Using flash

Hints and tips from Philip Grosset

Built-in flash it can be useful, but flash also has some very real disadvantages.

Red eye removed
Red eye Why has he got red eyes in the photo on the left?
This occurs because the pupil of the eye opens up in dimmer lighting: you then see the flash reflected in the blood vessels of the retina.
You may be able to avoid (or at least lessen) this if your camera has a special red eye setting on its flash control.

A better solution is to use a computer with a photo editing program (such as
Photoshop Elements, or there even may be one included in your camera phone) to replace the red spot. The improvement can be seen top right. Notice how I've also added two catchlights by dabbing on spots of white. This helps to bring the eyes to life - but never have more than one catchlight in each eye!

Alternatively, arrange for your subject to be looking well away from the camera, and the problem disappears.

Or you can reduce red-eye by asking your subject to glance at a bright light just before you take the picture. But this can result in a screwed-up face!

But do we really need to use flash? There are many interiors, like this one, that can be taken without it, using just the available light from the window on the left. This avoids attracting the subject's attention. In poor light, you'll need to hold the camera really steady because of the longer exposure required - and there is a danger that moving objects will come out blurred.

Outdoors, it is very seldom that flash is really needed, although forced flash can sometimes be useful for filling in heavy shadows on close shots, such as those on people's faces.

So the most important thing to learn about flash is HOW TO SWITCH IT OFF! Then just switch on forced flash on the few occasions on which you really need it.

If you
must use flash, remember its limitations: a typical built-in flash can't illuminate anything more than a few feet away, so all those people flashing away happily at distant objects in large buildings are just wasting their time!
Ely cathedral. On left: using flash.
On right: the same scene but switching the flash off and holding the camera really steady by propping it against something. Notice how the apparent colour of the chairs has changed!
Flash used indoors
Built-in flash can result in anyone too close coming out over-exposed, and people in the distance coming out too dark! To avoid this, try to arrange for all your subjects to be about the same distance from the camera.
Toddler with phone
Here, again, in this flash photo, the background comes out dark. This may be no bad thing if you're aiming at a picture of the child as there's nothing there to distract attention. Pictures like this can sometimes gain from having an amusing caption, as I've tried to provide here! If you don't want a black background, set up your subject much nearer to it - but watch out for ugly shadows.
"I've heard it all before ...."
Boy on phone 1 Boy on phone 2 Boy on phone 3
On the left: You can often largely avoid background shadows by positioning your subject right against the background (here it is an inside wall). I've also held the camera in the vertical position (portrait format) as, on my particular camera, this allowed the built-in flash to be immediately above the lens. The further to the side of the lens it is, the more pronounced the shadow will be.
Middle picture: Here I've held the camera in the usual horizontal position (landscape mode) and cropped it later. Notice the thin black shadow now running down the left-hand side of the boy. Experiment with your own camera phone to see how much difference is made by holding it horizontally or vertically. The difference is likely to be a pretty subtle one! But you may prefer the way it makes the subject stand out from the background.
On the right: here the subject is much further away from the background. The result is that heavy shadows are cast, and the background itself comes out much darker. I actually prefer this coloring so would put up with the shadows which add some depth to the picture anyway!

Although there are times when flash cannot be avoided, another reason for trying to do without it is that you can produce much more atmospheric shots:

Natural light
The photo on the above left (taken without flash, just using the natural light from a window on the left) retains much more of the feeling of the location, so is more interesting than the flat results on the right (for which flash was used). Remember:

For night scenes like this, flash is useless. Instead turn off the flash and find something to rest the camera on or against. Here it was a lamp post. The ordinary automatic setting has worked quite well.
For technical reasons, the background in night shots often comes out darker than expected.
If you use flash, as here, you'll find that the buildings are too far away to be lit by it, and the reduced exposure automatically set for flash means that even the lights don't show up properly.
There are places, such as by this fish tank in the Loro Parque at Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife, where flash is not allowed, as it would disturb the fish. It would cause reflections on the glass anyway. Flash also disturbs other people, so never use it unless you really need it. You'll probably produce much more pleasing pictures without it.
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