When not to flash

Back in 1999 I was in Paignton, Devon, to watch the solar eclipse. As it turned out the whole event was a washout thanks to the predictably overcast British weather. People travelled hundreds of miles and clogged up the roads of two counties just to watch the clouds go a bit dark for a few minutes.

While the eclipse itself was a no-show, I did however witness something else quite remarkable. From my vantage point on a hill overlooking the harbour, I could see a massive crowd of people on the seafront. As the sky darkened, the whole area lit up with thousands of flashguns going of. The effect was quite pretty, but I couldn’t help but laugh.

An average compact camera flashgun, be it film or digital, has an effective range of about 3 metres, yet the people there at Paignton pointing their cameras at the sky were trying to photograph the Moon, which is never less than 363,104 kilometres away. I’ve never seen a better example of “out of range”.

You’ve undoubtedly seen similar, albeit less extreme examples of the same thing at concerts and football matches. At any such event the audience will be almost constantly illuminated by the flicker of utterly pointless flashes.

The people using those cameras will, without exception, be terribly disappointed by the results. Usually when you set the flash to auto, it also sets the camera’s shutter speed to about 1/100th of a second and a fairly narrow aperture to match, which will result in a severely under-exposed photo if your subject is outside of the flash range. The exposure value is set too low for the ambient lighting conditions, and the flash isn’t powerful enough to make a difference.

Here’s the rule: If your subject is more than about 3 metres (12ft) away, save your battery and turn the flash off; it’s going to do more harm than good anyway.

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