One of the tools that a photographer has in his or her tool chest is a “flash”. The flash can be built into the camera or it can be a separate piece of equipment that attaches to the camera. Knowing when to use the flash is important and I will try to give you some information to help you make that decision. I remember watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics one year and there were thousands of flashes going off in the stands. Everyone was trying to capture that historic moment so that they could share it with family and friends. Most of the people didn't realize that the flash only reached a few feet and all it was doing was lighting the heads of the people in front of them. Be aware that the flash has limitations. Your built in flash on your camera will only reach ten to fifteen feet depending on what you have you have set your ISO. The flash attachments will reach much further. Some professional models will reach in excess of a hundred feet again depending on your ISO setting.
So how do we determine when to use a flash? The most common time to use a flash is when you are in a building and there isn't much available light. With the newer cameras you can set the ISO to a higher setting and you can capture some pretty decent images without a flash. If you don't know what ISO is please look it up in your camera's manual or check it out on the internet. I have written about setting your camera's ISO in previous articles, so I won't go into it now except to say it is one of the most important settings on your camera.
If we are photographing someone in a room and there are no windows to provide available light you probably need to put the flash on your camera. I am a big fan of using bounce flash when creating a portrait inside. If you have white or neutral colored walls or ceilings you can bounce the light off them. Most external flashes can be rotated in two different directions. You can rotate it up and point it toward the ceiling or you can rotate it left or right to bounce the flash off the walls. I will usually rotate the flash up about 45 degrees if I want to bounce off the ceiling. My favorite technique is to rotate the flash head to face behind me and face it up about 45 degrees. This will give a nice even lighting pattern on your subjects face and most of the time you can't even tell flash was used in creating the image. Just be careful that no one is behind you. They will be seeing stars for a few minutes.
There are also diffusers that will attach onto the flash itself. My flashes came with a plastic diffuser that snaps over the top of the flash head. They do a fair job of softening the light. Many years ago I had a flash diffuser that was attached to the flash using velcro. I had to blow it up like a balloon and then put it on the front of my flash. I was often asked what it was for and I told them it was an airbag that my insurance company required for safety reasons. Not many people laughed back then either. Seriously there are many good products that can be used to soften the flash. Do your research and read the reviews before you make a decision on which one you want to use.
You may have noticed I haven't mentioned the built in flash on your camera. The built in flashes are usually on the front of the camera or they pop up on the top of your camera. There are a couple of problems with these types of flashes. First of all they are very weak and their reach is limited to about 15 feet. This will be fine for many situations but just be aware of that limitation. The second and biggest issue with built in flashes is the look they create. It is obvious that you used a flash. There is the deep shadow behind your subject as well as the fact that they are obviously brighter than the surrounding objects. The dreaded “red eye” will also be seen many times. By the way do you know what causes “red eye”? It is caused when the flash is bounced off the retina of the eye back into the camera. The red is caused by the blood vessels used to nourish the eyes. The closer the flash is to the lens the more apt you are to get red eye.
The goal when using flash is to create an image that doesn't look like you used flash. I know that may not make sense but you can use your skills and knowledge to adjust the flash output and the angle of the flash to create a portrait of your subject that they will be proud to hang on the wall. One of the best resources on learning to use flash when creating portraits is the Strobist blog. The blog is located at http://strobist.blogspot.com/. I have only touched the very basics of using your flash. I use my flash outdoors most of the time when taking location portraits. Next month we will discuss that subject. Until then break out the flash and practice using it to create some great images of your family and friends.