When To Use Your Flash

Most people leave their cameras on Auto and don’t even think about what the camera will do based on their environment. Cameras aren’t smart, Auto mode just runs through a list of rules to determine how it will take the picture for you. Not only are rules meant to be broken, but they don’t always apply to everything. One common rule is when the camera wants to use the flash.

The flash exists only to add more light for the picture to expose properly. Some more experienced photographers might play with light and the flash for effect instead. But lets ignore the creative aspect for now. Every built-in flash or pop-up flash on consumer cameras only exists to add more light. These flashes are a problem because of their position most of the time. I’m not necessarily suggesting the flash should be more to the right or left, up or down. The extra light is where the camera is, not where the subject is. This is the problem. Two major issue arise from this. First, light fades quickly over distance. Unless you are close to what you are taking a picture of, the flash won’t do anything worth-while. This includes landscape pictures, concerts, anything with distance between the camera and what you’re trying to capture. The other problem is the Auto mode will expose for the brightest thing in frame. If you are using the flash at a concert and someone you don’t know is standing in the way, the stage will become black and your camera will point out a giant head in the corner in perfect exposure.

Sure, you could buy an expensive flash for your digital slr if you have one. These flashes are more intelligent and adjustable to fight some of the problems faced from using the flash. But few of us have that luxury. Rather than using the flash all of the time, it’s best to know when you should or shouldn’t. Then understand how to take the best picture when you shouldn’t. As mentioned earlier, only use the flash when you are near the subject. Expect the background to become dark when you use it.

If you are using your flash, you don’t want to be too close either. This can cause too little of the photo to be lit up or over expose the whole image. If you want to reduce the hard shadows from the flash, you can use a diffuser. These aren’t normally sold or found on consumer cameras, but if you look hard enough you may find something. There are also do-it-yourself guides to making one for just about any camera. One trick is to place wax paper over the flash. Some of these tricks darken the flash as a result, so experiment first. You may have to adjust your camera’s exposure compensations (we will discuss this in another post).

You may not want to use your flash when you aren’t so close to the subject. This might be at concerts, when taking landscape photos, taking pictures of birds flying or aircraft in the air, or when pointing the camera at highly reflective surfaces. If it’s too dark without the flash, then what do you do? Assuming the camera can’t open the aperture anymore (the opening of the lens that lets light in), one option is to let the camera slow down the shutter. I would recommend using a tripod or some other sturdy surface in this situation, however. A slow shutter means the camera’s opening is left open longer to let more light in. The problem with this is it means things are more likely to blur from movement, including shaky hands. Look in your manual for controls to adjust the shutter. If you tell the camera not to use the flash, it will automatically slow down the shutter too.

One more thing you can adjust is the camera’s ISO setting. This is the digital equivalent to film speed, the rating of light sensitivity of the film or sensor. This can be adjusted in any digital camera, requiring less light for a good exposure using a higher ISO. But the drawback is more noise or grain as you increase the ISO. Every camera is different, so you may want to experiment with this as well. One camera may produce a clean photo with ISO 800, but another camera may not.

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