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How to and When to use Flash for better Photography

Some photographers oppose the idea of using flash or light modifiers. Sometimes because it does not suit their style, sometimes because they do not feel comfortable using flash in first place. While we as photographers often love the feel of soft, natural light, knowing how to utilize artificial light can be of tremendous value in low-light environments. Not to mention that such knowledge and being ready to overcome challenging tasks in pretty much any environment can boost confidence and give peace of mind when working in the field. In this article, I would like to go over situations when flash should be used and how it can work to our advantage. I divided this article into indoor and outdoor photography to make it easy for everyone to follow. Please feel free to add your use cases in the comments section below. Please note that I am not going over the basics of flash photography here – the article assumes that you understand the relationship of flash with ISOShutter Speed and Aperture.

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NIKON D3S + 50mm f/1.8 @ 50mm, ISO 400, 1/160, f/2.5

1) Indoors

1.1) Lighting Ballrooms, Churches, Wedding / Corporate Reception Areas

As a working professional, one should have at least the basic lighting plan to be able to capture the day with ease. High-end DSLRs may be flexible enough to capture images in poorly lit environments, but it is a game of compromises. If light levels are too low, you will have to deal with blurry images due to motion blur / camera shake, or you will have to increase ISO level too high, which obviously increases noise, messes up colors and greatly reduces dynamic range. In short, you are leaving very few options for post-processing. In order to avoid that and potentially reduce your post-processing time and other headaches, why not use flash instead? You can start out with a simple configuration, with flash mounted on your camera, or you could get more creative and use flash in an off-camera setup to make images appear more dramatic and well-balanced.

Wedding ballrooms, churches and reception areas are prone to have less than ideal light. The idea here is to be able to create a primary source of light that is brighter and more pleasant than the dim ambient light. Generally, churches do not allow using flash during ceremonies and you have to discuss using artificial light with the church officials before the ceremony takes place. But you can most certainly use strobes and light modifiers in other locations.

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So, what is the basic set up? If you have white ceilings that are not too high, you can mount flash on your DSLR and bounce light off the ceiling or nearby white walls. If the walls / ceiling are of different colors, I would not recommend to bounce flash at all. Remember that light will assume the color of where it is being bounced from. Green walls will create a nice green skin color on your subjects 🙂

Every photographer who is more or less serious about his time spent during the event and later in post-processing, should carry a bounce card (which will take a minimal amount of space in the bag). If you happen to forget one at home or at your studio, do not hesitate to create one out of just plain white paper. Get a scotch tape (elastic band, gaffers tape, etc.) to mount your handmade bounce card on top of your flash and voila – you have a much better light source than direct flash.

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X-E1 + Touit 1.8/32 @ 32mm, ISO 200, 1/125, f/2.5

A more complex setup involves moving the light source away from your camera, commonly referred as “off-camera flash”. You could set up a couple of lights that will illuminate the area from multiple sides / angles. Setting up one flash behind your subject as rim light and a single flash bouncing off or shooting through an umbrella could create great images in indoors environments. With modern camera systems, you can control both directly from your camera with infrared or radio transmitters.

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1.2) Photographing Details Indoors

If you are an event photographer, part of your job is to photograph details for vendors who made that particular event happen. The vendors will vary and are not limited to wedding planners, florists, bakers, etc. As an event photographer, you are expected to capture those details well. In terms of lighting the details, you may not need more than you have for lighting ballrooms, but working with stationary items is much easier, since they do not move or talk. If you wish to avoid using flash in these circumstances, you need to make sure that you are photographing at least at a semi-lit location. What you need here is a tripod and a camera set for slower shutter speed. This process will ensure that the camera gathers sufficient light to produce a sharp and balanced photo. One thing that it will not do, is speed up the process. If you wish to cut your time in half and be done with photographing details faster, your only other bet is to properly light your area of work. For this purpose, a flash on top of your camera bouncing off a white card might suffice. But you can go a little more complex with stationed back light and fill light on the side for a more balanced / professional look.

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NIKON D3S + 50mm f/1.8 @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/80, f/1.8

2) Outdoors

2.1) Fill Flash – when your subject is poorly lit

Most photographers do not bother with flash outdoors. I would be lying if I said that I am not one of them. I love natural light and there is nothing easier than spotting a great backdrop with a good shade. Not to mention if you are photographing late in the afternoon, when the light is as gorgeous as it can get. But as the day progresses, your camera will start struggling to keep up with the available light. You will need to start thinking about using alternative light to get the job done. Learning how to set up lights in situations like these is very important. As much as the sun rays might create problems while photographing subjects, absence of the sun and hence good ambient light, would be equally painful. Much like photographing indoors, you may need to expose your subjects with an artificial light source.

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For the above image, for example, I used a single speedlight positioned to the left of my subjects, shooting through a medium size umbrella at full power. Without flash, the whole sky was getting completely blown out and I did not want that.

2.2) Fill Flash – when shooting backlit

Photographing subjects backlit can create a nice separation and bring more depth to images. But you should also know that if the subject is heavily backlit (say with the sun behind), the opposite side of the subject where you stand might get underexposed. While you can bring a reflector (and potentially an assistant for holding it) to help you get a more balanced exposure from the front, fill flash can do wonders, too. A single diffused light positioned away from the camera would do the job. I usually use one medium size umbrella or a softbox on a stand to do the trick:

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NIKON D3S + 85mm f/1.4 @ 85mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/2.8

2.3) Sunny Day – overpowering the sun to avoid hot spots and intense shadows

Next comes the issue of photographing on sunny days, usually in the afternoons, when the sun is directly overhead. While some gorgeous stuff can be done with harsh light, photographing portraits may not be as pleasant in such cases. Much like photographing backlit, I would recommend taking out a simple umbrella or a softbox and get the game going. Properly placing flash will help avoid ugly shadows on people’s faces (ever seen “raccoon eyes”?), leaving your subjects beautifully exposed.

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2.4) Avoiding environmental color casts on your subject’s skin tone

While doing one of our FAQ series on our Facebook fan page, we got the following question from one of our readers: “When shooting surrounded by lush greenery, is there any good way to avoid the green reflection on skin tones SOOC? It’s driving me crazy to have to color correct/brush the yellow/green out of skin tones!”.

While working with natural reflectors, you always run into a problem where your subject will assume the color of the reflective surface. I encounter the same problems while photographing, and it sure might be a lot of hassle during post-processing. Although there is no cure for it in the camera, you can reduce this effect by using a reflector right next to your subject. You can also use fill flash (umbrella, softbox or other modifier) to illuminate your subject, which will more or less isolate him/her from the rest of the background and reduce color reflections. I find that using flash is often easier than a reflector in such situations, especially when I want to light my subjects from different angles.

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X-Pro1 + Touit 1.8/32 @ 32mm, ISO 200, 1/125, f/4.0

2.5) To have fun by adding different colors to images with gels

Regardless how hectic the day might turn out to be, leave yourself some room to be a little creative at each event you photograph. I recommend starting off with something very simple and gradually advancing as you start understanding your gear a little more. If you are photographing a wedding, you are probably working a long day with whatever comes your way. Since we cannot predict what might happen with weather, accommodations and other unplanned stuff, you may not be interested in trying out something new. But I beg you to give yourself a little more credit and push your own boundaries. When Nasim and I photograph weddings, we promise ourselves to do something a little different with each wedding. It is not something drastic, but something a little different from every other wedding. We usually aim for one special look. One idea is much easier to fit into a hectic day of the wedding and easy to complete. By executing such mini projects during crunch time, you know what you are capable of when you have to be creative on demand.

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3) Conclusion

Flash helps you to use another dimension in your photography. While at times you do not have any other choice but use flash, I encourage every photographer out there to leave some room to be creative. Regardless of the type of photography you do, it is just another skill that will keep you challenged and motivated to do something different.

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NIKON D700 + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 320, 1/160, f/2.8

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