tell you what I dó want to do.

  1. I do not want to see or as little as possible, that I have used a flash
  2. I want to use a mix of the existing light and the flashlight
  3. I want to use the flash as a fill in light and not the main light

Combi flash with artificial light; iso 200 130s bij f6.3

But how do we do this? By taking a bit more control and not assuming that the camera knows best. Because the camera is just a computer and will not know what you want to achieve. So that means taking the camera of the automatic setting, because that is the only way you get any control over how your photo will look.

If you have a compact and not a digital SLR you can also follow some of the steps but the options are a lot more restrictive than when you do own an SLR. The same thing goes for a built-in flash versus a dedicated flash that you buy separately for your camera. But whatever your camera or whatever the flash you own, you can improve your results.

It does take a little bit of practice to get it right, so don’t expect to have full control of any situation just yet. So what are the steps we’re gonna take?

  1. Like I said; take your camera of the automatic controls. That means for most SLR’s that you turn the dial away from the little green square or camera and move to the A mode (aperture priority) On most compacts you can choose for the P or the M. While the M means Manual, it means something entirely different on a compact than it does on a SLR. You still don’t need to do much, you just have a few more options.
  2. Now that the camera is of the automatic, first check what the situation is in terms of light. Is there still daylight present or is it too dark? Is it late at night and do you want to capture the mood of the burning woodfire or the BBQ or are you at a wedding with lots of lights in the background?
  3. A compact camera usually has a ‘creative’ setting with a pictogram of a little man with the moon next to it. That is the so called night portrait mode. It sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t. Depending on the circumstances, but on a compact it can be the easiest way to change things around. The disavantage is that you will have quite a bit of movement in yor photo. Below you can see a few example photos taken with a compact on automatic mode and on the night portrait mode. What happens is that on night portrait, the shutterspeed gets reduced a lot so you have a very slow shutterspeed. Sometimes as long as a whole second and that is followed at the end by a flash (or sometimes the flash comes first and than you have to wait for the camera to complete the rest of the exposure)
Links een typische flitsfoto; weg sfeer, donkere achtergrond. Rechts een flitsfoto met langere sluitertijd 1/8s maar wel meer sfeer en een achtergrond!

On the left a typical flashphoto: gone is any mood, dark background. On the right a flash with a longer shutterspeed of 1/8s but you do capture some of the background and a lot more pleasant lighting. taken with a compact

If you look at the photo on the right you will see that there is some movement around the head and the hands but because the duration of the flash is so short (usually around 1/10.000s) the movement is for the largest part ‘frozen’ and you have an accetable image which has a lot more atmosphere than the photo on the right where you loose all sense of the surroundings.

Especially when I am traveling I want to see where the photo was taken and not just the person in the picture. For the rest of this story I will assume you have a camera where you can change settings such as aperture and shutter and iso. That doesn’t have to be an SLR. A lot of ‘creative compacts’ in the more expensive segment have those options as well.

I do always try and work without my flash for as long as I can. First of all because a flash is always more noticeable; as soon as that camera produces a flash everyone will know you are taking photos and secondly because I find it a challenge to make pretty pictures in very little light. A flash just makes certain things a little easier. The trick is to make it look like it is almost only natural lighting. I sometimes have to look in my metadata to see if I used a flash or not!

Take a look at the below two photos; can you instantly see which one has used a flash and which one hasn’t?

Links met flitser, rechts zonder flitser

Not very obvious right? the photos are taken with just a few minutes in between them in may around 9.10 pm. It wasn’t pitch black yet but the light was fading very very fast. So much so that I had to use an iso setting of 2500 and a shutterspeed of 1/50 at f4.0 for the left one and a shutterspeed of 1/20s at f4.0 for the right photo. 1/20s is too slow to take handheld but I was leaning on the table and the result is acceptable.

But why are you not seeing the flash? The reason why is because I put the iso settings really high. What happens if you turn your iso setting from – for instance – 100 to 400? You increase the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor for the available light. Go and try this ins a room at night with just 1 or 2 bulb lights on and make photos on different iso settings without using your flash. You will see that the higher your iso value becomes the more details you will be able to see in the photo. Now do the same but use your flash and check the differences.

And really the best test is usually when you’re on holiday in – for instance – Greece and you’re sitting at night with husband or wife on a lovely terrace by the water and along the coastline you see all those pretty lights from the opposite shore. The place you’re eating has pretty lights as well and you want to capture that mood but also make sure your partner is looking good in the photo. Now take a photo on the standard setting and you will find that it will look pretty much like the photo I showed you earlier with the black background. Gone is the mood, gone are the pretty lights. Now you can bring that mood back in two different ways or a combination of the two. What you choose is depending on the situation and how dark it is.

You will increase the influence of the exisiting light (daylight, artificial light etc.) by:

  • increasing your iso value. You will essentially increase the sensitivity for light of your sensor and let in more light
  • Decrease your shutterspeed so you will – again – let in more daylight in combination with your flash.

For weddings I often work this way that I have my shutterspeed fixed at 1/50s. With this setting I know that it will be fast enough to freeze people to an acceptable blur if they move and the shutterspeed is slow enough to let in a bit more light. I leave that setting as it is and start playing around with my iso values. The later in the evening, the higher that iso will become. Sometimes as high as iso 5000. My camera can go to ridiculously high iso settings! My aperture will stay pretty much fixed on the widest possible opening in order to let in as much light as possible as well.

iso 3200 1/100s bij f4.0

So in contradiction to what I always say when I give a workshop on foodphotography when you’re shooting out and about the rules are all different. What you want is a good balance between flash and exisiting lights. And why you need flash can be clearly seen in the below two charming photos of me… 😉

Without flash you’re depending on the available colortemperature of whatever light is closest and sometimes that means really weird yellow, green or blue pictures. The flash neutralises the color mostly and while the longer shutterspeed and higher iso will leave in some of that yellow color it will still be much more acceptable in terms of color and mood.

na flash 1/10s bij f3.2 on compact camera

With flash on 1/8s f3.2 on compact camera

I’m not saying it is easy using your flash in a creative and good way, but a little practice makes it worth it. And if you have an SLR it is a good idea to get a separate flash that goes into the hotshoe on your camera. The biggest advantage is that you can shoot indirect as in the photo belo. That way the effect of the flash will still be there but will be even less noticeable.

Iso 800. 1/160s op F4.0 met indirect flits via het plafond

And if you want to go wild you can use your flash with extreme long shutterspeeds like 2 seconds or 4 seconds and move along with the object you’re trying to photograph or you can open your shutter (camera on tripod) and keep the flash in your hand and just let it go off… Possibilities are endless… Learn your flash and you’ll have great fun!

Iso 100 shutterspeed 21s F22 I was holding the flash in my hand while going up and down the stairs!

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