Electronic flashes are curious things. They evoke different reactions from different people. To some, they’re strange, mysterious beasts. An area of photography that has them reaching for the safety of the phase “I’m a natural light photographer.”
To others, they’re a pass that lets them into a place called “dark places”. They don’t necessarily know what they can do – but they’ve found out enough to point them at something and make them light up. They use their on-camera flash the way that someone told them to, but don’t necessarily know why. Then there are those to whom they are like an animal which must be tamed. It has behaviour which can largely be predicted, though it can be temperamental. There are also perhaps those to whom they are a truly predictable machine. But they tend to be working in manual mode, and rarely in real time.
I’d say I fall into the third category – the ones that seek to understand their flash.
Part of understanding on-camera flash is getting to grips with the balance between ambient light and the light from the flash. That’s probably the complicated bit. That’s the bit we aren’t going to discuss here though. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll just assume that the flash is going to overpower whatever ambient light is around. That keeps things nice and simple.
We’ll look at the way that an on-camera flash can throw light around, using one of 2 modifiers, and without one at all. One modifier is a snoot. It is silver inside, black on the outside. The other is a neoprene strip that is similar to the snoot, but is a lot shorter, and is entirely black. Both snoot and the black neoprene “gobo” (go between) wrap around the flash forming a tube.
The reason we have not bothered with a diffuser is that they don’t actually make a huge amount of improvement except when using direct flash.
There’s a difference when using direct flash – the shadows are harsher, for one thing. However, trying a diffuser with bounced flash, there was not any significant difference.
Here’s a basic summary of what we’ll be looking at:
Before we get going, a few basic rules.
The sun is big. Really big. If you could stand next to it, firstly, you’d burn up. But let’s just say you didn’t. And let’s just imagine you also had a pair of really cool, dark shades. You’d have a really huge, gigantic light source. It would be like the biggest softbox known to man. (Big light source = soft shadows.)
But here’s the thing. It’s 93 million miles away. That’s a heck of a long way. Which is why, when you look at the sun, it appears to be pretty small. That’s why, on a clear summer’s day, with the sun overhead, you’d got some pretty nasty hard shadows. (Small light source = hard shadows.)
Wait a minute though, you say, what about later in the day, when it gets really nice, with lovely soft shadows? Or what about when it’s cloudy? When it’s cloudy, they act as a massive diffuser. Not a diffuser like the tiny one on the camera flash, but a really big one. Similarly, when it gets late, light starts bouncing around, causing the light you get to be diffused too.
The most obvious direction to point the on-camera flash in, is straight forward. With basic flashes, this isn’t even a choice. It’s forward or nothing. Your iPhone included. Unfortunately, this creates a harsh light, regardless of which of the three options we use. Simply put, it’s because the flash light is a small light. Bare flash (or close to it) causes the light to spill out. The snoot causes the light to focus more in a tight circle. The gobo is part way between.
The overall quality of the light is poor – harsh shadows and flat, giving a lack of depth to the image.
It’s worth pointing out that because the flash is pointed directly at the subject, there is a strong risk of red eye occurring. This is because the flash will reflect directly off the subjects pupils and back at the camera.
Here we’re going for a common setting – raising the on-camera flash up at 45 degrees, so that it bounces off the ceiling, and back down roughly spreading out from 45 degrees onto the subject. Immediately, we’ve cured red eye problems. Yay. We’ve also introduced some sort of shape to the photo.
Warning – be careful that the bounce point doesn’t get too close. The risk then is that the flash overshoots the subject, or causes long shadows.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly safe way to use on-camera flash, as long as you keep the distance to subject in mind. Not great, but it’s what alot of photographers do.
So if pointing the flash up at 45 degrees can miss the subject, how about raising it to 90 degrees – i.e. straight up? The immediate downside is more power loss, as we increase the distance to the subject (flash to ceiling + ceiling to subject). But if that’s within range, no problem there. So let’s see what happens.
With the 3 photos that don’t use the white card, the overall impression is nice enough, though there’s not a great deal of depth to the image. And the further we are from the subject, the more any sense of depth decreases, Something to watch out for is people with wider faces. As for the one with the white card, the same could be said. With the white card though, there is an added risk of red eye occurring.
What we’re doing here is making use of a wall behind us. Assuming that the wall isn’t immediately behind us, we’ll get a fairly even light. What we do notice is that if drops off fairly quickly, and is brighter at the top of the image that the bottom. It’s a bit like having a big softbox facing above and straight on to the subject. It’s quite pleasant, depending on the angle, though again, it’s pretty flat. Depending on the distance to subject, we might get some depth difference – what’s closest to us will appear slightly lighter than what’s furthest away.
Now we look at what happens when we point the on-camera flash all the way back. Overall, we’re getting a pretty flat lighting, even flatter than when we were angling the flash up at 45 degrees and back.
So far, up till now, we’ve limited out use of the flash to positions in a straight line from forwards to backwards. But more advanced flashes allow us to angle the flash left to right. And more than that, they allow us to angle them left to right and up and down at the same time. So we’re going to explore some of these settings.
What happens if we twist the on-camera flash to face the corner to the right and behind us?
What we see here is a real sense of depth. Look at the side of the figure’s face. It’s darker than the face is. Also, the face appears brighter than the bottom of the figure. Immediately, a visible improvement can be seen. You wouldn’t guess this image was taken using an on-camera flash – rather that is taken using natural light, coming from somewhere to the right, in front of the figure.
This is another popular choice for photographers who have discovered that they can point their flash left and right. It produces a lovely light, that resembles what you’d see if someone were being lit by a window. It really brings out the texture of any clothes they’re wearing. Make sure the choice of left or right works with the direction the subject is facing, or have them facing straight at you. Also, it can bring out texture in skin – which means that you might need to do a bit of post on any skin blemishes or wrinkles (“wisdom lines”). There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference between using bare flash, and snooted or with the gobo.
What we’re doing here is to create a bit more depth than to just point the flash to the left or the right. The flash will slightly concentrate the flash on the top parts of the subject – typically the face if someone’s standing or sitting upright. The light will taper off the further towards the bottom of the image it gets, though the effect may be only slight if the subject is small compared to the distance the light has to travel.
We’re now aiming the on-camera flash at a point parallel with the figure, to the right of it. Again, we might notice that our subject appears brighter towards the top of the image.
Sometimes, we don’t have control over the people around us. One of the things you’ll find at weddings and parties, is that people move in the way of other people. After all, it’s only natural. Often, you can make it work for you. But the big problem occurs when you try to light the person behind those people using any technique that relies purely on pointing the on-camera flash directly at, or directly away from the subject.
As you can see, this is where angling the on-camera flash to the left or right (depending on circumstances) can really help. Depending on where you bounce the flash, you can also get workable results bouncing off the ceiling. Bear in mind though, that when bouncing off the ceiling, if you’re photographing a short person with a tall person in front, the top of the tall person’s head might end up lighter than the short person’s. By introducing the sideways angle, we’re getting shape, that “window light” or evening/morning effect and are far less likely to hit that problem.
On a related note, watch out for hats! A wide brimmed hat can cast a shadow when bouncing off the ceiling. In cases involving such headwear, if you can’t get rid of it before clicking the shutter, and can’t get them to move it, bouncing the on-camera flash off the ceiling could well be a problem. In such a situation, bouncing off the wall is advisable.
Using bare flash is pretty much adequate for the job when bouncing on-camera flash. However, the makeshift neoprene gobo does have a significant advantage – it shields alot of the light from people who might find the flash irritating! So what about the snoot? That shields even more, right? Yes, but it does make it harder to control where it’s pointing – you’ve got to be pretty accurate with it. Also, if you’re bouncing off the wall behind you, it can get in the way of your head. And finally, there’s light loss to keep in mind – you’ll lose a stop or so with the snoot, and slightly less with the neoprene gobo.
Most of the time I use the neoprene gobo with on-camera flash – it’s alot less intrusive.
If, like me, you started out being afraid of high ISOs – there’s nothing wrong with that. But they can get you great photos, so learn to conquer your fear. Admittedly with early digital cameras, they introduced alot of noise. However, you’ll find that it’s better to start off with a photo that’s properly exposed in camera than to tweak it in photoshop to correct it. And flooding a photo with direct flash does not make a great picture, no matter what your family tell you (that said, there are circumstances where any photo is better than none).
Sometimes, you can’t improve on the light that’s there already. If there’s window light, for example, why not use it, and turn the on-camera flash off.
Other times, you find that the walls are lurid red colours, there’s no-one with a white shirt, or there’s bright blue spotlights. As Joe Buissink would say, there’s always black and white.
On-Camera Flash Techniques for Digital Wedding and Portrait Photography by Neil Van Niekirk.
This is a guide to on-camera flash, but every situation will be different. Every room you photograph in will be different. And every group of people will be different. Just because pointing your flash one way works for one scenario, doesn’t mean it will work for every scenario. The more you get used to angling your on-camera flash in different directions, the more you’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. The important thing is to practice using your flash the way it’s meant to be used, and not just do things a particular way because that’s what someone else told you to do.
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