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Simple flash techniques

Direct flash
Not really a technique at all, this is the way in which most flash photographs are taken. The flash, either built-in or mounted on the camera, is pointed directly at the subject when the photo is taken. Although the subject is brightly lit, the photograph is very harsh with glaring reflections and hard-edged shadows. It is very unflattering and should only be used for police mug-shots.

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Bounce flash
If you have a decent camera-mounted flashgun for your DSLR or high-end compact, it probably has what is called a “bounce and tilt” head. This means that the top part of the flashgun, containing the flash tube, can be tilted upward.

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If you’re thinking of buying a flashgun it’s best to get one that has this feature, because it produces much better results than direct flash when shooting indoors. By tilting the flash head upwards the light is reflected off the ceiling, which is often white or at least light-coloured in most buildings. The flash sensor, usually mounted on the non-tilting part of the gun, is still pointing at the subject and can adjust the flash output accordingly. Reflecting the light diffuses it, removing glare and softening the shadows. Also since the illumination is from above the results look much more natural. Some flashguns have heads that can also swivel sideways as well, for use in portrait format or to bounce the flash off walls.

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Brolly flash
Another good way to take flattering flash photos, which can also be used outdoors or where bounce flash isn’t possible, is to take the flash off the camera altogether and mount it on a separate stand with a diffuser of some type, usually a brolly. These are quite cheap and come in a variety of sizes. A 90-100cm type is ideal for use with a normal flashgun.

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The brolly itself is just that, an umbrella coated with a reflective finish. Usually the cover can be removed and reversed. One side will usually be white or silver, while the other side is gold coloured, because this gives a much warmer and more flattering light for portraits. The brolly and flashgun can be attached to a normal tripod using a simple adapter available from most camera shops.

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The flashgun is positioned pointing away from the subject so it fires into the brolly, and the diffused reflected light bounces back to illuminate your subject.

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By positioning the brolly off to one side and slightly above the height of the subject’s head, very natural and almost studio-quality results can be obtained with budget-priced equipment. I use exactly this equipment for all of the product shots for my camera reviews.

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Fill flash
Fill flash is a simple but highly effective technique for coping with backlighting, where you are photographing your subject against the light of the sun or a brightly lit background. A carefully measured level of flash is used to balance the ambient lighting and fill in the shadows. Back in the good old days of manual-only cameras and fixed-output flashguns it took multiple light readings and careful calculations to get the right exposure to balance the flash light to the ambient light, but these days modern TTL exposure systems and dedicated flashes can produce perfect fill-in flash automatically in an instant.

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Slow sync
One of the most difficult but creative settings to use is slow sync flash, also known as second curtain flash, or night portrait mode. By setting your camera on manual exposure, adjusting the aperture to the flashgun’s recommended setting and selecting a slow shutter speed, you can capture movement at the same time as freezing the action. For this shot I set the camera up an a tripod, and used a shutter speed of 0.6 seconds, firing the shutter just as Gilb took the break shot. The flash fired at the end of the exposure. As a result you can see the original positions of the balls, their movement following the break and their positions after 0.6 seconds.

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